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Nathaniel GORDON






A.K.A.: "The Slave Trader"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Convicted "for being engaged in the Slave Trade"
Number of victims: 29 +
Date of murders: July-August 1860
Date of arrest: August 8, 1860
Date of birth: 1834
Victims profile: Men, women and children
Method of murder: Overcrowding, filth, disease
Location: In the Sea - New York, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in New York on February 21, 1862

Nathaniel Gordon (c.1834 – February 21, 1862) was the first and only American slave trader to be tried, convicted and executed "for being engaged in the Slave Trade" in accordance with the Piracy Law of 1820.

Gordon was born in Portland, Maine. He loaded 897 slaves aboard his ship Erie at Sharks Point, Congo River, West Africa on August 7, 1860 and was captured by the USS Mohican 50 miles from port on August 8, 1860.

After one hung jury and a new trial, Gordon was convicted November 9, 1861 in the circuit court in New York City and sentenced to death by hanging on February 7, 1862.

President Abraham Lincoln issued a stay of Gordon's execution setting the new date for February 21, 1862. Lincoln made clear that the respite was only temporary to allow Gordon time for his final preparations.

The evening before the execution, Gordon unsuccessfully attempted suicide with strychnine poison prompting the local authorities to move back the execution to noon from 2:30 p.m. due to Gordon's health. Gordon was survived by his wife, son and mother.


The execution of Gordon, The Slave-Trader

Harper's Weekly

March 8, 1862

Not the least important among the changes which are taking place in the current of national policy and public opinion is evidenced by the fact that on Friday, 21st February, in this city, Nathaniel Gordon was hung for being engaged in the slave-trade.

For forty years the slave-trade has been pronounced piracy by law, and to engage in it has been a capital offense. But the sympathy of the Government and its officials has been so often on the side of the criminal, and it seemed so absurd to hang a man for doing at sea that which, in half the Union, is done daily without censure on land, that no one has ever been punished under the Act.

The Administration of Mr. Lincoln has turned over a new leaf in this respect. Henceforth the slave-trade will be abandoned to the British and their friends. The hanging of Gordon is an event in the history of our country.

He was probably the most successful and one of the worst of the individuals engaged in the trade.  A native of Maine, he had engaged in the business many years since, and had always eluded justice.  The particular voyage which proved fatal to him was undertaken in 1860. The following summary of the case we take from the Times:

It was in evidence (given by Lieutenant Henry D. Todd, U.S.N.) that the ship Erie was first discovered by the United States steamer Mohican, on the morning of the 8th day of August, 1860; that she was then about fifty miles outside of the River Congo, on the West Coast of Africa, standing to the northward, with all sail set; that she was flying the American flag, and that a gun from the Mohican brought her to.

It was shown by Lieutenant Todd that he went on board himself about noon, and took command of the prize. He found on board of the Erie, which our readers will remember was but 500 tons burden, eight hundred and ninety-seven (897) negroes, men, women, and children, ranging from the age of six months to forty years. They were half children, one-fourth men, and one-fourth women, and so crowded when on the main deck that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on them. The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive.

At first he of course knew nothing about them, and until Gordon showed him, he was unable to stow them or feed them -- finally he learned how, but they were stowed so closely that during the entire voyage they appeared to be in great agony.

The details are sickening, but as fair exponents of the result of this close stowing, we will but mention that running sores and cutaneous diseases of the most painful as well as contagious character infected the entire load. Decency was unthought of; privacy was simply impossible -- nastiness and wretchedness reigned supreme.  From such a state of affairs we are not surprised to learn that, during the passage of fifteen days, twenty-nine of the sufferers died, and were thrown overboard.

It was proved by one of the seamen that he, with others, shipped on the Erie, believing her to be bound upon a legitimate voyage, and that, when at sea they suspected, from the nature of the cargo, that all was not right, which suspicion they mentioned to the Captain (Gordon), who satisfied them by saying that he was on a lawful voyage, that they had shipped as sailors, and would do better to return to their duties than to talk to him.

Subsequently they were told that they had shipped on a slaver, and that for every negro safely landed they should receive a dollar.

The negroes were taken on board the ship on the 7th day of August, 1860, and the entire operation of launching and unloading nearly nine hundred negroes, occupied but three quarters of an hour, or less time than a sensible man would require for his dinner.

As the poor creatures came over the side Gordon would take them by the arm, and shove them here or there, as the case might be, and if by chance their persons were covered from entire exposure by a strip of rag, he would, with his knife, cut it off, fling it overboard, and send the wretch naked with his fellows.

Several of the crew testified, all agreeing that Gordon acted as Captain; that he engaged them; that he ordered them; that he promised them the $1 per capita; that he superintended the bringing on board the negroes; and that he was, in fact, the master-spirit of the entire enterprise.

For this crime Gordon was arrested, tried, and, mainly through the energy of District-Attorney Smith, convicted, and sentenced to death. Immense exertions were made by his friends and the slave-trading interest to procure a pardon, or at least a commutation of his sentence, from President Lincoln, but without avail. He was sentenced to die on 21st. 

The attempt to commit suicide

Nothing worthy of note occurred until about three o'clock A.M. on Friday morning, when the keepers were alarmed by the prisoner being suddenly seized with convulsions. At first it was supposed that he was trying to strangle himself; but on a close examination it was evident that he was suffering from the effects of poison.

Dr. Simmons, the prison physician, was immediately sent for, and stimulants were freely administered for the purpose of producing a reaction. For the first half hour or so the efforts of the physician appeared to have but little effect. The patient became quite rigid under the influence of the poison, his pulse could scarcely be felt, and it was thought that after all the gallows would be cheated of its victim.

Drs. James R. Wood and Hodgman, who were also in attendance upon the prisoner, labored hard to resuscitate the dying man, and finally, by means of the stomach-pump and the use of brandy, the patient was sufficiently recovered to be able to articulate. It was not until eight o'clock, however, that the physicians had any hope of saving Gordon's life.

From that hour, however, the prisoner gradually recovered, although he was subject to fainting fits for hours afterward. When sensible he begged of the doctors to let him alone, preferring, he said, to die by his own hand rather than suffer the ignominy of a public execution.

It has not been satisfactorily ascertained how or in what manner the unfortunate man procured the poison with which he contemplated self-destruction. The symptoms were evidently those of strychnine, and the only way in which the keepers can account for the presence of the poison is its introduction in the cigars which Gordon had smoked so freely the night before.

On Thursday the prisoner was compelled to undergo a rigid search, his clothing was changed entirely, and he was placed in a new cell, so that it would seem impossible almost for him to have procured the poison in any other way than that suggested by his keepers.

A few minutes after eleven o'clock, when it was apparent to Gordon that the execution would certainly take place, notwithstanding his attempt at suicide, he sent for Marshal Murray, and said he had something of a private nature to communicate. The Marshal repaired to the bedside of the culprit and asked if any thing could be done to alleviate his sufferings.

Gordon raised himself slowly from his cot, and with much difficulty, said: "Cut a lock of hair from my head and give it to my wife." Then taking a ring from his finger, he requested that that also should be sent to his wife in remembrance of her husband. The request was cheerfully complied with, and the official, quite overcome with emotion, left the unhappy man to his fate.

The execution

At 12 o'clock, Marshal Murray notified Gordon, through Mr. Draper, that the hour had arrived. At this he expressed great surprise, and said he thought he had two hours more in which to live. The clergyman entered the cell and prayed with him, or rather for him.

Deputy Marshal Borst aided him in dressing and gave him a large drink of clear whisky, when his arms were tied, the black cap was put carelessly on one side of his head, and he was carried on the deputy's shoulders to a chair in the corridor. The sight was simply shocking.

The man was not sober—that is, so powerful had been the effect of the poison that, in order to keep him alive till the necessary moment, they had been obliged to give him whisky enough to make an ordinary man drunk three times over. He sat lollingly in the chair, gazing listlessly around, while the Marshal, with unaffected emotion, read the former reprieve to him. That done, he was helped to his feet, and held there while the Marshal read to him. the death-warrant.

After this he looked around with a senseless smile, asked for some more whisky, which was kindly given him. The procession was then formed, Gordon stalking with a bravadoish air, upheld by the Marshals, toward the scaffold.

To a casual spectator it would appear that, exhausted by mental or physical suffering, Gordon was making a great effort to walk manfully to his fate. As it was, however, he had just sense enough left to endeavor to follow out the suggestion of the well-meaning deputy, who told him to die like a man, and to walk to the rope, so that no one could accuse him of fear. When he reached the scaffold, he said, "Well, a man can't die but once; I'm not afraid."

The cap was drawn over the whitened, meaningless features, the noose-knot was carefully adjusted under his ear, and he stood, an unthinking, careless, besotted wretch waiting for he knew not what, when with a jerk he went high in air, and fell to the length of the rope, still senseless, still unfeeling, still regardless of pain or pleasure.

The body swayed hither and thither for a few moments, and all was quiet. No twitchings, no convulsions, no throes, no agonies. His legs opened once, but closed again, and he hung a lump of dishonored clay.


Lincoln Refuses to Commute Sentence of Execution for Slave Trading

This stunning document stands out among the papers of Abraham Lincoln, a man renowned for his mercy and willingness to pardon. His refusal to grant Nathaniel Gordon clemency for the crime of slave trading is a testament to Lincoln's growing public intolerance of slavery.

While the president does not attack slavery in this document, his stern stance highlights that he is no longer the man who had recently promised never to interfere with slavery in the South. Within a year of Gordon's execution a whirlwind of anti-slavery measures were enacted including the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., the Confiscation Acts, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Participation in the slave trade had been punishable by death since 1820, but Gordon was the first man to ever be executed for this crime. Between 1837 and 1860, seventy-four cases relating to the slave trade had been tried in the United States. But very few men were convicted, and even then received only light sentences.

In November of 1861, Judge William Shipman not only convicted Gordon, but also sentenced him to hang. Gordon's friends and supporters approached Lincoln "to commute the said sentence of the said Nathaniel Gordon to a term of imprisonment for life." While he refuses this, Lincoln's compassionate nature is not completely deaf to Gordon's pleas for mercy.

In this document, countersigned by William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Lincoln grants the prisoner a two week respite so that he can have "the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits." Lincoln also bears full responsibility for ending this man's life and orders the "said day when the said sentence shall be executed."

Gordon attempted suicide with strychnine the morning of the execution, but failed. At noon on February 21, 1862, he was brought to the gallows. Both the death warrant and Lincoln's refusal to commute the sentence were read aloud, and then he was hanged.


Nathaniel Gordon


Nathaniel Gordon execution.



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