John Gordon (Rhode Island)
|Died||February 14, 1845
Providence, Rhode Island
John Gordon (died February 14, 1845) was the last person executed by Rhode Island. His conviction and execution have been ascribed by researchers to anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Irish immigrant bias. As a result, he was posthumously pardoned in 2011.
In 1844, Gordon was tried and convicted for the December 31, 1843, beating murder of Amasa Sprague, a Cranston textile factory owner. The murder occurred within the village of Knightsville, Rhode Island. Sprague was a member of a prominent Rhode Island family. His brother William was a United States senator. Six months before his murder, Amasa Sprague had used his family's political influence to have Cranston resident Nicholas Gordon's liquor license removed by the city council. (Sprague's employees were habitually getting drunk at Gordon's premises.) Nicholas Gordon and his brother John were Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Nicholas, John and William Gordon (another brother) were all tried for murder, but only John was convicted, a conviction based on contradictory circumstantial evidence. William was found not guilty and in Nicholas's case, held after John's execution, the jury was hung. John Gordon was executed by hanging in the state jail in Providence. The court justices, which included Justice Job Durfee, that were involved in all three trials acted as both trial judges and the court of final appeal. Included in jury instructions, Durfee "told the jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses."
Seven years after Gordon's execution, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty. Although it was reintroduced in 1872, no executions took place before capital punishment was abolished again by the state in 1984. In the 1990s, when the Rhode Island General Assembly considered reinstating the death penalty, Gordon's case has been used by those against reinstatement to demonstrate the dangers of capital punishment.
Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee pardoned Gordon on June 29, 2011, following passage of legislation by the state's General Assembly urging such action. Chafee signed the proclamation of pardon at the Old State House, where Gordon's trial took place more than 150 years prior.
Following the pardon, Rhode Island's historian laureate, Patrick T. Conley, devoted a chapter in his book People, Places, Laws and Lore of the Ocean State [Rhode Island Publications Society - 2012] to this matter in a chapter entitled "The Origins of the Governor's Pardoning Power". This chapter provides both an excellent summary of the recent historical events that led to the Gordon pardon, as well as, the history of the pardon power as far back at the 1850s.
The following year Rhode Island author Paul Caranci published a book: The Hanging and Redemption of John Gordon [The History Press - 2013].
In September 2015, Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny visited the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial. During his speech, he acknowledged Governor Chafee and Representative Martin for their work in obtaining this long overdue pardon.
- McKay, Scott. "Judge's old notes shed light on last execution in R.I." Providence Journal. May 25, 2008.
- Erika Niedowski, "RI governor pardons Irish man hanged in 1845", Associated Press, 2011-06-29.
- Hoffman, Charles G. and Tess Hoffmann (1998). Brotherly Love: Murder and the Politics of Prejudice in Nineteenth-Century Rhode Island. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-163-5.