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Thread: Notable Rhode Island Execution

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    Notable Rhode Island Execution

    John Gordon, a 21-year-old Irishman, is a sad footnote in Irish American history. Gordon is tragically renowned for being the last person to receive the death penalty in Rhode Island.

    In 1843, John’s brother Nicholas Gordon owned a pub in Knightsville, Rhode Island. It was believed that workers employed by local textile factory owner Amasa Sprague frequented the pub during working hours. The Sprague family was powerful and politically connected in the state and used their influence to get the establishment’s liquor license revoked. Six months later Sprague was mysteriously murdered.

    The Gordon brothers were rounded up, arrested and tried for the killing.

    John was found guilty despite the circumstantial evidence to the contrary and was sentenced to death by hanging.

    This case is an example of how Irish immigrants in the 19th Century were treated like second class citizens. They were not afforded the same judicial rights, as in the case to a fair trial here, as the powerful Yankee aristocrats.

    Presently, this incident is cited as a strong argument against the use of capital punishment. Unfortunately, today the word “murderer” appears next to John Gordon’s name on his Wikipedia page.

    http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/Wr...113842294.html

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    Governor Chafee asked to posthumously pardon last man executed in Rhode Island

    PROVIDENCE — It’s a story passed down through generations in Rhode Island, the tale of John Gordon, an Irish immigrant whose execution by hanging spurred the state to do away with the death penalty.

    As the tale is widely told, Gordon was wrongfully convicted of murdering a wealthy Yankee mill owner after a trial that was rife with prejudice against Irish Catholics and pitted the upper class against the immigrant class. The evidence was circumstantial, as told, and the judge biased. Gordon was hanged on Valentine’s Day in 1845 after his appeal failed before the same judges who heard his trial. Discontent about his death would lead Rhode Island to become one of the first states in the nation to abolish the death penalty seven years later.

    And now, a state lawmaker has submitted legislation some view as an opportunity to right a wrong. Rep. Peter F. Martin, D-Newport, has sponsored a measure calling for Governor Chafee to posthumously pardon Gordon for the murder of Cranston industrialist Amasa Sprague.

    “I expect him to love to do this pardon,” Martin said, noting Chafee’s Yankee roots. “We want a statement that says the evidence was such that we think he was never guilty.”

    Martin was asked to submit the bill by Ken Dooley, the author of a play now showing in Cranston that details Gordon’s trial, he said. After learning more about the case than his father had told him as a child growing up in Newport’s Fifth Ward, Martin said he became convinced a pardon was the only way to fix a grave injustice.

    “The State of Rhode Island created this problem,” he said. “The State of Rhode Island has the responsibility to remedy it.”

    The measure has the backing of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, long a foe of capital punishment, and Office of the Public Defender.

    “I think it rights a wrong,” said the Rev. Bernard A. Healy, the diocese governmental liaison who plans to lobby on behalf of the pardon. The diocese, he says, views it as a teachable moment about “innocent people getting killed by the death penalty” and attitudes toward immigrants. The Irish, at the time, were economic refugees seeking a better life in the United States after being hit by the potato famine, not unlike immigrants of today, he said. “The same thing could happen today.”

    The public defender’s office, too, plans to add its voice to the cause. “The entire process was very problematic,” said Michael DiLauro, assistant public defender.

    DiLauro, who’s long held a fascination with Gordon’s case, acknowledges he might not be able to prove that Gordon didn’t kill Sprague near his Cranston mansion.

    “Given the age of the case and the nature of the evidence, the kind of certainty that you would get today in a post-conviction DNA-exoneration case is not possible,” DiLauro said. “But if you look at the record in the case, the proof that found this guy guilty was not only minimal, but was, at best, circumstantial and, at worst, unreliable.”

    That perplexes some historians. The Rhode Island Historical Society doesn’t have a position on the pardon request, but welcomes an examination of the crime and an exploration of the issues it raises about the state and its values, said Morgan Grefe, the director of education and public program at the Historical Society.

    “The question is, as a historian, is there enough evidence to prove innocence, or just that there wasn’t a fair trial?” Grefe said.

    “We certainly always support looking into the past and bringing to light as best they can what happened in 1845,” she said. “Sometimes that’s easier said than done.”

    In Cranston, historians are more convinced. “[Gordon] had nothing to do with it,” said Lydia Rapoza, president of the Cranston Historical Society. “He was drunk somewhere.”

    The state’s chief law-enforcement officer, whose office is responsible for prosecuting most crimes in the state, refrained from taking a stance.

    “The attorney general believes the decision should be based on law and the facts, not emotion and historical accounts which over decades can change and shift,” said Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin.

    Mill owner Amasa Sprague was shot and beaten to death on the banks of the Pocasset River on New Year’s Eve 1843. Suspicion soon fixed on the Gordon family, Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Sprague had had several clashes with John’s brother, Nicholas, about his workers coming to the mill drunk after buying liquor at Nicholas’ store. Sprague, the brother of U.S. Sen. William Sprague, convinced city officials to suspend Gordon’s liquor license.

    Soon after Sprague’s murder, authorities arrested John, his two brothers, mother and even Nicholas’s dog because tracks indicated a dog had accompanied the suspect. The Providence Journal, criticized for its biased accounts, reported the evidence against the Gordons was so strong “it is now settled opinion that they are the guilty parties.”

    The Gordons’ trial in 1844 came at a time of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate in large numbers threatening the hold of Yankee Protestants. A total of 102 witnesses testified over nine days, giving at times confusing and contradictory testimony. A judge was said to have instructed the jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.

    The jury returned shortly, acquitting William and finding John guilty of murder. Another jury came back hung at Nicholas’ trial. John’s appeal was rejected by the same judges that oversaw his trial.

    John Gordon was hanged before 60 prominent Rhode Islanders at a prison yard that is now home to the Providence Place mall. His body was buried in a pauper’s grave in the North Burial Ground after a funeral procession that drew thousands. His body was then secretly moved to an unmarked grave at a consecrated cemetery at St. Mary’s Church in Pawtucket. Once a year, the Irish Society holds a ceremony there, said Father William J. Ledoux, church pastor.

    Under the state Constitution, the governor can grant a pardon with the advice and consent of the Senate. Governors receive 10 to 15 requests for pardons each year, some written on slips of paper, according to Claire Richards, Governor Chafee’s chief legal officer. The governor’s staff asks the person seeking the pardon to provide detailed information about his or her criminal record, sentence and conduct while serving time. Only one or two people fulfill that request, and the governor’s legal counsel then makes a judgment call based on the information they provided, Richards said.

    Richards was not aware that a pardon had ever been granted in Rhode Island. She declined to give specifics about people who requested pardons during her tenures with Governors Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri.

    If the House of Representatives backs the legislation, lawmakers would be expected to provided the governor with detailed evidence supporting the pardon request, said Michael Trainor, Chafee’s spokesman.

    “The governor understands the spirit with which this resolution is being offered. He’s sympathetic to that,” Trainor said. “He still has to follow the rules. … He’ll look at the evidence and he’ll have to make a determination.”

    Sprague descendants are reluctant to weigh in.

    “I defer to the historians,” said Robert Cocroft, a copy editor at The Providence Journal who descends from William Sprague, Amasa’s brother, a former U.S. senator and Rhode Island governor. “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there.”

    http://www.projo.com/generalassembly...5.18e5eaf.html

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    House move to pardon John Gordon advances

    Rep. Peter F. Martin sponsored the bill to pardon John Gordon, whose hanging in 1845 led the state to do away with death penalty.

    House Judiciary Committee members are calling on their fellow representatives to pass legislation that asks the governor to pardon the last man executed in Rhode Island 166 years ago.

    The committee voted 13 to 0 on Wednesday to recommend passage of legislation calling on Governor Chafee to pardon John Gordon, an Irish-Catholic immigrant whose hanging on Valentine’s Day in 1845 spurred the state to do away with the death penalty.

    The committee’s vote came a month after assistant public defender Michael DiLauro, historians, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence backed the bill as an opportunity to right a grave injustice.

    The full House is expected to consider the bill sponsored by Rep. Peter F. Martin, D-Newport, May 11. Under the state Constitution, the governor can grant a pardon with the advice and consent of the Senate.

    “This committee deals with justice, and this is an example of justice,” said Martin, who sits on the committee.

    Gordon’s trial came at a time of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the 1st group to immigrate in large numbers and threaten the hold of Yankee Protestants.

    Mill owner Amasa Sprague was beaten and shot to death on the banks of the Pocasset River on New Year’s Eve 1843. Suspicion soon fixed on the Gordon family, Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

    Sprague had had several clashes with John’s brother about Sprague’s workers coming to the mill drunk after buying liquor at the brother’s store. Sprague, the brother of U.S. Sen. William Sprague, persuaded city officials to suspend Gordon’s liquor license.

    As widely told, Gordon was convicted of murdering Sprague after a trial rife with prejudice against Irish Catholics. John Gordon was hanged after his appeal failed before the same judges who heard his trial.

    (source: The Providence Journal)

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    Unanimous R.I. House seeks pardon in 1845 hanging

    State lawmakers with Irish roots and even some without on Wednesday threw their support overwhelmingly behind a resolution calling on Governor Chafee to pardon an Irish-Catholic immigrant hanged for the killing of a wealthy, well-connected mill owner.

    The House voted 65 to 0 in favor of a measure sponsored by Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport, asking Chafee to pardon John Gordon, a 29-year-old newcomer to America whose hanging on Valentine’s Day in 1845 spurred the state to do away with the death penalty. The proposal will now head to the Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans’ Affairs.

    Martin said Wednesday’s vote didn’t signal that lawmakers are convinced of Gordon’s innocence, but rather that the evidence wasn’t enough to prove his guilt.

    “They, certainly, today would have done more investigating,” Martin said. They would not have settled on the first person taken into custody, he said.

    In supporting the resolution, legislators cast it as a chance to learn and teach about injustice and intolerance. Some, such as state Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, grew up hearing the tale of Gordon’s death.

    Chippendale viewed the resolution as a great opportunity to teach his children “that intolerance will always end in injustice.”

    Gordon’s trial came at a time of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate in large numbers and threaten the hold of Yankee Protestants. Mill owner Amasa Sprague was beaten and shot to death on the banks of the Pocasset River in Cranston on New Year’s Eve 1843. Suspicion soon fixed on the Gordon family, Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

    Sprague had had several clashes with John’s brother about Sprague’s workers coming to the mill drunk after buying liquor at the brother’s store. Sprague, the brother of U.S. Sen. William Sprague, persuaded city officials to suspend Gordon’s liquor license.

    As widely told, Gordon was convicted of murdering Sprague after a trial laden with prejudice against Irish Catholics. John Gordon was hanged after his appeal failed before the same judges who heard his trial.

    http://www.projo.com/news/content/HO...7.2e88924.html

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    Measure pardoning Irish immigrant John Gordon in 19th-century murder goes to R.I. governor

    The decision now rests with Governor Chafee whether the last man executed in Rhode Island will be pardoned for the alleged killing of a wealthy mill owner 166 years after his death.

    The state Senate Wednesday passed a resolution 33 to 3 calling for the governor to pardon John Gordon, an Irish-Catholic immigrant whose hanging on Valentine’s Day in 1845 spurred the state to do away with the death penalty.

    Chafee indicated that he supports the measure.

    “To me, it’s a matter of healing,” said Sen. Harold M. Metts, D-Providence. Metts, who is of Cape Verdean descent, rejected the notion that the pardon is divisive. “They called it an execution … we called it a lynching.”

    Sen. Dawson Tucker Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, asked his fellow senators to reject the pardon because it portrays Rhode Island as rife with anti-immigration hysteria aimed at Irish Roman Catholics at the time of Gordon’s trial and hanging.

    Yankees, who controlled industry and politics, felt unjustifiably threatened by the Irish, the first group to immigrate to the state en masse, the resolution reads.

    Hodgson, though of Yankee farming stock, said he “bristles at the injection of race” into the General Assembly’s work. Any wrong against Gordon was righted by Yankee lawmakers, in fact, when they outlawed the death penalty in 1852, he said.

    Mill owner Amasa Sprague was beaten and shot to death on the banks of the Pocasset River on New Year’s Eve 1843. Suspicion soon fixed on the Gordon family, Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

    Sprague had had several clashes with John’s brother about Sprague’s workers coming to the mill drunk after buying liquor at the brother’s tavern and store. Sprague, the brother of U.S. Sen. William Sprague, persuaded city officials to suspend Gordon’s liquor license.

    As widely told, Gordon was convicted of murdering Sprague after a trial rife with prejudice against Irish Catholics. Juries at the time were composed only of landowners, effectively eliminating any possibility his case would be decided by a jury that included his peers. John Gordon was hanged after his appeal failed before the same judges who heard his trial.

    Under the state Constitution, the governor can grant a pardon with the advice and consent of the Senate. The resolution passed by the Senate Wednesday included language specifying that the passage constituted advice and consent.

    http://www.projo.com/news/content/SE..._v8.4873e.html

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    State's Last Executed Man Finally Gets a Proper Burial

    John Gordon is getting a headstone and a ceremony at St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket on Oct. 7. Gordon is believed to have been falsely accused of murdering wealthy Cranston businessman Amasa Sprague and was hanged in 1845 after a problematic trial.

    On Oct. 7, John Gordon will finally have a proper burial thanks to a Cranston writer's play and some determined state legislators.

    John Dooley, who penned "The Murder Trial of John Gordon," a play about the last man ever executed in the state of Rhode Island, said a headstone will be dedicated during a ceremony attended by legislators, a priest and some of Gordon's descendents at St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket.

    Inscripted on the headstone: "Forgiveness is the ultimate revenge."

    Who knew that a grandmother's songs about a Irish immigrant convicted and hanged for murdering one of the city's wealthiest and most prominent businessmen would eventually cause Governor Lincoln D. Chafee's pen to mark an order granting his pardon more than 160 years after his death.

    It was a song that stuck with Dooley, an author of many books and plays, as well as with his sister Eileen, who was "after me for fifty years to write the story of poor Johnny Gordon," Dooley said in a recent interview.

    To produce the play, which was performed at the Park Theatre, Dooley dug through historical records and newspaper archives and soon discovered Gordon was the victim of abhorent police work, faulty evidence and perhaps most brutally, prejudice.

    Gordon was accused of killing Amasa Sprague, a wealthy member of the Sprague Family, who owned the Cranston Print Works and a Mansion on Cranston Street.

    There was a ban preventing Catholics from serving on the jury and the judge told the jury that the testimony of Irish-Catholics were not to be given the same consideration as native-born Americans.

    A bloodstained coat ended up being stained by dye, not blood, and barely fit on the tall and skinny Gordon. A prostitute from Providence who claimed to have seen Gordon wearing the coat on the day of the murder misidentified the two Gordon brothers during the trial.

    The play caught the attention of Rev. Bernard Healey, a lobbyist representing the Dicoese of Providence at the General Assembly. He began to call for a legislative review after reading the play, and it didn’t take long for a bill to be introduced into the House and Senate.

    Rep. Peter F. Martin (D-Newport) sponsored a resolution in the house and said at a signing ceremony at the State House said “an innocent man was forced to suffer the terror, despair and humiliation of a public execution and that society and government will remain complicit if the record of judgment of that travesty of Rhode Island history is not corrected.”

    The pardon “acknowledges the failures of our state’s past and corrects the historical record,” said Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. “In so doing our state is reaffirming the sanctity of the constitutional right to a fair trial for everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, heritage, race, or any other characteristic.”

    The governor, an outspoken critic of capital punishment, said the pardon reaffirms the state’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty and Gordon’s wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island’s abolition of executions.

    “There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice,” Chafee said at the signing ceremony.

    Dooley's play reveals how Gordon, who was probably an alcoholic, couldn't account for his wherabouts the night of the murder. Gordon was an employee of the Sprague's mill. Instead, Dooley said the crime was most likely committed by another mill worker who was fired by Sprague the day of the murder. That man left town shortly after the incident and was never heard from again.

    Gordon's body was buried on prison grounds. His body was moved to St. Mary's in Pawtucket.

    http://cranston.patch.com/articles/s...-proper-burial

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    Headstone unveiled in Pawtucket for last man executed in R.I.


    Shaun O’Brien, of the Pawtucket chapter of the Society of Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, with the plaque to John Gordon.

    The inscription on the plaque reads “Forgiveness is the Ultimate Revenge.”

    That message set the tone for the unveiling of a memorial headstone Saturday in St. Mary’s Cemetery for 19th-century Irish immigrant John Gordon — the last man to be executed in Rhode Island.

    In June, Governor Chafee pardoned Gordon, who had been in Rhode Island just a few months before he was arrested and tried in 1844 for the murder of Amasa Sprague, a wealthy mill owner in the Knightsville section of Cranston, who was found savagely beaten on New Year’s Day of that year.

    “John Gordon is the reason they abolished capital punishment in Rhode Island,” said Dennis Keough, a founder of the Pawtucket chapter of the Society of Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

    Gordon was convicted on the basis of inconsistent circumstantial evidence and was hung on Valentine’s Day in 1845 at a spot where the Providence Place mall now stands.

    Following his execution, 1,200 Irish immigrants took his body from the North Burial Ground on North Main Street in Providence and carried it to St. Mary’s Cemetery, where it still lies in an unmarked grave, said Keough.

    On Saturday, Keough stood before the memorial headstone in the cemetery behind St. Mary’s, the second-oldest Catholic church in Rhode Island.

    The location took on added significance, Keough explained, as it stands at the head of a concrete path that once marked the entrance to the original church, built about 1829. The present-day church, facing Pine Street, dates from the late 1870s.

    While the circumstances of John Gordon’s death illustrate the plight of Irish Catholic immigrants, they have contemporary relevance, according to Shaun O’Brien, president of the Pawtucket chapter of the Friendly Sons.

    Acknowledging and correcting past mistakes is necessary to guard against repeating them, he said in a letter in February in support of House and Senate resolutions that ultimately urged Governor Chafee to grant the pardon.

    “In a time of great intolerance toward the new minorities of our day, we need to look out for the John Gordons of present-day Rhode Island,” he wrote at the time.

    Saturday’s noontime Mass and unveiling drew about 50 people, including former Speaker of the House Matthew Smith, who gave a eulogy. Other guests included state Rep. Peter Martin, who sponsored the House resolution in favor of the pardon, and University of Rhode Island scholar Scott Molloy, who has studied the Gordon case.

    Molloy has noted that the legal proceedings against Gordon were riddled with prejudicial statements against newly arrived Irish Catholics. Among other things, he has said, the judge told jurors to “give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.” The trial judge, Job Durfee, also acted as the appellate judge.

    John Gordon was not forgotten after his death. The death penalty was abolished in the 1850s, and whenever Rhode Island legislators have talked about reinstating it — most recently in the 1990s — the legacy of the questionable judicial process surrounding Gordon’s conviction has stopped the proposals cold.

    Saturday’s ceremonies marked “a time to lay John Gordon to rest and celebrate his life,” said O’Brien.

    At the unveiling, Tom Lanigan and Ray Greenleaf sang an original song written for John Gordon, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and percussion instruments, according to O’Brien.

    http://www.projo.com/news/content/JO...v18.832d6.html

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