After 166 years, Rhode Island to finally pardon John Gordon

Rhode Island's Old State House

This afternoon, Governor Chafee is set to sign a proclamation at the Old State House on Benefit Street formally pardoning John Gordon, the last man executed by the State of Rhode Island, under questionable circumstances back in 1845. The General Assembly’s decision to pardon him made headlines all the way across the pond in Ireland.

By coincidence, I took a look at Gordon’s case in January – here’s a refreshed version of that post.

Rhode Island officially banned the death penalty in 1984, but the state hasn’t actually executed anyone since 1845, a decade and a half before the Civil War began.

That was the year an Irish immigrant named John Gordon was hanged for allegedly murdering Amasa Sprague, brother of one Rhode Island governor and father of another. To this day, questions remain about Gordon’s guilt considering the climate in which he was convicted, as WRNI’s Scott MacKay reported in 2008:

The [Gordon] trial came at a time in the state of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate here in large numbers and threaten the hegemony of the Yankee Protestants that ran Rhode Island as their duchy. …

Every time there was a serious attempt at the State House to bring the death penalty back to the state — the last was in the 1990s by then-Rep. Antonio Pires, D-Pawtucket — Gordon’s trial is invoked and measures to reinstitute capital punishment are defeated. …

John Gordon walked to the gallows from his cell at the state prison, which in those days was located in Providence, where the Providence Place mall now stands. Sixty community notables attended the hanging, along with another 1,000 or so people — [URI Professor Scott] Molloy says they were most likely Irish immigrants — who stood on the outskirts of the prison but were too far way to see the gallows, which were in the jail courtyard.

The Rev. John Brady, a Catholic priest, shocked the elite observers by saying to Gordon before the hanging: “Have courage, John. You are going to appear before a just and merciful judge. You are going to join myriads of your countrymen, who, like you, were sacrificed to the shrine of bigotry and prejudice.”

The Pawtucket chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick has more here. The General Assembly abolished the death penalty seven years after Gordon’s execution, making Rhode Island a pioneer in doing so along with Michigan and Wisconsin, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens noted recently.

Capital punishment was legalized again in 1872, and remained the law of the land until a 1979 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision declared it unconstitutional; lawmakers struck the death penalty from the state’s statute books once more five years later.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee opposes capital punishment, but Peter Kilmartin, the state’s new attorney general, told The Providence Journal last year he is in favor of reinstating it for some offenses.

You can be sure the ghost of John Gordon would loom large in any renewed debate over legalizing executions in Rhode Island. As an aside, former Cranston resident Ken Dooley has written a play about the Gordon trial that’s being put on through Feb. 27 at the city’s Park Theatre.

Postscript: And indeed it has; Chafee cited Gordon’s case to me just last week in explaining why he moved to block the transfer of an accused murder into federal custody, where he could face the death penalty. As the saying goes, the past is never dead – it’s not even past.

Also, you may be wondering why this post isn’t graced with a photo of John Gordon. That’s because there is no known picture of him in existence, according to Lydia Rapoza of the Cranston Historical Society. All that’s left is a drawing of the evidence from the murder scene and a photo of Amasa Sprague, she said.

(photo: Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission)

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