Dark History in Two Parts

Boston Irish Reporter - June 3, 2011 by By Bill O'Donnell

Dark History In Two Parts - The Rhode Island House of Representatives took a giant step forward for justice last month when they cleared the name of an Irish immigrant who was hanged on Valentine's Day, 1845. John Gordon, 29, was convicted of murdering a well-connected mill owner and brother of a sitting U.S. senator in ugly circumstances that reflected the strong anti-Irish sentiment of the day.

The mill owner's body was found on the banks of Rhode Island's Pocasset River and police immediately centered on a local tavern owner, the Irish-born Gordon, because he and the mill owner, Amasa Sprague, had feuded over business matters. Gordon was picked up the day following the discovery of Sprague's body on the basis of his past disagreements with Sprague and brought to trial with little or no supporting evidence.

Criminal trials in the mid 19th century were extremely hazardous venues if you were Irish and had crossed swords with members of the largely Yankee establishment. Catholics were banned from Gordon’s jury, jurors were told to give priority to testimony of Protestant Americans over Irish Catholics. What the prosecution alleged were blood stains turned out to be dye, and a prostitute called as a witness could identify neither John Gordon nor his brother.

Little of that mattered. John Gordon was found guilty of murder and his appeal was denied by the same judges who presided over his original trial.

The resolution of pardon, passed unanimously by the Rhode Island House on May 11 and sent to Gov. Lincoln Chafee for his signature, was introduced by a 70-year-old retired software executive, Peter Martin, who represents Newport in the legislature. He was made aware of the Gordon injustice by Ken Dooley, who wrote a well-received play about the conviction and hanging.

I had a long telephone chat with Rep. Martin who represents a number of Irish Americans and others in Newport. He emphasized that "this isn’t only to do with the Irish. It's about justice for all, including the underprivileged. John Gordon did not receive proper treatment and his name and memory deserve to be cleared."

In a history-repeats-itself mode, I wrote and ran a story when I was editor at the Boston Irish Echo in 1982 about Dominic Daley and James Halligan that was researched and brought to my attention by John Carlon of Northampton, Massachusetts. Daley and Halligan were Irish immigrants living near Springfield in 1805 who were charged, convicted, and hanged amidst a rancorous, anti-Irish Catholic climate for a murder they did not commit. Others at the time also lobbied for the exoneration of Daley and Halligan.

There was a similar outcome when that case was properly investigated and the injustice authenticated. Gov. Michael Dukakis pardoned both men in March 1984, some 180 years later.