John Gordon gets his final rest

9/14/11 - By Meri R. Kennedy

The last man executed in Rhode Island, 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 trial full of problems and prejudice.

John Dooley, of Cranston, researched and wrote "The Murder Trial of John Gordon," which was produced at the RI Center for Performing Arts at the historical Park Theater earlier this year.

"Forgiveness is the ultimate revenge" will be inscripted on Gordon's headstone. The headstone will be dedicated during a ceremony attended by legislators, a priest and some of Gordon's descendents at St. Mary's. It has been 160 years since Gordon's execution and with more evidence, as well as the original lack of evidence, Governor Lincoln Chafee's has granted an order to pardon John Gordon.

Rep. Peter F. Martin (D-Newport) sponsored a resolution to pardon Gordon, and spoke in his defense at the State House.

"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," Martin said at the time.

While writing "The Murder Trial of John Gordon," Dooley went through historical records and newspaper archives and soon discovered Gordon was the victim of poor police work, faulty evidence and likely prejudice.

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

During the trial, 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.

Revealed in the historically-based play, 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 Diocese 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.

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.

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

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

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

The Cranston Herald