- Wednesday, May 11, 2011

RI House endorses pardon for man executed in 1845

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island House on Wednesday called on Gov. Lincoln Chafee to pardon an Irish man hanged in 1845 for the murder of a wealthy mill owner.

The House voted 65-0 in favor of a resolution seeking to pardon John Gordon, the last man executed in Rhode Island. He was convicted of killing Amasa Sprague, a politically connected mill owner.

Historians and law professors now say Gordon was wrongfully convicted after a trial tainted by bigotry against Irish Catholics. At the trial, a witness who claimed to know Gordon couldn't identify him. The judge instructed jurors to give more weight to "Yankee" witnesses than Irish ones.

The bill, which now moves to the Senate, urges Chafee to pardon Gordon. Chafee, an independent, has said he supports the pardon.

Gordon left Ireland to join his brothers in Rhode Island in 1843. They ran a general store and tavern near Sprague's mill. Sprague, the brother of a U.S. senator, wanted the tavern closed because too many workers were showing up drunk. Authorities soon shuttered the tavern.

Sprague's body was found Dec. 31, 1843. He'd been shot in the arm and beaten hard enough to fracture his skull. John Gordon was arrested the next day. Prosecutors said he and his brothers conspired to kill Sprague. The 29-year-old was convicted and hanged in what is now downtown Providence.

The story of Gordon's death was passed down through the generations and has come to represent the intolerance faced by Irish immigrants.

Rep. Joseph McNamara said Gordon's story is echoed today by intolerance directed toward recent immigrants. McNamara is himself the descendent of Irish immigrants. "'Those people' are really most of us," McNamara said. "We should use that knowledge to benefit those folks who are just arriving in our state."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Peter Martin, said he's taken some criticism for wasting legislative time on a man long dead. But Martin, D-Newport, said clearing a man's name is worth a few hours of work.

Read more: