By Gina Macris
Journal Staff Writer
.Shaun O'Brien, of the Pawtucket chapter of the Society of Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, with the plaque to John Gordon. The Providence Journal / Mary Murphy
PAWTUCKET - 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.