Unanimous R.I. House seeks pardon in 1845 hanging

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 12, 2011

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE State lawmakers with Irish roots and even some without on Wednesday threw their support overwhelmingly behind a resolution calling on Governor Chafee to pardon an Irish-Catholic immigrant hanged for the killing of a wealthy, well-connected mill owner.

The House voted 65 to 0 in favor of a measure sponsored by Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport, asking Chafee to pardon John Gordon, a 29-year-old newcomer to America whose hanging on Valentine’s Day in 1845 spurred the state to do away with the death penalty. The proposal will now head to the Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans’ Affairs.

Martin said Wednesday’s vote didn’t signal that lawmakers are convinced of Gordon’s innocence, but rather that the evidence wasn’t enough to prove his guilt.

“They, certainly, today would have done more investigating,” Martin said. They would not have settled on the first person taken into custody, he said.

In supporting the resolution, legislators cast it as a chance to learn and teach about injustice and intolerance. Some, such as state Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, grew up hearing the tale of Gordon’s death.

Chippendale viewed the resolution as a great opportunity to teach his children “that intolerance will always end in injustice.”

Gordon’s trial came at a time of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate in large numbers and threaten the hold of Yankee Protestants. Mill owner Amasa Sprague was beaten and shot to death on the banks of the Pocasset River in Cranston on New Year’s Eve 1843. Suspicion soon fixed on the Gordon family, Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

Sprague had had several clashes with John’s brother about Sprague’s workers coming to the mill drunk after buying liquor at the brother’s store. Sprague, the brother of U.S. Sen. William Sprague, persuaded city officials to suspend Gordon’s liquor license.

As widely told, Gordon was convicted of murdering Sprague after a trial laden with prejudice against Irish Catholics. John Gordon was hanged after his appeal failed before the same judges who heard his trial.