Editorial: Pardon John Gordon

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, February 6, 2011

On a winter’s afternoon in 1843, mill owner Amasa Sprague was bludgeoned to death in a wooded area near his textile printing factory in Cranston. In 1845, John Gordon was hanged for the murder.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, not then and not now.

Historians agree that John Gordon did not kill Amasa Sprague. The trial that led to Mr. Gordon’s execution by hanging was unfair, the judge and jury biased, and the evidence weak — a classic miscarriage of justice that even at the time caused such feelings of guilt that Rhode Island abolished capital punishment just seven years later.

That trial cannot be undone, but a pardon for John Gordon, as proposed in legislation sponsored by state Rep. Peter Martin, would at least offer some justice as balm to heal old wounds. Governor Chafee, whose family fortune is tied to the A. & W. Sprague Co.’s eventual collapse, has a special interest in balancing the books of history.

A pardon would also offer a classic “teaching moment” if it opens minds to the complexity of Rhode Island’s antebellum social environment.

The murder, trial and hanging occurred not long after the Dorr Rebellion of 1842. For weeks the nation watched this mini-civil war in Rhode Island. Federal troops might have intervened had not the administration of President John Tyler hesitated to choose between two simultaneous state governments, each believing it was the state’s duly elected leadership. The followers of Gov. Thomas Wilson Dorr’s administration, which sought to expand immigrant voting rights, eventually gave way to the Law and Order Party of Gov. Samuel Ward King.

The Journal’s own opposition to the Dorrites and its coverage of the Gordon trial, fueled by class sentiment and suspicion of immigrants in the 19th Century, were not the newspaper’s finest hour.

Whatever role ethnic and class feelings played in the Sprague murder’s alleged cause — the mill owner got the city to withdraw the Gordon family shop’s liquor license to halt mill workers’ inebriation — ethnic and class tensions preceded the rebellion and simmered (at least) long after. Naturalized male immigrants were not granted a full right to vote in Rhode Island until the 1880s.

If a pardon for John Gordon helps Rhode Islanders understand these issues, very good indeed. A play about the trial by Ken Dooley is showing through Feb. 27 at Cranston’s Park Theater. It was Mr. Dooley, in fact, who convinced Representative Martin to submit his pardon bill.

But if Mr. Gordon did not kill Mr. Sprague, who did? And why? Cold case! More grist for the mill.