The cause to clear John Gordon’s name is almost at an end. - 5/19/11

BY BRIAN FRAGA, Rhode Island Catholic Correspondent

PROVIDENCE - The measure to exonerate the last man to be executed in Rhode Island inched closer to a reality on May 11 when the House of Representatives voted 65-0 to endorse a resolution that Gov. Lincoln Chafee formally pardon Gordon, who was hanged in 1845 after being convicted of murdering Amasa Sprague, a wealthy and powerful mill owner.

Historians and other observers have long felt that Gordon, an Irish Catholic immigrant, was the victim of a biased 19th century legal system hostile to Catholics and the Irish community. Critics say Gordon was convicted on circumstantial evidence, and argue that the judge who presided over the murder trial conspired with the prosecution to railroad Gordon.

Now, 166 years later, justice may finally be catching up for “Johnny Gordon,” said Rep. Peter F. Martin, the Newport Democrat who championed the cause in the House of Representatives.

“I thought we would get this through the House, but I never believed I would get an overwhelming, unanimous vote,” Martin said. “Now we need the approval of the governor and the Senate.”

The resolution to formally clear Gordon’s name through a pardon will require Gov. Chafee’s signature. The governor has previously indicated his support for a pardon. The Senate must also give its advice and consent. At press time this week, Martin said it was still unclear whether the Senate would schedule a committee hearing before the pardon resolution advances to the governor’s desk.

Local playwright Ken Dooley, who wrote and produced a play dramatizing the Gordon murder trial, attended the House’s unanimous vote to clear Gordon, and believes it is only a matter of time before it is official.

“I think we’re going to have some real great news in a couple of weeks,” Dooley said.

Audiences who attended Dooley’s play - The Murder Trial of John Gordon - during its run in Cranston earlier this year were invited to sign a petition urging the governor to pardon the young man who was hanged at age 29 near where the Providence Place Mall today is located.

The legislative vote was 65-0 to pass the resolution, with 10 abstentions. *

In 1844, Gordon was convicted of murdering Amasa Sprague, the politically-connected owner of the A&W Mill in Cranston who was found shot and beaten to death a few months earlier in Knightsville.

Police suspected Gordon because he and his family had been having a dispute with Sprague over their family store’s liquor license.

The evidence at trial consisted of contradictory witness statements, questionable physical evidence and the judge’s instructions to the jury to give more credibility to the testimony of native-born Americans than Irish Catholic immigrants.

Dooley said he wrote his play after growing up hearing Gordon’s story, and added that he was surprised to see how far the cause has advanced.

“Deep down, I was hoping something like this would happen. I think it’s great,” said Dooley.

Later this month, Dooley said a ceremony will be held at Gordon’s grave, which was recently discovered in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Pawtucket after having been lost for more than a century.

Dooley said a tombstone will be erected, with an epitaph borrowed from a line in one of his play’s final scenes: “Forgiveness is the ultimate revenge.”

Rhode Island Catholic
 * - The final vote was 70-0.