The following article was published in the Valley_Breeze_10_08_2011.htm" Valley Breeze following the celebration at St. Mary's Church and Cemetery.
An Irish martyr, John Gordon gets his due

By ETHAN SHOREY, Valley Breeze Staff Writer - 10/11/2011

PAWTUCKET - Nowadays, all one who stands accused of a crime needs is a shadow of a doubt in the minds of the jury to walk away a free man.

All the shadows of doubt in the world couldn't save John Gordon.

Nearly 170 years after his death, the last man legally executed in Rhode Island was finally "laid to rest" last Saturday, bestowed with a headstone somewhere above where he lies in an unmarked grave at Pawtucket's St. Mary's Cemetery, that hallowed ground where the Wilsons and Burnses are buried.

After years of debate, on June 29 of this year, Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued a pardon to Gordon, stating as he did that Gordon did not commit the murder for which he was hanged at the age of 29 back on Valentine's Day, 1845.

"Justice has no statute of limitations," said Patrick Conley, the author of "The Irish in Rhode Island," chairman of the Rhode Island Publications Society and a longtime professor of history in the state, during last Saturday's ceremony.

Members of the Pawtucket Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, who sponsored the honorary events for Gordon, had advocated for the pardon. They say Gordon's "final vindication" goes a small way toward bringing some justice long after what is believed to be one of the most tainted murder trials in American history.

The marker that will now pay lasting tribute to Gordon is inscribed with the words, "This stone placed in his honor by his fellow Irishmen and those who cared to right a wrong done unto him. 'Forgiveness is the ultimate revenge.'"

Listen some of the music from last Saturday's event,

Rhode Island Rep. Peter Martin, a Democrat who represents Newport in District 75, was the lead sponsor of the legislation Chafee signed to clear Gordon's name.

Gordon's pardon in Amasa Sprague's beating death was nearly four decades in the making, said Martin, and even to the end was opposed by a few state leaders who considered debate over its merits to be a waste of time on the part of the General Assembly.

It was not until Ken Dooley wrote his play, "The Murder Trial of John Gordon" in 2009, that he and others finally gained the momentum they needed for a pardon, said Martin.

Gordon was convicted of killing Amasa Sprague, a wealthy mill owner and the brother of William Sprague, the senator who stepped down from his position to pursue Amasa's killer. Gordon was subjected to a trial that history tells us was full of bigotry against his Irish Catholicism.

Experts have said the evidence against Gordon was circumstantial at best. There were innumerable problems, including the banning of Catholics from the jury and a "bloodstained" coat that was later discovered to have been stained with dye. The prostitute who identified the winter coat as belonging to Gordon would have had no business being in Cranston during the winter months.

The jury's verdict found John Gordon guilty and brother William innocent, even though a main witness for the prosecution, the prostitute, mistook the two brothers for each other.

Gordon was sent to the gallows of the old state jail. The site today is occupied by the Providence Place mall. His trial was a key factor in the death penalty being abolished in Rhode Island in 1852.

Gordon was a man who worked hard during the week and regularly attended Mass each weekend, according to Conley. He may not have been a martyr in the traditional sense of the word, someone who died for his faith, but there has never been any doubt that he died because of his faith.

There had been heavy anti-Irish sentiment after the Dorr Rebellion, said Conley, but hatred against Catholics was even more intense. It was the reformer Thomas Wilson Dorr and his followers who were some of the strongest advocates for Gordon's acquittal.

History offers little or nothing to suggest Gordon as a prime suspect in Sprague's murder, Conley later told The Breeze. There was no prior criminal activity and no suspicious activity. A key point on the part of the prosecution was the idea that Gordon's brother Nicholas had ulterior motives for bringing his family over from Ireland to Rhode Island, that he wanted Sprague dead.

"They thought he was trying to import an assassin, that somehow the two brothers would wreak revenge on Amasa Sprague," said Conley.

John Gordon had arrived in America only a few months before he was arrested for the murder of Sprague. The mill owner had used his influence to have the Cranston City Council pull Nicholas Gordon's liquor license and Sprague wasn't too happy that his employees were buying liquor at Gordon's store and getting drunk before work.

Nicholas Gordon's murder trial ended in a hung jury.

John Gordon had attended Mass the morning before Sprague was killed, "hardly a prelude to murder," said Conley.

The strongest evidence used to implicate him involved a broken gun found at the scene of the crime that supposedly belonged to Nicholas Gordon. The prosecution belabored the fact that no one could prove the weapon didn't belong to Nicholas and the trio of brothers were not able to produce the gun he did own.

Following John Gordon's conviction, William Gordon admitted he had hidden the gun out of fear. William later produced the gun, prompting an appeal of John Gordon's conviction. The appeal was never heard.

The seeds of Gordon's death were sown years before Sprague's murder, according to Conley. Back in 1838, Henry B. Anthony and his Providence Journal "launched its relentless campaign against the foreign vagabond," the Irish, according to Conley's book.

The Journal's push to rid Rhode Island of the Irish was responsible for "setting in motion the wave of nativism which engulfed Rhode Island in the 1840s and 1850s," it reads.

In the same way that it was nearly impossible to tie Gordon to Sprague's murder more than 160 years ago, said Scott Molloy, another Irishman and University of Rhode Island professor, it was equally as difficult to gather enough evidence to finally exonerate him so long after the fact.

For Molloy, it was Gordon's actions in his final hours that showed more than anything else that this was an innocent man who was hanged.

The devout Catholic, who knew he was about to die, understood by the deep conviction of his faith that he could enter hell for lying to his priest, the Rev. John Brady, said Molloy.

"Would he lie to Father Brady at the last minute before his death?" asked Molloy, his voice rising in emotion.

Brady never broke his vow by revealing what John Gordon shared with him for his last confession. Molloy and others have searched high and low for a journal that might tell, to no avail. But according to Molloy, it was Brady's excoriation of the "Yankee authorities" for their acts of injustice toward Gordon, combined with his words to the accused himself, that provide one of the greatest reasons to believe Gordon was innocent.

"Have courage, John. You are going to appear before a just and merciful judge," said Brady. "You are going to join myriads of your countrymen, who, like you, were sacrificed to the shrine of bigotry and prejudice."

Last Saturday's John Gordon memorial ceremony was sandwiched by events at the Galway Bay Irish Pub and the Irish Social Club. A Mass and eulogy were followed by a processional to the ceremony, a welcome by Friendly Sons President Shaun O'Brien, words by Conley and Molloy, music by flutist Josh Kane, words from Martin, an original John Gordon song by Tom Lanigan and Ray Greenleaf, and a closing prayer by the Rev. Bernard O'Reilly.

The pre-ceremony clean-up efforts were led by Tom Rogers, Kevin O'Sullivan and Michael O'Sullivan.

Photo: Historian Patrick Conley, the author of "The Irish in Rhode Island," gives his version of the story of Irish immigrant John Gordon. Gordon, who was hanged in 1845 after being accused in the beating death of Amasa Sprague, was granted a pardon this year by Gov. Lincoln Chafee based on the deep inconsistencies with the case against him. Conley spoke during a dedication ceremony of a new memorial to Gordon at St. Mary's Cemetery last Saturday.

The Valley Breeze published the following photo in the print version of this story - used with explicit permission.

Click on Photo to Enlarge
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