The following article was published in the Boston Phoenix in 2007.
RI's last execution resonates in our current moment

Capital case By BRIAN C. JONES | May 18, 2007

Rhode Island's last execution was on Valentine's Day in 1845, at a site one historian whimsically describes as below Nordstrom's shoe department in the Providence Place Mall.

At the time, that was the location of state prison, and it's where Irish immigrant John Gordon was hanged after being convicted of conspiracy to shoot and bludgeon industrialist Amasa Sprague. It's enduring Rhode Island mythology that Gordon was innocent, and that, seven years later, that injustice led to the abolishment of capital punishment here.

Rhode Island remains one of 12 states without the death penalty, but the truth of the case is murkier. Modern experts say it can't be proved whether Gordon was innocent. But the evidence was circumstantial, and the legal proceedings might not have passed muster today.

Scott Molloy, a University of Rhode Island historian, says anti-immigrant emotions inflamed the case - something that resonates in today's debates about immigration.

These and other aspects of the Gordon-Sprague incident will be analyzed Saturday, June 2, during a six-hour forum at Cranston's Sprague Mansion, where the murder victim lived. “It was the greatest murder case in Rhode Island history,” Molloy contends, surpassing even the celebrated trials of socialite Claus von Bulow in the 1980s, given the significant issuer raised by the older case.

The tale involves two families. The Spragues were wealthy and powerful, and held posts such as governor and United States senator. Amasa Sprague oversaw the family's textile empire. The Gordons included Nicholas, who ran a store and tavern, and his brothers, John and William. Authorities maintained the Gordons plotted to do away with Amasa, after he engineered the suspension of Nicholas's liquor license, to curb drinking by Sprague factory workers.

URI's Molloy says that Irish Catholic immigrants then numbered only 3000 to 4000, out of a Rhode Island population of 100,000 mostly Protestant Yankees.

Voting rights - and therefore jury service - were limited to certain property owners, and the John Gordon jury included no Roman Catholics, Molloy says. Trial records contain references to supposed "Irish character" traits, such as clannishness, which explained the brothers' willingness to murder.

The execution, in turn, produced strong emotions. Molloy says a funeral procession through Providence included 1300 people as it passed the Old State House on Benefit Street, the site of the trial.

The June forum will include speakers from the Cranston Historical and Rhode Island Labor History societies, the Community College of Rhode Island, and the University of Connecticut.

Participants will tour the area near the murder site, and panelists will discuss proceedings at three Gordon trials, possible other suspects, the fates of the Gordon and Sprague families, and the case's impact on capital punishment in Rhode Island.

Molloy says participants will come away with increased understanding of what past and new arrivals have faced when it's their turn to be America's latest minority.

Tickets are $25, which includes a pizza lunch, and are limited the first 60 registrants who mail checks to the Cranston Historical Society, 1351 Cranston St., Cranston, RI 02920. Information: 401.944.9226.

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