Motion passes to pardon Irishman hanged in 1845

 

The Rhode Island House of Representatives took a significant step yesterday towards clearing the name of an Irishman who was hanged for murder 166 years ago.

The execution of John Gordon has long been a symbol of intolerance against Irish immigrants in 19th-century America. Resolution 5068, which was passed by 65 votes to zero late yesterday, calls on Governor Lincoln Chafee to pardon Gordon, who emigrated from Ireland in 1843 and was accused of murdering Amasa Sprague, a mill owner and the brother of a US senator, on New Year’s Eve that year.

Historians do not know where in Ireland Gordon was from. He joined his brothers Nicholas and William in Rhode Island, where they ran a general store and tavern near the mill owned by Sprague. Sprague argued repeatedly with Nicholas because his workers were buying alcohol and showing up drunk for work. Sprague used his political connections to have the Gordons’ liquor license revoked.

Sprague’s body was found on the bank of the Pocasset River, with a bullet in one arm and a fractured skull. John Gordon was arrested the following day. Catholics were banned from his jury, and jurors were told to favour the testimony of native-born Protestant Americans over that of Irish Catholics. The stains on a blood-stained coat turned out to be dye. A prostitute called as a witness could not identify the Gordon brothers.

Gordon appealed his conviction for murder, but his death sentence was upheld by the same judges who presided over his first trial. Gordon was hanged in downtown Providence on St Valentine’s Day 1845, at the age of 29.

The public of Rhode Island were so appalled by the conditions of Gordon’s trial and execution that the state abandoned capital punishment forever. “I was brought up understanding two things,” said Representative Peter Martin (70), the sponsor of the resolution, who is a retired software executive elected to a seat held by Irish-Americans for more than half a century. “That the Irish endured prejudice here, and that a young man hanged for a murder he did not commit.”

When he was contacted last November by Ken Dooley, one of his constituents who wrote a play about Gordon, “the two ideas came together,” Mr Martin said. “This isn’t only to do with Irish-Americans. It’s about justice for the underprivileged,” he insisted. “This man didn’t get proper treatment.” The public defender’s office, historians, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Catholic Diocese of Providence all supported the drive to exonerate Gordon.

The resolution will now be sent to the state senate, where it is also expected to pass. Mr Martin expects Governor Chafee to sign Gordon’s pardon “within weeks, not months”.