On New Year’s Eve 1843 Rhode Island factory owner Amasa Sprague was brutally beaten to death by an unknown assailant.
The Sprague family were wealthy and very powerful members of Rhode Island society. Amasa’s brother, U.S. Senator William Sprague resigned his Senate seat to personally direct the murder investigation. Subsequently a family of Irish immigrants were rounded up and arrested for the murder. Nicholas Gordon owned a store near Sprague’s factory and the two were often at odds. Gordon had long been the target of the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment that was prevalent in 19th Century Rhode Island.
The trial of the Gordon brothers was heavily influenced by the widespread anti-immigrant prejudice of the day. Such anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings were further inflamed by the Providence Journal whose publisher was a close friend of the Sprague family. The trial by most accounts was a sham with a stacked jury on which no Irish were allowed and a prejudicial judge who favored the prosecution. Soon the youngest of the Gordon brothers, 21-year-old John became a sad footnote in Rhode Island and American history. He was found guilty despite the circumstantial evidence to the contrary and was sentenced to death by hanging. On Valentine’s Day 1845 John was hung to death by the State of Rhode Island. He became tragically renowned for being the last person to receive the death penalty in Rhode Island.
Capital punishment was abolished in the Ocean State because it soon became commonly accepted that John Gordon was an innocent man. However, his conviction of the murder of Amasa Sprague was never removed from the record.
The Rhode Island General Assembly recently issued a resolution calling for the State of Rhode Island to pardon John Gordon. Representative Peter Martin (D-Newport) and Senator Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) are leading the campaign to exonerate John Gordon.
The case of John Gordon is currently being played out in the theater as a new play, “The Murder Trial of John Gordon,” by Rhode lsland playwright Ken Dooley, and is now appearing at the Rhode Island Center for Performing Arts in Cranston. Both the play and the legislative effort now underway on Smith Hill resurrects for all Rhode Islanders but most importantly for Catholics the need to address the grave sins of racial bigotry and the taking of innocent human life. The church rejects all forms of bigotry and intolerance especially the xenophopic prejudice directed at immigrants such as John Gordon and so many other Irish-Catholic immigrants received in the 19th century. The Catholic Church also teaches that the human quest for justice never permits us to assume the absolute power over human life implicit in capital punishment and has long worked to end the death penalty in our nation.
We applaud the efforts to exonerate John Gordon and to restore an innocent man’s good name even over a century after his unjust execution. The time has been too long in coming for the State of Rhode Island to pardon John Gordon and we call upon the leaders of the General Assembly and Governor Chafee to expedite the effort to clear his good name. Justice demands swift action should be taken today.