John Gordon, a 21-year-old Irishman, is a sad footnote in Irish American history. Gordon is tragically renowned for being the last person to receive the death penalty in Rhode Island.
In 1843, John’s brother Nicholas Gordon owned a pub in Knightsville, Rhode Island. It was believed that workers employed by local textile factory owner Amasa Sprague frequented the pub during working hours. The Sprague family was powerful and politically connected in the state and used their influence to get the establishment’s liquor license revoked. Six months later Sprague was mysteriously murdered.
The Gordon brothers were rounded up, arrested and tried for the killing.
John was found guilty despite the circumstantial evidence to the contrary and was sentenced to death by hanging.
This case is an example of how Irish immigrants in the 19th Century were treated like second class citizens. They were not afforded the same judicial rights, as in the case to a fair trial here, as the powerful Yankee aristocrats.
Presently, this incident is cited as a strong argument against the use of capital punishment. Unfortunately, today the word “murderer” appears next to John Gordon’s name on his Wikipedia page.
This travesty comes to life in a new play entitled “The Trial of John Gordon” that will be staged at the Cranston Park Theater in Cranston, Rhode Island starting January 14th. This piece is written by Cranston native and prolific author and playwright Kenneth R Dooley.
According to Dooley, who has 38 books to his credit over the past several decades, he became inspired to pen this play thanks to his Irish grandmother. “(she) used to sing an old song about ‘Poor Johnny Gordon’ and I never forgot about it.”