“Poor Johnny Gordon”, the wronged Irish Catholic immortalized in this infamous ballad by the same name, may find some good fortune yet. That is 166 years after the Irishman was unfairly hanged on a murder charge.
State officials are looking to exonerate him after opening the cold case. The Catholic Church and the American Civil Liberties Union are lending their support.
Mr. Gordon was the last person to be hanged in Rhode Island. The death penalty was abolished 7 years after his death on February 14th 1845. In 1870 capital punishment was reinstated but abolished in the 1980s.
Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee may be called upon by legislators to pardon Gordon. The governor supports this measure. “I think it's appropriate as a symbolic gesture. There could have been errors. There could have been emotional issues at play.”
Anti-Irish sentiment was rampant during the late 19th century in Rhode Island. This is believed to be the motive behind Gordon’s death. History and law professor Patrick Conley commented on the social climate for Irish Catholics during this time. 'It was the temper of the times. Bigotry, hostility toward Irish Catholics was widespread.'
Gordon sought a better life in this country after escaping the potato famine in 1943. His brothers ran a profitable bar. A well-heeled Yankee mill owner, Amassa Sprague, wanted the tavern closed because he claimed his workers spent too much time at the tavern. He used his family connections in the
Senate to shut down the pub. Mysteriously Sprague was murdered.
Johnny Gordon was arrested on the grounds of conspiracy to murder Sprague in retaliation for having the bar’s license revoked. The circumstances surrounding his nine day trial were suspect. For starters the jurors were instructed by the judge to “give more weight to the Yankee jurors than the Irish ones”.
Also a gun was discovered near the body. Witnesses claim they saw the brothers carrying a weapon days before.
A prostitute testified that she heard one of the brothers vowing to kill Sprague in spite of her inability to tell any of the brothers apart. It was later revealed that this woman was in the employ of Sprague.
After 75 minutes of deliberation Gordon was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out against the wishes of the governor and the General Assembly.
His funeral prosession was attended by thousands. He is buried in a church cemetery in Pawtucket.
The effort to find Gordon innocent is important in preventing this history from repeating itself.
Father Bernard Healy echoes this sentiment. 'John Gordon was put to death because he was Catholic. It was Catholics in the 19th century. Who will it be this century?'