Gov. Chafee pardons last man executed in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, RI – Governor Lincoln Chafee has pardoned John Gordon - the last person executed by the state of Rhode Island. His hanging in 1845 led to the abolition of the death penalty less than a decade later.

The signing ceremony was held in the old State House, the same building where the trial was held. Governor Chafee told the group of assembled lawmakers, attorneys and historians that the pardon was "long overdue."

Gordon was convicted of the murder of Cranston industrialist Amasa Sprague, who was shot and bludgeoned on New Year's Eve 1843 as he was walking from his home in Cranston to his farm in Johnston.

The trial was held against a backdrop of anti Irish hysteria in the United States. There was not an Irishman or a Catholic on the jury. The trial judge, Supreme Court justice Job Durfee, upheld every challenge raised by the state and shot down those offered by the defense.

The Providence Journal declared him guilty before the trial began. And before the jury retired to deliberate, the judge instructed them to give more credence to Yankee witnesses than to the Irishmen called by the defense.

Chafee calls it a "black spot" on Rhode Island history.

"His trial before the Rhode Island Supreme Court was marked by jury coercion, circumstantial and contradictory evidence and dubious testimony including one witness who misidentified him," Chafee said.

University of Rhode Island history professor Scott Molloy told the assembled group that students always ask him if Gordon was in fact innocent.

"And I always say listen, we can never prove definitively whether he was innocent or guilty but we can prove that prejudice and discrimination helped convict him," says Molloy.

Reverend Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, says all Rhode Islanders can stand a little taller because of the pardon. "This is an historic day," said Anderson adding, "it's a wonderful thing that we're doing to try as much as we can to rectify an injustice of the past."

According to the book "Brotherly Love", which chronicles the Gordon case drawing heavily from the trial record, one of the lawmen who investigated the crime was a deputy sheriff named "Daniel Chafee."

Asked if this man could have been an ancestor, Governor Chafee said, "No, I was not aware of that. I've never heard of a Daniel Chafee. Are you sure it was spelled with one "f'"and two "e"s? There's a lot of Chafee's with two f's."

According to the Chafee family tree the name is spelled many ways including with two "f's" and one "e"."

After absorbing that information Chafee said "So that's not good. It doesn't sound good."

But it will look good that a Chafee has pardoned Gordon whose last words from the scaffold were "I forgive all my enemies and persecutors."

Yesterday Rhode Island returned the forgiveness.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.