Local historian inks final chapter of the John Gordon saga

Local historian inks final chapter of the John Gordon saga

Falsely accused, he was hanged in state's last execution

NORTH PROVIDENCE - Almost 170 years after the grizzly slaying of a wealthy and politically powerful Cranston industrialist, the murder still remains unresolved. Yet, one day after Amasa Sprague's body was found lying near the footbridge over the Pocasset River separating Cranston from Johnston, two Irish Catholic immigrants were arrested for their part in committing the deed.

Within three days, nearly the entire Gordon family, including the family dog, for his footprints, was arrested. Three brothers were formally charged with the murder and, in a trial remembered for the actions of a corrupt judge and a bigoted society, one was found guilty.

Sentenced to death, 29-year-old Irishman John Gordon was hanged on Feb. 14, 1845, in the prison yard. The Providence Place Mall was eventually built on the site of the former prison complex where Gordon was hanged.

Gordon, a folk hero to the Irish across Rhode Island, is today buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket.

"In 1843, Gordon was a victim of societal hatred, bigotry and injustice," states a news release on the new book, "The Hanging and Redemption of John Gordon: The True Story of Rhode Island's Last Execution," by North Providence resident and author Paul F. Caranci. "Today he is thought of as an innocent man, an Irish Catholic martyr who, more than any other single person or event is responsible for the end of the death penalty in Rhode Island."

Caranci, a Rhode Island historian who serves as deputy secretary of state, has written the final chapter of the Gordon saga, bringing the case to life in "dramatic fashion." His latest book, scheduled for release by The History Press on April 23, chronicles the hopes and dreams of one Irish Catholic immigrant family and explains the socio-political mood that created the circumstances that led to the demise of nearly an entire family.

Caranci is the former North Providence Town Council member who served as the F.B.I. informant in the corruption case against three former council members. He told The Breeze that the inspiration for this latest book, following up on his book on the history of North Providence, was born during a viewing last year of Ken Dooley's "The Murder Trial of John Gordon" at the Park Theatre in Cranston.

Caranci said he took a very different approach to writing his book than the one taken in "Brotherly Love," a book he said "kind of lost credibility" when it tried at the end to build a case against Sprague's brother William.

"I wrote it without an eye to trying to solve the murder, but focusing on the socio-political impact of the bigotry and hatred, what it has done to society starting with the Gordon family," he said. "They were utterly destroyed."

Nicholas Gordon was the first of his family to come to America to escape the famine and economic depression of Ireland. Promising to work hard so that one day he could have his family join him in the land of opportunity, he earned his citizenship and voting rights after opening a small store on land he was able to purchase. He also learned enough about politics to convince the town council to grant him a license to sell alcohol in his store by the drink, something that provided the income he needed to keep his promise.

Gordon was able to pay the passage of his entire family to America after just seven years. Not long after what surely was a happy reunion, "all their hopes and dreams were dashed just a few months later when they fell victim to a bigoted society that falsely accused them of the murder of Amasa Sprague," said Caranci in a release.

The book takes the reader on an hour-by-hour journey of the events leading up to the Dec. 31, 1843 murder. It describes the killing of Sprague in grisly detail and chronicles the events of the days that follow showing how hatred and bigotry against Irish Catholics caused an entire community to turn a blind eye to the injustice that was about to take place.

"You get the true sense of sitting in the courtroom as witness after witness provide perjured testimony amounting to only circumstantial evidence against the Gordons," said Caranci. "And, you stand witness to the emotional final hours of John Gordon's life."

"Despite his innocence John Gordon harbored no ill-will toward his persecutors," said Caranci. "Rather, standing as a true example of Christian love, he forgave his enemies and the men who were about to end his life asking the small crowd of onlookers allowed to witness his execution to pray for him."

Due in large part to the efforts of Dooley and Newport Rep. Peter Martin, who sponsored a resolution asking for the pardon, Gov. Lincoln Chafee exonerated John Gordon in June 2011. A new monument was later unveiled during a ceremony at St. Mary's Cemetery.

Patrick T. Conley, Rhode Island's historian laureate, provides the book's preface.