On Valentine's Day, a toast to a man wronged

Justice Dept.
By BRIAN C. JONES  |  February 15, 2012

They raised a toast this Valentine's Day at McBride's Pub in Providence to John Gordon, much-remembered these past 167 years.

Not that a salute to the departed is unusual at the pub, opened last year by the proprietors of the Monahan, Drabble & Sherman Funeral Home in their former nine-car garage off Wayland Square. Every night there at 10, a "last call" honors a worthy decedent.

But this was different, a gathering of 50 or more that included a state legislator, lawyers, historians, writers, and others to salute Gordon, an Irish immigrant hanged on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1845.

Gordon was the last person executed in Rhode Island, and his case is often cited by death penalty foes as an example of justice miscarried. Last June, Governor Lincoln Chafee, following a resolution passed overwhelming by the General Assembly, pardoned Gordon.

The McBride's toast was preceded by an evening of music by Josh Kane's three-piece Irish band, and the singing of "Danny Boy." Barkeepers/undertakers Mark and Bob Russell handed out commemorative John Gordon beer glasses. Speakers praised Ken Dooley, whose play, The Murder Trial of John Gordon, last year sparked the pardon drive. And there were cheers for the actors for good measure.

Beneath the pleasantries were the concerns that for decades have run through the Gordon case — a symbol, for many Rhode Islanders, of the ethnic bias and class struggle that roiled the state's industrial and civic past.

Gordon was convicted in the murder on New Year's Eve, 1843, of Amasa Sprague, a Cranston mill baron, whose brother, William Sprague, was variously a Rhode Island governor, US senator, and Congressman.

The state contended that Gordon, with his brothers Nicholas and William, engineered the slaying to avenge Amasa's role in revoking the liquor license for Nicholas's Cranston store. But critics insisted that the evidence was shaky, the witnesses unreliable, and the judge biased, instructing jurors to give less weight to witnesses of Irish origin.

"The Irish were poorly treated, historically, and I know that from my own Irish heritage," said state Representative Peter F. Martin, D-Newport, who sponsored the pardon resolution and played harmonica a few times with the Josh Kane Trio. "John Gordon is probably symbolic to a lot of people of the suffering of the Irish."

Michael A. DiLauro, a state public defender who was also at McBride's, authored a 10-page memo detailing legal flaws in the Gordon prosecution, concluding that the case was "a horrible wrong perpetrated by our state's criminal justice system upon the poor and powerless."

The Reverend Bernard M. O'Reilly, pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Burrillville and a Providence College professor who was cast in last year's play as the priest who ministered to the doomed Gordon, spoke of the enduring role of conscience.

"We do have, I would say, an obligation to correct the wrongs that are inflicted upon our historical record," O'Reilly said. "We have done the right thing in this case."

Some grievances should be let go after 167 years. Others, not so much.

  Topics: This Just In , Lincoln Chafee, John Gordon, Valentine’s Day,  More more >
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