John Gordon was found guilty of the murder of Amasa Sprague. His brother William was acquitted. Gordon's requests for a new trial were denied and his appeals to both the governor and General Assembly went unanswered. On February 14, 1845, at the age of 29, John Gordon was taken to the yard of the state prison in Providence and hanged.


Death Penalty Killed

After the State of Rhode Island executed John Gordon for the murder of Amasa Sprague, questions began to surface regarding the verdict in the trial and the conduct of the trial itself. Many people began to wonder if John Gordon had actually committed the murder. Many believed that he had not. The state surely had not proved this with the evidence it presented. The verdict was not so much a product of the case presented by the prosecutors in the trial but a product of the nativist prejudice against Irish immigrants that infected society at the time of the trial. John Gordon was not hanged because he committed a horrible crime. He was hanged for being Irish.

The tragedy of John Gordon must have lingered in the minds of Rhode Islanders since that day he was hanged, for no other person in the state would ever be executed for any crime again. On February 11, 1852, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 44 to 20, to abolish capital punishment.


An Innocent Man?

John Gordon should have never been convicted for the murder of Amasa Sprague based on the case presented to the jury by the state in his 1844 trial. This trial itself was a legal farce. Here are a number of peculiarities surrounding the case that contributed to the miscarriage of justice:

    1. There were two other sets of tracks going away from the crime scene that were never investigated.
    2. Only one objection made by the defense was ruled in its favor by Chief Justice Durfee. All others were overruled by a prejudicial court. The ruling that caused the most damage to the defense case was the one that allowed the State to present testimony that showed that Nicholas Gordon had made remarks about Amasa Sprague in front of John and William in an attempt to prove that they might be incited to commit the murder.
    3. The size of the boots found in the Gordon's house were the most common for men. Most of the male villagers had the same boot size.
    4. After the verdict was read, John was overheard saying to William: "It is you, William, that have hung me". It was revealed nine months later what John meant by this statement. It seems that on the day following Sprague's death, after Nicholas and John Gordon were arrested, but before William was detained, William took Nicholas' gun from his store and hid it under the floorboards of his bedroom. William believed that if the investigators found the gun it would surely lead to immediate suspicion, arrest, and conviction. He probably revealed this to John during the trial and the two agreed not to tell anyone. When William finally revealed his secret nine months later to one of the jurors in Nicholas' first trial, he confessed his fears that if the state knew he had concealed evidence he would be severely punished. Since John and William knew that they had not committed the crime, the evidence would certainly prove their innocence and there would be no need to reveal their secret.
    5. The testimony given by Susan Field was extremely damaging to the Gordon's case as she revealed that Nicholas had in fact spoken of his intentions to hurt Amasa Sprague in front of his brother John. The prosecution later argued that this would be enough to incite a loyal sibling to commit murder for another sibling. However, the jury seemed to ignore a crucial piece of her testimony. Field was asked by the defense if she knew William and John, to which she answered yes. When the lawyer pointed to John she identified him as William, and when William was pointed out, she identified him as John. It should be noted that Susan Field was a known prostitute who was facing criminal charges of her own at the time of the Gordon trial.
    6. Once Nicholas and John Gordon were arrested (which was before the coat and the gun were found), the men who investigated the murder chose to seek out evidence that would implicate the Gordons. For example, they never traced the two other sets of tracks that led away from the crime scene. They chose to follow the ones that led to the brook and from the other side to the backdoor of the Gordon house. They did not thoroughly search the Gordon house or store for the gun owned by Nicholas. If they had found the gun, it would surely imply that the murder weapon already in evidence did not belong to the Gordons.
    7. At the end of the trial, Justice Job Durfee instructed the jury to make special considerations when analyzing conflicting and contradictory testimony. It seems apparent that the judge was hinting to the jurors that they should put greater weight on the testimony of the non-Irish witnesses. The jurors were inappropriately guided by this instruction.


An Alternative Theory

 If John Gordon did not murder Amasa Sprague, then who did? Here's one incredible theory:

William Sprague: The brother of Amasa Sprague had the most to gain from the murder. After their father's death in 1836, Amasa became the senior partner in the family's textile empire. He was only 45 years old at the time of his demise and he probably would have run the company for another couple of decades. William would not be in charge of the company until his brother was dead. Why would William have an interest in running the company? William Sprague was a U.S. senator, and he had already been governor of Rhode Island and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His political career was an impressive one, yet he was never satisfied. William's real interests lay in the expansion of the family textile business and an enlargement of the family coiffures. However, Amasa was more conservative than William, always fearing a repeat of the economic Panic of 1837.

Eliminating Amasa would give him the opportunity to realize his financial dreams. William had never had a public quarrel with Amasa, but he was well aware of his brother's difficulty with Nicholas Gordon. William knew that if his brother was murdered, suspicion would immediately fall upon the Irishman. Gordon would be arrested and William Sprague would

be free to run the business. Of course we now know that William did take control of the Sprague Printworks, as Amasa's children were too young to run the company. He also quit his senate seat less than three weeks after the murder and took control of the investigation. William was able to control the direction of the investigation and suppress any information that turned the focus away from the Gordons as the chief suspects. Following the death of Nicholas Gordon in prison in 1846, William Sprague began his much anticipated expansion of the textile empire. Only after Nicholas Gordon was found guilty of plotting the murder of Amasa, or after he was dead, would all questions be laid to rest regarding the murder. Then, and only then, could William Sprague expand the business. By 1873 the Spragues were producing more calico cloth than all other calico factories in the United States combined. Profits had reached $20,000,000. The company itself was worth half a billion dollars. Ironically, by the end of 1873, the business was bankrupt, a casualty of overproduction and a major economic disruption in that year.


For more information on the Sprague murder go to the following sources…

Internet Sources

This web site offers additional information on the murder, the Sprague family, and background information on Rhode Island in the 1840's.

This web site looks at the Sprague murder case from a legalistic point of view.

This web site offers information about nativism in the United States in the nineteenth century.

Other Sources

Butman, Dean P. "His Murder Changed Rhode Island Law." Rhode IslandYearbook, 1968, 108-14. Providence, 1968.

This article offers an abridged and concise look at the events in this case including the background to the murder, the murder itself, and the trial of John and William Gordon.

Hoffman, Charles and Tess. Brotherly Love. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

This book is the most comprehensive work done on the Sprague murder case. It offers information on the trials of John and William Gordon and Nicholas Gordon. The authors also investigate alternative theories on who the real killer might be.


Larned, Edward C., and William Knowles, reporters. The Trial of John and William Gordon Charged with the Murder of Amasa Sprague, BeforeThe Supreme Court of Rhode Island, March Term, 1844. Providence: Sydney S. Ryder, 1884.

This is the only record of the courtroom proceedings including testimony from key witnesses. There are only a few copies of this transcript left in libraries throughout the state.


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