The title of this narrative non-fiction tale really gives away the plot. Before I even put down the $20 to pay for this book, I knew that John Gordon was the last person to be executed in Rhode Island and was later redeemed, though about 100+ years too late. Even though I knew the outcome, I was intrigued. It’s the why that really piqued my interest.
Rhode Island is a state full of corruption, gangsters, legal prostitution (until a few years ago) and enough of a political and financial mess to make people want to pull their hair out. It’s good to see that not a lot has changed since January 2, 1844, when John Gordon, an Irish immigrant brought to the States by his brother to live the American Dream, was arrested because his brother, Nicholas, was seen threatening the soon-to-be-murdered Amasa Sprague. Those in charge were still able to use their prejudices, propaganda and their sense of entitled power to take down those they didn’t like, regardless of the facts.
There were a lot of anti-Irish Rhode Islanders back then (if only Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys weren’t more than 100 years from being born), and the unsuccessful rebellion of Thomas Dorr in 1842 didn’t help matters. It seemed like this was a losing battle for John Gordon from the start, especially with the absolute thrashing he received by The Providence Journal. The evidence, at least as it was presented by author Paul Caranci, proved John Gordon’s innocence, but it seemed that everyone’s mind was already made up, leaving the poor guy doomed to the gallows.
I’d like to think that things would be different had this happened today, but I can’t be sure. Despite the “innocent until proven guilty” value, many people are down for the count the minute they are handcuffed. A simple Google search of Derek Hazard can prove that, and that’s with The Providence Journal advocating for him to get a new trial. It’s even more difficult to get people on your side with “Court TV,” “Nancy Grace” and the 24-hour news media just dying to crucify the accused in the press. Though they do get it right (not too many people are advocating for Dzhokkar Tsarnaev or Aaron Hernandez beside girls who think they’re too cute to break the law), it still seems to make the high-profile cases, which John Gordon’s was, that much more damning.
Caranci, a North Providence resident and Rhode Island history buff, did a lot of great research to put this book together. The story, though slow at first, discussing Roger Williams and the failed rebellion of Dorr, captivated me with the description of the murder of Sprague, to the point where I fell asleep with the book on my chest because I couldn’t put it down until my brain shut off. The photographs really painted a picture of the time and the characters, though I was surprised to see no pictures of John Gordon. Caranci brought this piece of Rhode Island history to life, tragic ending (for most involved) and all.