The sordid reason Rhode Island abolished the death penalty

old rhode island statehouse

Spend any time in Rhode Island and you quickly learn a few things: It’s not an island; it would appear to have the most corruption per capita outside of Sicily; and for such a small entity the Ocean State has more than its fair share of interesting stories.

Consider that Rhode Island hasn’t executed anyone in more than 170 years. Part of the reason is that the last man to die at the hands of the state was almost certainly railroaded, a victim of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry that was prevalent in many areas of the United States into the 20th century.

This particular story begins on Dec. 31, 1843, when textile magnate Amasa Sprague finished supper at his Cranston, RI, mansion and went for a walk. Sprague was powerful both in physique and prominence.

He was a New England Brahmin, and together with his brother William owned a textile business started by his father William Sprague Sr. The Spragues owned several cotton mills in Rhode Island, but their most profitable factory was the print works in nearby Spragueville, which printed calico patterns on cloth.

The A & W Sprague Co. employed most residents of Spragueville, owned the tenements they rented and the company store where they shopped. He was a man to be feared.

During Sprague’s after-dinner walk, he was accosted by at least two individuals. He was shot in the right wrist and struck with a blunt instrument in the left side of his head, then his right. Despite desperate attempts to fight back, Sprague was overcome and killed.

There was no shortage of potential suspects, according to the New England Historical Society.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

There was talk that the murder was politically motivated. The previous year, an individual named Thomas Dorr had been arrested for a failed attempt to force broader democracy in Rhode Island by setting up a rival government that would expand the vote to all adult white males.

Still governed by the state’s 1663 colonial charter with its relatively high property requirement for suffrage, Rhode Island allowed only white, propertied men – about a third of adult male population – to vote. The Irish, who were nearly all disfranchised under the colonial charter, strongly supported the Dorr Rebellion.

Sprague, like many wealthy white males, benefited from the system in place and, along with his brother William and brother-in-law Emanuel Rice, helped orchestrate Dorr’s downfall. Some speculated that supporters of Thomas Dorr, who would later be found guilty of treason against the state, assassinated Amasa Sprague, according to the New England Historical Society.

Others looked closer to home. William and Amasa Sprague apparently disagreed about what direction the family business should take. William wanted to expand the company beyond Rhode Island, while Amasa was content to continue the business at its current size and profitability. Neither man had a reputation for backing down when they didn’t get their way.

Suspicion also fell upon Nicholas Gordon, a tavern owner whose establishment was frequented by Sprague’s millworkers, much to Amasa Sprague’s displeasure.

Gordon’s tavern was attached to his home and was located in a section of Cranston, which, in the decidedly indelicate sensitivities that were prevalent in 19th century America, was nicknamed “Monkeytown” because of its Irish population.

“Amasa Sprague had successfully fought against renewing Gordon’s liquor license because, he said, his Irish millworkers were getting drunk during work hours and neglecting their jobs,” according to the New England Historical Society. “Gordon and Sprague had fought publicly. Sprague and Gordon had once met on a path and neither refused to give way. Finally Sprague grabbed Gordon by the collar and shouted, ‘Get out of the way, you damned Irishman!’”

The entire case was a fiasco from beginning to end. William Sprague resigned his senate seat to supervise the murder investigation, an apparent conflict of interest.

Not only was Nicholas Gordon quickly arrested, along with his younger brothers, John and William, the Gordon’s mother and a friend of Nicholas’ named Michael O’Brien – because everyone knew the Irish always stuck together – but the Gordon’s dog was apprehended, as well. (The dog was later described by a defense attorney as toothless and old.)

William and John were tried first, with the Irish community rallying behind them and raising funds for their defense.

Ultimately, it was 29-year-old John Gordon, recently arrived from Ireland to join his brothers Nicholas and William, who took the fall for the crime. William was found not guilty, but John was found guilty despite a conviction based on contradictory circumstantial evidence.

How badly were the cards stacked against John Gordon?

In trials held at the then-Rhode Island Statehouse, Presiding judge Job Durfee told jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses. He added that they did not have to believe anything that the Irish witnesses for the defense said because they were by their nature unable to tell the truth, according to a 2013 report on the sordid affair by the Cranston Herald.

In addition, Henry Bowen Anthony, the editor of the Providence Journal, the leading news source for Rhode Island at the time, provided the public with plenty of “facts” about Gordon’s guilt, even though many were asserted without a shred of truth to them, the Herald added.

One of the pieces of evidence that convicted John was a broken gun found near the body of Amasa Sprague. Nicholas was known to own a gun, but it couldn’t be found in his house, so it was assumed the broken gun was his. After the trial it was discovered that William had hidden Nicholas’ gun under the attic floorboards, according to the New England Historical Society.

Nicholas was tried later, but he had an alibi and the witnesses who convicted his brother were suddenly unsure of their memories. His trial ended in a hung jury. His gun turned up just before his second trial, which also ended in a hung jury.

John Gordon was hanged on Feb. 14, 1845, in Providence. His last words were, “I hope all good Christians will pray for me.”

Many believed he was innocent and the victim of a legal lynching. Some 1,400 Irish came from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts for his funeral. The procession took a detour to pass the Statehouse and the homes of the Yankee elite.

Seven years later, the Rhode Island legislature banned capital punishment, in part because of the travesty of John Gordon’s trial.

In 2011, 166 years after John Gordon was hanged by the state of Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee pardoned him.

“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Chafee said in 2011. “There is no question he was not given a fair trial.”

(Old Rhode Island Statehouse, Providence, where John Gordon and his brothers were tried for the murder of Amasa Sprague.)

Easily offended Ivy Leaguers look to dumb down curriculum

books

One does so tire of college elites bleating about being “oppressed” by administrators’ failure to be “inclusive” when crafting courses.

Among recent squawking is that from special snowflakes at Yale, who have launched a petition calling on the Ivy League school’s English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, stating “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” according to The Guardian.

It would appear that Yale English students, despite being an undoubtedly bright bunch, aren’t capable of picking up the works of, say, Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Edith Wharton or Richard Wright on their own.

Yale requires English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels “major English poets”: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot “or another modern poet” in the spring. (Presumably the other modern poet could be a non-white, non-male writer, but that wouldn’t fit the agenda of the easily aggrieved.)

Its intention, the university says, “is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition.” The poems the students read, it adds, “take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new.”

To combat this pernicious patriarchal authoritarianism Yale students have launched a petition calling on the institution to “decolonize” the course.

“They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” according to The Guardian.

The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

Actually, Yale has a wide variety of English courses that focus specifically on women and people of color, along with some that touch on queer issues.

These include English 10: Jane Austen; English 239: Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism; English 291: The American Novel Since 1945, which includes works by Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel; English 292: Imagining Sexual Politics, 1960s to the Present, which involves a historical survey of “fiction, poetry drama and creative nonfiction that have shaped and responded to feminist, queer and transgender thought since the start of second-wave feminism”; English 293: Race and Gender in America; English 306: American Artists and the African American Book; English 313: Poetry and Political Sensibility; English 326: The Spectacle of Disability, which examines how people with disabilities are treated in US literature and culture; English 334: Postcolonial World Literature, 1945-present; English 352: Asian American Literature; English 445: Ralph Ellison in Context; English 446: Virginia Woolf; and English 945: Black Literature and US Liberalism.

But, of course, students would have to enroll in additional courses beyond the basic two currently required to partake in the above. It would appear the “persecuted” are trying to change the school’s approach to teaching English rather than simply signing up for an additional class or two.

One student went so far as to write in the Yale Daily News that the school’s English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history” by having two of its foundational courses in English focus on “canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

I’ve read some of the above major English poets and fail to see how their works create “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” But, being a middle class white male, I suppose I couldn’t possibly understand what’s offensive to a group of late teens and young twenty-somethings at one of the most select, politically correct universities in the world.

What’s more likely going on is that a collection of vocal Yale undergraduates have tired of being forced to read Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al. To be fair, these writers can be difficult to slog through, what with their penchant for archaic language and use of such tricky literary devices as allegories and soliloquies.

But instead of buckling down and becoming better readers and writers by understanding what the great English poets of the past had to say when they put pen to paper, they’d rather accuse the school of “harming students.”

I’ll say this for Yale English students: They may not be too resilient when it comes to holding up under the yoke of great literature, but they’ve got a bright future in the area of creative thinking.

Remembering the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy, 150+ years later

boykin mill pond

Boykin, SC, a rural community of 100 people located east of Columbia, is known for an eclectic Christmas parade, a grist mill that began operation in the 18th century, a skirmish that took place in the waning days of the War Between the States, a shop that sells handmade brooms and a handful of small restaurants housed in 19th century structures.

It’s also the site of the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy, which occurred on May 5, 1860, when at least two dozen individuals drowned while on a pleasure cruise.

More than 50 people, including several young children, set out on a flatboat on the 400-acre pond. The disaster began when the boat was said to have struck a stump.

Ralph Leland Goodrich, a New Yorker teaching in Camden in the early months of 1860, detailed the events in his diary: “No immediate danger was apprehended, but then the boat began to take on water. Watching from shore, their friends gradually stopped laughing and eating and then began to panic. Some few tried to swim out to them but it was too late. Most of those on the boat were young women and girls, whose skirts became extremely heavy as the boat began to sink. The boys on board tried to help, but most went down in a single mass, clinging to each other as drowning victims do.”

It’s possible the disaster might have been averted had the passengers not panicked, but when they noticed the flatboat taking on water, everyone moved en masse to one end and the boat tipped, dumping all into the water.

Gravestone of Mary Ann Young, which details her death at Boykin Mill Pond, May 6, 1860.

Gravestone of Mary Ann Young in Rembert Methodist Church cemetery, which details her death at Boykin Mill Pond, May 5, 1860.

Rembert Methodist Church

The names of the individuals who lost their lives in the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy as well as Goodrich’s details are part of CSI: Dixie, a project of the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia, which collected 1,582 coroners’ reports from six Upstate South Carolina counties for the years 1800-1900.

The findings of the coroners’ inquest for the victims of the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy is short, if not sweet.

For Amelia A. Alexander, 20, of Camden, SC, it reads: “… upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin … by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons.”

At least four sets of siblings lost their lives in the tragedy, including Samuel Young, 7; Mary Ann Young, 11; and Hollie Young, who would have turned 19 the following day.

Goodrich wrote of following a wagon-load of four bodies that “all went to the same house,” according to CSI: Dixie.

He helped dress the corpses as the mother “whose almost every child was gone,” wailed ‘“& these too, & these too?’” over and over. Her “grief could not be measured,” he later wrote.

Several of the victims are buried in Camden’s Quaker Cemetery while a handful of others are buried in the graveyard at Rembert Methodist Church, in neighboring Lee County. Others were buried in family plots whose location is unknown at present.

The number of deaths isn’t definitive; while at least one slave was among the dead in the coroner’s report, it is believed others may have been onboard and lost their lives, as well, but gone uncounted.

(HT: Waldo Lydecker’s Journal)

(Top: View of Boykin Mill Pond; below: grist mill that gets power from Boykin Mill Pond.)

boykin-mill-farm

Political posturing, emotional rants won’t help refugees

Syrian refugees, fleeing the violence in their country, cross the border into the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq

It’s difficult to say if the world we live in is any more polarized than that of the past, or if social media has simply magnified the chasms that exist, leaving the appearance of a stark black and white realm when reality has always been varying shades of gray.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis. While many US governors practically tumbled over each other in the race to demand that no Syrian refugees be allowed to settle in their states, some on the other side were insistent that any denial of US asylum was outright racism.

Both are unfortunate and ill-considered stands. The first I attribute to political posturing. Certainly, it’s not possible or wise to allow a mass influx of immigrants from any nation without proper vetting. That doesn’t mean you shut your borders, however. You certainly don’t rope off your borders to individuals from a specific country because of the actions of one or a few, or because the majority of the individuals in that country are of a specific religion.

Humanitarian crises demand extraordinary responses, and the US and other Western nations should step up efforts to aid those in need while ensuring the safety of all concerned. Simply slamming the door shut on those either forced from their country or who have left out of fear is not an appropriate response.

On the other hand, we have those who misrepresent the past to manipulate individuals’ feelings in a bid to push an agenda.

Consider this headline from a distasteful story that attacks those in the US for failing to open its arms to all Syrian refugees, no questions asked: “Anne Frank Literally Died Because of America’s Anti-Refugee Stance”.

John Prager, writing for the online publication Addicting Info, states that Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, was denied a visa by the United States, preventing he and his family from escaping the Nazi noose that was tightening around Jews in Europe.

The Franks were captured by the Nazis in Amsterdam in 1944 and Anne and most her family perished, with Anne and her sister Margot dying at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the spring of 1945. Because the US didn’t give the Franks a visa, it is responsible for the family’s death, Prager asserts.

While I find repugnant the attitude of politicians who flat-out refuse to take Syrian refugees, I also despise the above one-dimensional thinking that, in effect, calls today’s conservative US politicians “bigoted and hateful anti-Semit(es),” according to Prager’s article. (As Prager condescendingly points out, “Yes, conservatives, Arabs are Semitic people.)

The fact is, Anne Frank “literally” died because of the Nazis’ policy of exterminating Jews. American anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in other countries, and a general unwillingness to open US borders to the tens of millions of other individuals who were displaced or endangered by the Nazis (and Soviets) is a sad reality of the 1930s and ’40s, and one hopes that today’s generation will not repeat the same mistakes.

But the US, for all its many flaws, was not “literally” responsible for the death of Anne Frank or other Jews who perished between 1933 and 1945.

We could have done more, much more, but we didn’t deploy Einsatzgruppen to kill hundreds of thousands throughout the Baltics and Eastern Europe, we didn’t set up concentration camps and death camps, and we didn’t transport millions in cattle cars from Nazi-created ghettos to those camps, where they were gassed or otherwise killed.

Ultimately, it was the US and other Allied nations that stopped the Nazi death machine.

Prager’s appeal to emotion doesn’t stand up under scrutiny, and it doesn’t help us solve the problem at hand.

(Top: Syrian refugees, fleeing violence in their country, cross the border into the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq two years ago.)

Interracial couple survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow

bedenbaugh house

A 155-year-old structure located in rural South Carolina embodies the conflicted racial legacy evident in South Carolina and possibly other parts of the South, if not the nation.

The Jacob Bedenbaugh House, built around 1860, isn’t noteworthy for its age or its architectural style. Described as a detached two-story traditional “I” house with a modified L-shaped plan, the dwelling, in serious need of restoration, is located along a country highway about five miles east of Prosperity, SC.

What prompted the US Department of the Interior to the place the home on the National Register of Historic Places is the individuals who lived in the structure during its first 55-75 years.

Jacob Belton Bedenbaugh was a white South Carolinian born in 1833. His common-law wife Sarah Bedenbaugh, described as mulatto, was initially a slave purchased by Jacob. Sometime between 1860 and 1864, the two entered into a relationship.

Despite the increasing difficulties inherent with pursuing an interracial relationship in the Deep South in the years following the Civil War – not that it was a walk in the park during or before – the Bedenbaughs remained together in the house as a couple from at least 1864 until Jacob’s death in 1915 and had eight children.

But going against prevailing social mores didn’t come without a price. In July 1890, they were indicted and tried for “fornication” due to the fact that they living together. Being an interracial couple undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prosecute.

It’s unclear from a search of the Internet what the outcome of the case was, but one should bear in mind that South Carolina’s political climate was changing rapidly in 1890 as the Conservatives who had come to power in 1877 following the end of Reconstruction were about to be turned out of office by populist Ben Tillman, who was elected later that year, and his supporters.

Tillman, a virulent racist, was a leading force behind the state’s 1895 constitution, which solidified Jim Crowism in the state and, among other things, prohibited interracial marriage.

Legally, the couple could have married during the war, Reconstruction and immediate-post Reconstruction period, provided they had been able to find a minister willing to perform the service, but the Tillman Constitution forever barred Jacob and Sarah Bedenbaugh from being wedded.

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More proof the past isn’t always as tidy as we think it is

wade-hampton-statue

Another example of South Carolina’s counterintuitive past revealed itself recently, in a cemetery in the middle of the state.

Buried in the graveyard of Flint Hill Baptist Church, a black church located in northwestern Newberry County, are the remains of Richard “Dick” Roberts.

Roberts, who was born March 15, 1833, and died March 7, 1906, has a rather unusual inscription on his tombstone: “During the troublous years of reconstruction he was true to the people among whom he was born, and with whom he was reared.”

A March 9, 1906, story in the Newberry (SC) Observer provided some insight.

“Dick Roberts, colored, was known in his day as a ‘Hampton democrat.’ In fact he voted with democrats all the time, and wore the ‘red shirt’ in the famous campaign of 1876. He was one of the very few negroes who sided with their white neighbors in politics. Dick dropped dead at his home on the Duncan place in Cromer Township on Wednesday. He was about 65 years old.”

The Red Shirts are relatively little known outside South Carolina, but they were supporters of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton during his run for governor in 1876. Hampton’s election that year brought an end to eight years of Republican rule in South Carolina and the subsequent withdrawal of Federal occupation troops.

A week after Roberts’ death the Observer followed up:

“Dick Roberts, colored, of Number 4 Township, who was a democrat all the dark days of reconstruction and to the day of his death, voting always with his white neighbors, died recently, as was mentioned in The Observer at the time. Remembering his loyalty and fidelity and appreciating his faithful services and the correctness of his life, and feeling that some recognition should be made of these, his white friends have decided to pay his funeral expense and to erect a simple and suitable monument at his grave. A liberal subscription is being raised for this purpose. Sheriff Buford has a list at his office and Mr. C.H. Shannon also has one.”

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Geneticists say they’re closer to solving mystery of the Basques

freedom to choose the basque language

To say that the Basque are enigmatic is a bit of an understatement.

Theirs is the only Western European tongue that does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Written Basque features an extraordinary number of x’s and relatively few vowels.

There is a legend that says the Devil tried to learn Basque by listening behind the door of a Basque farmhouse. After seven years, he mastered but two words: “Yes, Ma’am.”

In addition to the language, the genetic makeup of the Basque has also puzzled researchers.

Now, it appears a team of geneticists have made progress in solving the mystery behind the Basques, who reside in northern Spain and southern France.

A study in PNAS journal suggests they descended from early farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming isolated for as much as five millennia, according to the BBC.

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