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.)

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Connecticut determined to pluck every feather from golden goose

Connecticut_State_Capitol,_Hartford

If one wanted to chart a course for steering a state onto the shoals, look no further than Connecticut.

Twenty-five years ago, the Nutmeg State had no state income tax and served as tax refuge for many New York City workers.

Those days are long gone; last week the Connecticut legislature again raised state income tax rates, with the top marginal rate set to rise to 6.99 percent.

Of course, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised during his re-election campaign last year that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s the same thing he said in 2010, a year before he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike.

The thing is, it’s not like Connecticut is growing like gangbusters and can afford to bleed its citizens dry.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

The Journal added that Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of state residents would migrate if they could.

If all of the above weren’t bad enough, lawmakers also made permanent a 20 percent surtax on Connecticut-based companies’ annual tax liability – a tax on a tax – which would be figured on Connecticut companies’ world-wide income, rather than what they earn in the state, according to the Journal.

Consider some of the corporations headquartered in Connecticut: Aetna, Cigna, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Praxair and Xerox.

Why would any of the above stay in Connecticut when faced with this kind of competitive disadvantage?

No doubt economic development officials in low-tax states such as Texas and Florida are giddy with anticipation at getting a shot at landing the likes of a GE or Pratt & Whitney.

“The high marginal rates are bad enough, but it is an astonishing overreach to tax corporations headquartered in your state based on their worldwide income,” according to the Coyote Blog. “This leads to a huge double taxation problem for any company dumb enough to stay.”

(Top: Connecticut Statehouse, Hartford, Conn.)

Providence church eyed as site for slavery museum

cathedral of st. john

Providence’s Cathedral of St. John may be shuttered, but out front of the 200-year-old structure is a church billboard with block letters that read, “GOD IS NOT DONE WITH US YET.”

Indeed, it appears the church may take on a second life as means to shed light on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role that all early US states – North and South – played in perpetuating slavery.

The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island wants to use part of the Cathedral of St. John for a museum that would examine the state’s role in the slave trade, both those who profited from it and those who opposed it. Churchgoers and clergymen were on both sides.

“In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Rhode Islanders backed 1,000 trips between Africa and the Americas,” according to the Providence Bulletin. “Newport, Bristol and Providence were among the busiest slave trade ports in North America.”

The museum would be the only one in the nation centered on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would also focus on the Episcopal Church’s role in that trade’s history and the often-overlooked legacy of slavery in northern states.

Ironically, the Cathedral of St. John is just a few hundred feet from both the site identified as where Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636 and the location of Williams’ home. Williams, a proponent of religious freedom, has been called the New World’s first abolitionist.

Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, played a very large role in slavery.

A Brown University report issued in 2006 found that about 60 percent of all slave-trading voyages launched from North America came from the state, more than 1,000 in all. Some 80 of those came from a single family, the DeWolfs of Bristol, RI.

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‘Gettysburg Gun’ represents rare bit of Rhode Island, US history

gettysburg gun

Given that much of the War Between the States was fought below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s hardly surprising that much of the history associated with the conflict is found in the Southern US, whether on battlefields or in museums.

Still, there are many unique war-related attractions located in the north. One such item is the so-called Gettysburg Gun, located in the Rhode Island Statehouse.

The 12-pound Napoleon was last fired on July 3, 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, by Battery B, 1st Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery.

The battery, which began the battle with six guns but was down to four by the third day of action, was pounded by Confederate artillery in the fighting that preceded Pickett’s Charge.

During a fierce cannonade one of the 12-pound Napoleons, the cannon which would become known as the Gettysburg Gun, was struck by a Confederate shell, killing two of the Rhode Island gunners.

Sgt. John H. Rhodes of Battery B, 1st Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery described the incident in an 1892 monograph on The Gettysburg Gun:

No. 1, William Jones, had stepped to his place between the muzzle of the piece and wheel, right side, and had swabbed the gun and reversed sponge staff, which is also the rammer, and was waiting for the charge to be inserted by No. 2. Alfred G. Gardner, No. 2, had stepped to his place between the muzzle of the piece and wheel, left side, facing inward to the rear, taking the ammunition from No. 5 over the wheel. He turned slightly to the left, and was in the act of inserting the charge into the piece when a shell from one of the enemy’s guns, struck the face of the muzzle, left side of the bore and exploded. William Jones was killed instantly by being struck on the left side of his head by a fragment of the shell, which cut the top completely off. He fell with his head toward the enemy, and the sponge staff was thrown forward beyond him two or three yards.

Alfred G. Gardner was struck in the left shoulder, almost tearing his arm from his body. He lived a few minutes and died shouting, ‘Glory to God! I am happy! Hallelujah!’ his sergeant and friend bending over him to receive his dying request.

The sergeant of the piece, Albert A. Straight, and the remaining cannoneers tried to load the piece, and placing a charge in the muzzle of the gun. They found it impossible to ram it home. Again and again they tried to drive home the charge which proved so obstinate, but their efforts were futile. The depression on the muzzle was so great that the charge could not be forced in, and the attempt was abandoned, and as the piece cooled off the shot became firmly fixed in the bore of the gun.

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Life on the mean streets of Westerly, R.I.

westerly police department

Urban types tend to stereotype small towns as being boring. No doubt some are but others appear to be hotbeds of interesting activity.

Take Westerly, Rhode Island. The 345-year-old community, located near the border with Connecticut, would appear be positively chock full o’ action.

Earlier this month, for example, one Darrel J. Northup, a Westerly resident, was arraigned yet again in Washington (R.I.) County Superior Court, this time on charges he intentionally rammed his mother’s Kia Optima into a “perceived romantic rival” in Westerly, according to the local newspaper.

Northup, 24, is charged with “felony assault with a dangerous weapon and failure to stop at an accident resulting in personal injury or death” related to the incident, which took place in January, the Westerly Sun reported.

Northup has been behind bars since then after it was learned that he had violated probation related to previous felony charges, including the 2012 assault of a funeral director.

In his latest brush with the law, according to police, Northup ran down William E. Cossia as he left Westerly’s delightfully named drinking and dining establishment The Brazen Hen (which describes itself as an “upscale Irish pub”), where the victim and others employed by Midway Pizza, including Northup’s ex-girlfriend, had gathered for a belated company holiday party.

Witnesses told police Northup drove his mother’s 2011 Kia Optima at Cossia as he stepped off the sidewalk. Cossia was thrown into the air, hit the hood of the car and fell to the ground, according to the Sun.

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Does plan to divide California have a chance?

SONY DSC

California is no stranger to partition movements. The first plan to divide the state, the most populous in the US and No. 3 in overall size, was initiated in 1850, which, ironically, also happened to be the same year it joined the Union.

But today, with nearly 40 million residents spread over more than 163,000 square miles – you could fit nearly 135 states the size of Rhode Island inside California – the movement to divide the Golden State appears to gaining steam.

Among plans being put forward is one that would split it into six individual states, including one that would be called Silicon Valley and would encompass the high-tech region around the San Francisco Bay Area, and another that would be known as West California and include the Los Angeles area.

“No other state contains within it such contradictory interests, cultures, economic and political geography,” according to Keith Naughton at PublicCEO, a website that covers state and local California issues. “It has become impossible to even remotely reconcile the array of opposing forces. The only way to get anything done is to shove laws and regulations down a lot of unwilling throats.”

One of the drivers behind the six-state initiative is venture capitalist Tim Draper.

With tens of millions of people spread over an area 250 miles wide and 770 miles long, Draper believes that a single monolithic California has become ungovernable.

The state’s population is more than six times as large as the average of the other 49 states, and too many Californians feel estranged from a state government in Sacramento that doesn’t understand them or reflect their interests, according to Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe.

“The citizens of the whole state would be better served by six smaller states governments while preserving the historical boundaries of the various counties, cities and towns,” according to the Six Californias Proposal.

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Special code used by Roger Williams broken

Roger_Williams_and_Narragansetts

Spurred by the work of Brown University students, a shorthand code used by 17th century religious nonconformist Roger Williams has finally been unraveled.

The coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university’s John Carter Brown Library. The nearly 250-page volume, “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians,” was donated in the 1800s and included a handwritten note identifying Williams as the notes’ author, according to The Associated Press.

The book’s margins are filled with clusters of curious foreign characters – a mysterious shorthand used by Williams, Rhode Island’s founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state.

The code went undeciphered for centuries.

Among topics Williams touched on in his shorthand: one of the major theological issues of the day: infant baptism, said senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, the undergraduate student who played a key role in unlocking the mystery.

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