Posts filed under 'Rhode Island'

1774: Daniel Wilson

1 comment April 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1774, Daniel Wilson was hanged before a throng of 12,000 in Providence, Rhode Island, for rape.

A journeyman carpenter turned small-time New England crook, Wilson had a gift for escape and busted out of the Providence jail three times — never retaining his liberty long enough to get clear of the gallows’ shadow. Our friends at the wonderful Early American Crime blog cover the man’s career here … absent the rape, whose particulars seem to have escaped the documentary trail and which Wilson also delicately elides in his hang-day broadsheet.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Rape,Rhode Island,USA

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1715: Jeremiah Meacham, “mightily distressed”

Add comment April 12th, 2018 Headsman

Jeremiah Meacham was hanged in Rhode Island on this date in 1715 for a double murder committed during a disturbing psychotic break.

In the execution sermon below by Newport Rev. Nathaniel Clap, he attributes what we would today take as clear mental health problems to the man’s disinterest in attending church — for, “while, he was generally esteemed exemplarily exact in his Dealings, and punctual to his Promises, about his Worldy affairs … he seldom or never seemed altogether free from some terrible reflections upon his Conscience, for his Apostasy from God. And it hath been thought that his Convictions about some Concerns of his Soul, mixed with some vexations about his Affairs in the World, brought him into a grievous hurry, which by degrees boil’d up into a sort of a raging fury: And keeping out of the way of suitable directions for his Soul, his troubles of mind grew so intolerable, that he told some, that he was weary of his life.”

Things grew so uncomfortable with him, that he loved not Home; he thought that all his Neighbours looked strangely upon him; he pretended that he feared some body designed mischief against him, and that he should be slain. Every day seemed unto him as if it would be the last day of his life: And he asked of others, if they knew of no contrivance against him.

The Day before he committed his Murders, he appeared mightily distressed, walking about in a very great agony, a great part of that day, chusing to be at the Neighborbours. But on the said day of his Murders (22 d., 1 m.) he got and sat upon his House, with a Penknife in his hand, for several hours, if discoursing sometimes with those that came near him, seeming afraid some or other would hurt him; Others feared more that he would hurt himself; none seemed much to fear that he intended any hurt to any body else. And he declar’d, that he would hurt neither Man, Woman nor Child, if they would let him alone.

After he came down from his House top into his Chamber, he kept there most part of the Afternoon of that day, until after Sun set; and then his Wife, and her Sister, upon his invitation, going up to him, urging of him to go down with them, or striving with him to keep him from hurting of himself; it seems that then he struck his Wife in her throat with his Pen-knife: and then struck her and her Sister down with an Ax (that he had carried up, and he had also Charged his Gun; but made no use of that, in his Murders) how many blows he gave them is not known: But the dreadful marks of several remained on their miserably mangled Bodies.

When he had murdered them, he stood watchfully upon his Guard, with his Ax in hand, threatning all that offered to come up Stairs; knock’d one man down with his bloody Ax. Others endeavouring to apprehend him, by breaking up the Chamber Floor under him, & the Roof over him; he laboured to defend himself, as if against the worst Enemies. And when they carried some Fire, flaming to light their way before them, he snatch’d away the Fire, and laid it among some combustible matter, and got ready more, and quickly kindled a great Fire in the midst of the Chamber, as if he chose rather to Burn himself alive, and the dead Bodies with him than to be taken …

At some time or other, in these hurries it seems, he had cut his own throat; but fearing that death would not come soon enough that way, and finding that he could not bear burning to death; it was thought, he was willing to try, if he could dash himself to pieces, by throwing himself out at the Window; by which he also hurt his head, if no other part of his Body; but his Wounds were near healed, before he came to Dye.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Rhode Island,USA

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1791: Thomas Mount of the Flash Company

Add comment May 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1791, two Rhode Island thiefs named Thomas Mount and James Williams were publicly hanged in Little Rest (present-day Kingston).

A lifelong thief who plundered up and down the Atlantic coast and had the floggings to show for it, Thomas Mount told all about it — and not only his picaresque career but also, once he was knocked down upon the crap and ready to be topped on his way to the crimson ken, I say also the organization and underworld cant of his gang, the Flash Company.

Swells and fine blowens, kick off your crabs and leg-bags, grab a suck, and viddy (okay, that one’s from A Clockwork Orange) … but not here. Friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) has Thomas mounted in a fascinating three-part series on his site, Early American Crime:

Alternatively, peruse the source material, here:

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Rhode Island,Theft,USA

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1845: John Gordon, the last hanged in Rhode Island

Add comment February 14th, 2012 Headsman

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a measure posthumously pardoning John Gordon — who on February 14, 1845 was the last man executed in that state.

Gordon’s hanging, for the murder of a prominent industrialist who had bad blood with Gordon’s brother, was long notorious in Rhode Island as one secured on highly uncertain evidence in an atmosphere of anti-Irish prejudice.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome on this occasion University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy, author of Irish Titan, Irish Toilers and a major advocate of the Gordon pardon.

ET: Can you set the scene — what’s going on in Rhode Island at this time, and what are the tensions surrounding Irish immigrants?

SM: Rhode Island was the site of the first factory in America in the 1790s, called Slater Mill. It really changed the face of Rhode Island and eventually the rest of the US.

In Rhode Island, curiously, as more and more people left the farms to work on the mills, they had an unusual requirement that really didn’t make any difference years earlier: in order to vote, you had to have so much land. (Specifically, $134 worth of land.)

By 1840, not only were the usual suspects not able to vote — women, people of color, Native Americans — 60% of native-born white male Rhode Islanders were also unable to vote. It meant that just a handful of people ruled the state, compared to the time of the American Revolution when just about every white male could vote. And immigrants in particular — and in those days, that was the Irish — were basically precluded from voting. You had a residency requirement, a property qualification. It made Rhode Island almost unique in New England, almost like a southern state.

A group of reformers came to the forefront, a guy named Thomas Wilson Dorr, a blueblood aristocrat, Harvard-educated, one of the best legal minds of the country. He threw his lot in with the reformers to try to get people the right to vote. It really polarized the state in 1842.

The Irish were sympathetic, but Irish priests tried to keep them out of it because they wanted to acclimate. But because a lot of the animosity toward people having the right to vote was directed at Irish immigrants. People blamed the Irish even though the Irish didn’t get particularly involved in the Dorr War.

Often times they got blamed for everything whether they did it or not. And of course we face the same situation with immigrants today.

What was the crime and how did the Gordons come to be the focus of the prosecution?

In 1843, a Yankee industrialist out in Cranston by the name of Amasa Sprague was found on New Year’s Eve 1843 bludgeoned to death in what today we might call a hate crime. He had a gold watch still on him, he had money in his poket, and he had been beaten to death.

Amasa Sprague was a very influential guy. His older brother who helped run the mill with him and was the US Senator from Rhode Island had the local city council lift the liquor license from the Gordon family’s business, which for all intents and purposes ended their livelihood. This was Nicholas Gordon’s shop: John Gordon had only just crossed over from Ireland.

When Sprague was found dead about six months after the license was lost, they focused on the Gordon family. The authorities formed a posse and they went after this Irish family.

Book CoverHow did anti-Irish sentiment manifest itself at trial?

The juries in all three trials had no Catholics and no Irish that I’m aware of. There was a lot of religious and socioeconomic animosity.

At the time, the Supreme Court of the state would sit in on the whole trial just because it was a capital trial, and the trial judge would say in the transcript — which is still available (pdf) — he basically says to the jury, if you find testimony that contradicts itself between a Yankee and an Irish witness, you should give the Yankee testimony more credence.

Doesn’t the fact that John Gordon’s brothers were not convicted militate against the notion of overwhelming anti-Irish prejudice?

You can’t go overboard on these things. The juries — all three of them — they found one Gordon innocent and in the other case they had a hung jury. I don’t want to say they were completely prejudiced, because they weren’t, but almost everything else in Rhode Island at that time was stacked up against them.

The earlier Irish who came in the 1820s and 1830s were a little bit better off, a little bit better-educated [compared to later Irish immigrants after the potato famine]. The animus against the Irish was still intense; the Irish were seen as criminal, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant. The Protestant majority at the time, mostly of English heritage, kind of brought that over with them even though they had been there for a long time.

So how did the legal proceedings play out?

They put two of the recently immigrated brothers up for conspiracy for murder, but not the oldest brother. So John Gordon and his brother William go on trial first.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for John Gordon, who didn’t have much of an alibi, but a not guilty verdict for William, who did have an alibi. So you’ve got a conspiracy conviction with only one conviction.

Then they put Nicholas Gordon on trial, and the jury comes back deadlocked. His second trial is not going to be until the spring of 1845. In the interim, his brother John was to be hanged, Valentine‘s Day 1845 — rather than wait to see what happened at Nicholas Gordon’s trial and whether there even is a conspiracy.

The defense petitions the governor and the general assembly to hold off the execution until after the trial of the oldest brother. The governor washes his hands of it, and the general assembly votes very narrowly to go ahead with the execution.

So they hang him, and what’s interesting in that part of it is an itinerant, traveling Catholic priest — a guy named Father John Brady — hears John Gordon’s last confession.

Well, they invite the elite of providence inside the prison to watch the hanging. (There’s about 1,000 Irish outside the prison in support of John Gordon.) When they put the noose around his neck, the priest is with him, and the priest berates the elites and authorities, and he says, John, you are going before a just God who has seen way too many of your countrymen.

I always argue in my writings that this guy, he’s an immigrant, he’s uneducated, he’s just been in America for a few months. I just can’t believe that this guy would ever lie to the priest hearing his last confession, and the priest would never berate the elites unless he’d heard a confession of innocence.

After John Gordon’s hanging, his brother Nicholas goes on trial as planned, and they come back with another hung jury — this time, with a majority voting him as innocent. They were going to try him again except about 18 months later, Nicholas dies of natural causes.

I’ve seen a lot of people describe growing up hearing unambiguously that this was a wrongful execution. Is that how it was perceived right from the start? How universal was/is that perception?

There was such a collective feeling of guilt about this that in 1854, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty and John Gordon was the last person ever executed there.

There’s one flaw in the law. This was added late in the 20th century, that anyone convicted of killing a prison guard during an escape could still be killed. And there was an incident, I remember it as a kid maybe 30 years ago, but they still didn’t condemn even that person to death. But Rhode Island has never changed that.

None of us who ever testified ever said categorically that John Gordon was innocent, because we just can’t prove that. But we did say that he never got a fair trial, just like Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

We did in our research was come up with two or three suspects who had much better reason to assassinate Sprague. But there were no witnesses to the case. It was all circumstantial evidence. I have to say, every time I look at the case — there are some pieces of evidence that would make the Gordons look very guilty. There are other aspects of it that make them look very innocent. If it was in today’s world, the police would interrogate them as people of interest.

It’s not as cut-and-dried as some people make it. All I know is that they got an unfair trial.

Gordon was posthumously pardoned last year. How did that campaign get going, and how receptive were folks in the capitol?

The problem was a lot of people had forgotten the case. I had been writing for a number of years op-ed pieces in the Providence Journal, and mentioned John Gordon from time to time.

But it was an 80-year-old guy named Ken Dooley, and he grew up a couple miles from the murder site near Cranston, and he was a playwright. He came back home and remembered his grandmother singing some little ditty of a song 70 years ago saying something like “Poor Johnny Gordon”, and so he researched it, and he wrote a play.

And they put it on in Cranston, and over the couse of the month several thousand people saw it. A state representative, an Irish guy, saw the play four or five times and then introduced that into the general assembly trying to obtain a posthumous pardon — just to say that the evidence didn’t support the execution.

And Gov. Chaffee, who comes from an ancient Yankee family in Rhode Island, signed the damn thing. It was that play that this guy wrote and we were all amazed that this kind of came out of the blue. We held a lot of events around it — had church services, put up ceremonial headstones. I always tell people that I want this on my headstone: that I had a hand in getting John Gordon pardoned.


There are some excellent resources already available online concerning the Gordon case, including:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rhode Island,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1673: Thomas Cornell, on spectral evidence

4 comments May 23rd, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1673, alleged mother-slayer and arsonist Thomas Cornell was hanged in Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island.

The death of his elderly mother, Rebecca, and the subsequent homicide investigation have got to be one of the strangest murder stories in American colonial history.

The Cornells were a respectable and prosperous Quaker family, the ancestors of the man who founded Cornell University. (Their descendants also included Lizzie Borden of the “forty whacks” fame, but that’s another story.)

Rebecca, a 73-year-old widow, was the legal owner of the family’s hundred-acre spread by Narragansett Bay. Her oldest son, Thomas, and his wife and six children lived there with her, along with one lodger and one male servant, a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash.

Crowded as the house was, Rebecca had the master bedroom all to herself. It was well known that Rebecca and Thomas didn’t get along. For some time, both parties had been complaining bitterly about each other to anyone who would listen. Thomas resented the fact that, at 46, he was still financially dependent on his mother, who had made generous gifts from her late husband’s estate to her other children but not to him. Rebecca, for her part, said Thomas was “a Terror to her” and that she was neglected and had to fetch her own firewood.

None of her complaints were taken seriously until after her mysterious death, which is chronicled in Elaine Forman Crane’s 2002 book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

Rebecca died on the evening of February 8, 1673.

That night, she refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was being served. After the meal was over, her grandson came to her room to check on her and found her charred body lying on the floor by the fireplace, burnt “to a cole.” She was recognizable only by her shoes.

Her death was originally ruled “an unhappie accident.”

It could have been spontaneous human combustion, but a more likely explanation is that embers from the fireplace or from the pipe Rebecca smoked landed on her dress.


An alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.

No one heard her scream, no one smelled smoke, and somehow the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the house. No one seems to have suspected foul play at that time.

Two nights later, however, Rebecca’s younger brother, John Briggs, received a spiritual visitation from his sister as she slept. “See how I was burned with fire,” she said. He inferred that someone had intentionally burned her.

Briggs didn’t report his experience for a week, but when he did his account was taken seriously by the superstitious colonials. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and given a thorough inspection, and this time a wound was found on her upper abdomen. The authorities decided she had been stabbed by something like “the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” No murder weapon was ever produced, however.

Thomas quickly became the prime suspect: he was the last person to see Rebecca alive, and the whole town knew of the enmity between them. After Rebecca’s death, Thomas and his wife Sarah reportedly made some incredibly crass remarks; Sarah said her mother-in-law’s demise was “a wonderfull thing,” and Thomas said that his mother had always liked a good fire, and “God had answered her ends, for now shee had it.”

This hearsay was presented as evidence at Thomas’s trial, along with John Briggs’s dream.

Thomas was convicted and, although many of the townspeople had doubts about the verdict and death sentence, he chose not to appeal. He was hung before a crowd of over one thousand people.

Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother?

Certainly he wasn’t the only one who had the opportunity to do so; the house was full of people that night. In fact, a year after Thomas’s death, the servant Wickopash was tried as an accomplice to the murder. Nothing is known about the case against him, but he was acquitted.

In 1675, Rebecca’s son William tried to make a case against Thomas’s wife for the murder, but he failed to produce any witnesses or evidence against her.

Was this even a murder at all?

The fire, as noted above, could have been accidental; as for the “suspicious wound” the authorities found after they dug up the body, Rebecca could have stabbed herself in her struggles after her dress caught fire, or perhaps those who performed the exhumation saw only what they expected to see.

And there is yet a third possibility: prior to her death, Rebecca told her daughter she had contemplated suicide on several occasions, but her religious beliefs prohibited such action.

One final note: Thomas’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant at the time of his execution and later gave birth to a daughter.

She named the baby Innocent.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Rhode Island,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1676: Joshua Tefft, drawn and quartered in Rhode Island

3 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1676, Puritan colonist Joshua Tefft (or Tifft, or Tift) became perhaps the only person ever to suffer the traitor’s death of hanging and quartering in what is now the United States.

The 30-ish Rhode Island farmer got sucked into King Philip’s War and was captured by colonists apparently fighting for the Narragansett Indians during a the Great Swamp Fight.

Lacking a first-person account from Mr. Tefft, we are left to descry (or project) his purpose. Tefft himself claimed that he had been enslaved by the Indians, but he made this claim in the context of trying to avoid a grisly execution; opposing witnesses said he’d been much more enthusiastic in the fight, raising an evident horror of civilized man gone native.

Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. (Source)

He was one man caught up in a war, so of course he could have been many things. But Tefft invites speculation on racial self-identification on this still-tenuous New World frontier.

Living immediately adjacent to the Narragansett, Tefft was probably on good terms with the natives, something that at least some Anglos had keenly worked after for fifty-plus years. Some sources report (or charge) that he had taken an Indian wife,* and the Narragansett redoubt attacked in the Great Swamp Fight was a fortified encampment full of non-combatant types, hundreds of whom were eventually slaughtered.

And Rhode Island had a long-running border dispute with its Puritan fellow-colonists that intersected their historical differences on religious toleration. (Tefft is also decried as irreligious, though whether that’s literally true or just an extra heaping of opprobrium is anyone’s guess.) Why, after all, should a man not cohabit among the friendly peoples of his wife, and assist them when attacked — for the Narragansett were not at war until they were attacked — by a bunch of Connecticut and Plymouth colony prigs who’d want to shanghai him into their army?

One colonist able to sympathize with the Indians’ situation wrote of them that “perhaps if Englishmen, and good Christians too, had been in their case and under like temptations, possibly they might have done as they did.” Who knows but that some were, and they did.

Our Scouts brought in Prisoner one Tift, a Renegadoe English man, who having received a deserved punishment from our General, deserted our Army, and fled to the Enemy, where had good entertainment, and was again sent out by them with some of their forces; he was shot in the knee by our scouts, and then taken before he could discharge his musket, which was taken from him and found deep charged, and laden with Slugs: He was brought to our army, and tryed by a counsel of war, where he pretended that he was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them compelled to bear Arms in their Service; but this being proved to be false, he was condemned to be hanged and Quartered, which was accordingly done. (Source)

But while some Indian tribes allied with some whites, European identification ultimately proved much too strong to admit any possibility of not banding together against the “savages.” When vengeful Narragansett warriors raided Providence the following spring and torched the house of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Massachusetts in sympathy lifted its 39-year-old exile on the man they’d have hung as a heretic in days gone by.

By then, it had long been over for Joshua Tefft, whose trial preceded execution by only two days. Joshua’s son Peter and other descendants of the Tefft family, however, would be fruitful and multiply.

By the time these New World settlements became the United States a century later, drawing and quartering was still on the books in England. But the New York legislature expressed (pdf) the sense of that realm’s North American offspring that this sentence even for treason was “marked by circumstances of Savage Cruelty, unnecessary for the Purpose of public Justice, and manifestly repugnant to that Spirit of Humanity, which should ever distinguish a free, a civilized, and Christian People.”

* Joshua Tefft’s previous wife, Sara, had died from childbirth a few years before. For Sara, also notable as the owner of what was once thought to be the oldest marked headstone in New England, it was her second husband … the first, Thomas Flounders, was hanged for murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Rhode Island,Soldiers,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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