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The Murder of Amasa Sprague

On a cold and snowy New Year’s Eve in 1843, Amasa Sprague finished a large dinner in his Cranston, R.I., mansion and took a walk. He was the owner of a large calico-dyeing mill, a stout and powerful man whose brother was a U.S. senator.

Sprague was set upon by at least two men. A bullet struck his right forearm. A blunt instrument smashed into the left side of his skull, then the right.

Amasa Sprague struggled violently against his attackers to no avail.

Amasa Sptrague

Amasa Sptrague

A man who was probably innocent was tried and executed for the murder of the mill owner. It was a case of bigotry and class warfare against Irish Catholics rather than one based on evidence. His death – many considered it a legal lynching -- exacerbated tensions between Rhode Island’s Yankee and immigrant communities.

Anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice was rampant. The animosity was mutual. The Irish immigrants who worked at the Sprague mill lived in Sprague housing and shopped at the Sprague store.

Grisly Discovery

Sprague’s servant, Michael Costello, was walking home when he found Sprague’s bloody body spread-eagled in the snow. Costello raised an alarm at a nearby house and brought a group of men back to the body.

Sprague’s face was so mangled he wasn’t recognized until a doctor identified him. A jury was empaneled on the spot and delivered a verdict of murder by a person or persons unknown.

Sprague’s body was brought back to the mansion, where his wife and four children no doubt viewed his body laid out in the front parlor.

The Suspects

Suspicion immediately fell on Nicholas Gordon, who owned a tavern frequented by Sprague’s millworkers. Gordon’s tavern, attached to his home, was located in the Knightsville section of Cranston, 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. Gordon and Sprague had fought publicly.

AWSpragueSprague 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!”

Some thought the murder was political. Thomas Dorr had been arrested two months earlier for setting up a rival government in Rhode Island that would expand the vote to all adult white men. At the time, only white, propertied men -- about a third of adult male population – could vote. The Irish strongly supported the Dorr Rebellion.

Dorr’s downfall had been orchestrated by Sprague, his brother William and their brother-in-law Emanuel Rice. Could supporters of Thomas Dorr have assassinated Amasa Sprague?

Still others thought Sprague’s brother William committed the murder. The two disagreed about the family business. William wanted to expand the company beyond Rhode Island, while Amasa was content to manage the business at its current size and profitability. Could he have hired hit men to take out his brother?

John Gordon took the fall for the murder.

'It is you, William...'

William Sprague

William Sprague

He had recently arrived from Ireland with his brother William. Their older brother Nicholas had paid for their passage, and John was living with him.

Sen. William Sprague resigned his position to supervise the investigation into the murder – in other words, to hunt down Nicholas Gordon.

Nicholas Gordon was soon arrested, and so were his younger brothers, John and William, because it was assumed that at least two people murdered Amasa Sprague. And everyone knew the Irish always stick together.

The Gordons' dog was arrested as well because he could have bitten Amasa Sprague about the neck. A defense attorney described the dog as toothless and old.

William and John were tried first. The Irish community rallied behind them, raising funds for their defense. Their lawyer was a strong supporter of Thomas Dorr; the prosecution opposed him.

The judge told the jury to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses. William was found not guilty; John was found guilty.

After his sentence was announced, John said, to William, “It is you, William, that have hung me.”

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.

The Sprague Mansion

The Sprague Mansion

Nicholas was tried later. He had an alibi, and the witnesses who convicted his brother were suddenly not so sure 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. His last words were, “I hope all good Christians will pray for me.”

Many believed he was innocent and railroaded by the courts. More than a thousand Irish people 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 2011, Gov. Lincoln Chafee pardoned John Gordon.

The Cranston Historical Society is now headquartered in the Amasa Sprague mansion. Some believe it is haunted.

9 comments

  1. Carol DeFeciani

    Interesting article but is the name Sprague or Stone?

  2. Cheryl Ann Lawrence Gouthro

    How come we’re not out rioting/protesting

  3. David Ruddeforth

    look up the Trial of Haligan and Daley here in Northampton Mass in 1806-Simaler story

  4. Sheil Tommy

    Exonerated….150 years later….just in time!

  5. Wow, what an interesting article to stumble upon. Amasa Sprague is in my direct family line but I never knew anything but his name before.

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