Man on the Gallows

Portland’s Nathaniel Gordon was the only person in the United States to be executed for slave trading.

By Ron Soodalter
Image: Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Early in 1860, a young sea captain from Portland sailed south to Havana, Cuba, leaving behind a two-year-old son and a pretty young wife. He was short and muscular, with a ruddy complexion, a dark beard, and small piercing eyes, and he was the fourth in as many generations to bear the name Nathaniel Gordon. His demeanor reflected a quiet intensity and a confidence found in one used to giving orders. Gordon was a slave trader, and upon arriving in Cuba, the thirty-four-year-old skipper would take command of a full-rigged ship and provision her for a slaving voyage to the Congo River, on the west coast of Africa. It was his fourth such voyage, and it would prove his last. His ship would be seized at sea by a naval cruiser, and after two trials in federal court in New York City, this Maine captain would find himself facing the very real possibility of being the first American to be executed for the crime of slave trading.

Nathaniel Gordon’s early life is sketchy; large numbers of personal records were destroyed in major fires in Portland, in 1866 and 1908. According to an entry in the family Bible, Gordon was born on February 6, 1826. His father was a merchant captain, and his mother would sometimes accompany her husband on board ship. His grandfather had died on the island of St. Bartholomew, where his ship had been blown in a storm. Gordon’s earliest American ancestor had arrived at Plymouth nine generations earlier, in 1621, aboard the Fortune. The Gordon men had always earned their living from the sea; although Nathaniel’s method was both unsavory and illegal, it could be said that he was following in his father’s footsteps.

When Nathaniel was twelve years old, his father was arrested for attempting to smuggle a slave into the country. He was “held to bail in $5,000,” and if convicted, he could have been sentenced under the Piracy Act of 1820, which stated that anyone who “seized a Negro or mulatto . . . shall be adjudged a pirate . . . shall suffer death.” There is no record of how the case was resolved, but it is safe to say that Captain Gordon never suffered the full weight of the law. Ironically, it was this same Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York that would see Gordon’s son on trial for his own life twenty-three years later.

There was little in the culture or society of Portland to discourage the Gordons — or any other seamen — from pursuing careers as slavers. New England’s sea captains had sailed to Africa for generations in search of native cargoes. And of all the northern states, Maine was known as the least likely to burn with the fires of abolition.

By virtue of its geography, as well as a miniscule African-American population, it was literally the farthest removed from the heat of the slavery issue. In 1840, when Gordon was fourteen years of age, Portland counted only 402 African Americans, out of 15,218 residents; by 1860, the year of his final voyage, the number of residents had grown to 26,342, while the African- American population had dropped to 318. There was a small but fiercely dedicated core of men who kept the anti-slavery issue “before an unappreciative public,” according to newspaper reports, from the early 1830s until the Civil War. Their impact was minimal, however.

Throughout the state, the speeches of such abolitionist luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Austin Willey, and David Thurston were disrupted by mobs throwing eggs and wielding hoses, with the featured speaker exiting ignominiously through the rear door. Maine’s abolitionists were largely involved in fruitless debates with those who favored colonization of the blacks. As the anti-slavery advocates saw it, America’s responsibility lay with freeing blacks, not merely removing them from its shores. In the end, the efforts of the small clusters of abolitionists in Maine failed utterly.

The churches of Portland, and of Maine in general, would not begin to adopt an anti-slavery stance until around 1856. The state’s most famous clergyman was the Reverend John W. Chickering, whose Congregational Church counted the Gordons among its flock. Of all the churches and denominations in Maine, these were the richest and the most politically conservative. Growing up in the city where generations of Gordons had achieved some commercial success and social status, and where racial consciousness was practically non-existent, Nathaniel Gordon developed into an enterprising young man. He earned his captain’s papers at twenty, and only two years later, he delivered a shipload of slaves to Brazil.

Slaving was a horrific way to make a living. Attrition was the inevitable result of any slaving voyage. There would always be deaths; it was just a question of numbers. The deaths were frequent enough, however, that the crewmen of slavers often told of the schools of sharks that followed their ships all the way from Africa to their final destination. It was a staggeringly profitable enterprise, and a single successful trip could easily make the fortunes of investors and captain.

In August of 1860, on his fourth slaving voyage, Nathaniel Gordon sailed his small ship up the Congo River, where he traded 150 hogsheads of whiskey for 897 human beings, half of them children. He packed them tightly into the ship’s hold, and set sail for the auction blocks of Cuba. Just two hours out of the river’s mouth, Gordon’s ship was sighted and captured by a sloop-of-war of the U.S. Navy. Gordon was arrested, and taken to New York City for trial — an irony, considering New York was then, and had been for years, the epicenter of the slave trade in America. It had financed, fitted out, and sent forth more slaving expeditions than any other port city, north or south. The accused slavers who were brought here for trial were merely given a token slap on the wrist, or allowed to leave court as free men. In the forty years since the passage of the capital Piracy Act, not a single slaver had been hanged, and few had been punished at all, due to corrupt officials, pro-slavery judges, bribed juries, and a federal prosecutor who refused to see a man hanged for slave trading.

The month after Gordon’s indictment, however, the nation underwent a national election, and with Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a new prosecutor — E. Delafield Smith — was appointed to New York’s Circuit Court. He entered office resolved to end the slave trade in New York City, and he made Nathaniel Gordon his personal demon. It would take two trials — the first ended in a hung jury, almost certainly due to bribery — but Smith won his conviction.

The judge sentenced Gordon to hang on February 7, 1862. At this point, the only possibility of clemency lay in a direct appeal to the president. Lincoln, though less than a year into his term, was widely known for his fine sense of mercy, and his frequent use of the pardoning power. In addition to the attorney’s appeal, petitions containing thousands of names came to Lincoln’s desk beseeching him to spare Gordon’s life. Two of the largest arrived from Gordon’s home city of Portland, listing a combined total of 18,000 names: “While we condemn the crimes for which he stands convicted,” one of the petitions begins, “as we do all other crimes of a heinous character, we cannot forbear craving from you Executive clemency. We do not presume to ask for an unconditional pardon, but we do humbly pray that Captain Gordon’s sentence may be commuted to imprisonment, even though your Excellency should make it during his life — and we do this in behalf of a young and devoted Wife and infant Son, for a most excellent and highly respectable Mother, for fond Sisters, and an extensive circle of the most respectable connections.”

The second group of Portland petitioners, also acknowledging the “justice of the proceedings,” accounted themselves “deeply moved by a painful sympathy for the aged and venerated mother of the convict, for his wife and only child, and for his other near relatives. . . . ” Writing several years after the execution, Robert Murray, the U.S. Marshal assigned to the Gordon case, was correct in stating, “Many who considered that Gordon fully deserved his impending fate could not help but sympathize with his unfortunate wife and child.”

At one point, Lincoln received a letter from John W. Chickering, the famed and respected pastor of Portland’s High Street Congregational Church, who had known Gordon all his life and had been his parents’ pastor. Nathaniel, he wrote, “was once a boy in my Sunday School, I cannot do less than present his broken hearted mother before you as one among the many aspects of this dreadful case. He is the only son of his mother & she a widow, respectable & estimable. Her distress can be (partly) imagined.” He urged Lincoln to let the mother’s plight “have its due weight in deciding the question between justice and mercy. . . . ”

Gordon’s wife, Elizabeth, had moved to New York with her small son shortly after her husband’s arrest to be close to Nathaniel. At one point, Rhoda White, the wife of a New York judge and strong Lincoln supporter, traveled to the White House, bringing Elizabeth and Gordon’s aged mother with her; the president refused to see them. They were, however, given an audience with Mary Lincoln, to whom Elizabeth presented a poem of her own composition. It begins,
“Madam,
Within your power it lies to save
My husband from an early grave
And rescue from a life of shame
The wife and child who bear his name.”

Touched by Elizabeth Gordon’s plight, Mary attempted to discuss a commutation with her husband. As Marshal Murray later recalled, “The President . . . would not allow his wife to broach the subject, and poor Mrs. Gordon returned [home] heartbroken and disconsolate.” Merciful in most cases, this time Lincoln held firm; there would be no mercy for a man who made his living through the sale of human beings.

“I think,” the president wrote, “I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.”

Apparently, Maine was as divided on the question of Gordon’s execution as was the rest of the North. Certain factions in Maine continued to press for mercy. In January — just weeks before Gordon was to die — the New York Times reported, “a strong and well-concerted effort is making to procure from President Lincoln a pardon for Gordon, the convicted slave-trader. The movement is headed by the Honorable George Evans, at one time a United States Senator from Maine. . . . We are . . . to believe that the appeal is exclusively to mercy, founded doubtless upon the youth of the condemned, the grief of his family and friends, the gravity of his punishment. To such appeals the President cannot be insensible.”

Not all fellow Mainers were in sympathy with the condemned slaver, as an editorial from Biddeford’s Union & Journal, printed on February 21, 1862, the day of Gordon’s execution, indicates: “It is said that this unhappy wretch has hosts of friends who are . . . turning heaven and earth, to effect his pardon. Whether the President will bow before the blast which is being raised in his behalf, time will tell. Upon his determination . . . hang vast results. Our own opinion is, that if capital punishment is justifiable in any case, it is in the case of the slave trader, and if Gordon expiates his . . . offense against heaven and humanity upon the gallows, no one save his guilty companions and sympathizers will complain.”

Meanwhile, the president finally did grant Gordon a reprieve — of two weeks. The condemned, Lincoln wrote, had been misled by his counsel and friends into believing his life would be spared. Therefore, to allow him time to make his peace with God, and to prepare himself for “the awful change which awaits you,” the president pushed back the date of Gordon’s execution. The slaver attempted to thwart Lincoln’s wishes, taking a dose of strychnine the night before his scheduled hanging. Three doctors worked through the night to revive him enough to face the gallows.

On a bright, brisk day in late February 1862, with four hundred soldiers, reporters, and observers in attendance, Nathaniel Gordon was hanged in the courtyard of the Tombs, New York City’s prison. On the gallows, he rambled on with “considerable animation” about how E. Delafield Smith had misled him into believing he’d be spared. He also implored his friends to take care of his wife and child. “I should die happy if I knew that they were provided for,” he said.

Gordon was, and would remain, the only person in the history of the United States to be executed for the crime of slave trading. Most newspapers across the North — and in parts of the South — reported the execution in a straightforward manner, without editorializing. The Maine papers were no exception, reporting that his pale complexion and weak knees on the gallows were likely caused by the doctors’ attempts to keep him alive. “The physicians had poured down such quantities of stimulants — whiskey and brandy — that he may be said to have died drunk,” reported the Portland Advertiser.

Elizabeth Gordon chose to remain in New York, where she eventually remarried. Interestingly, her and Nathaniel’s son — their only child — eventually made his way back to Portland, living only a mile from his former family home. He earned his living as a hard-hat marine diver; an 1890 newspaper article described his business as “lucrative,” and he was considered “the city’s most noted submarine diver.” In his later years, he owned a grocery store. Married twice, he was the father of one child, and the grandfather of two. He never again left Portland, and died there in 1922.

His son — the slaver’s grandson — was the sixth and last Gordon to share the name Nathaniel. His friends knew him as Ned, and he was reputedly a highly intelligent and appealing man with a lively sense of humor, and was well liked within the community. Ned Gordon served as managing editor of Maine’s three Gannett newspapers from 1927 till 1945, and died in 1948.

Nathaniel Gordon’s presence is still strongly felt in Maine to this day. There is a large number of living Gordon relations to justify an annual clan gathering. To some, the slaver represents an exciting episode from the family past, a revenant with which to frighten children. “He was always the skeleton in the Gordon family closet,” says his great-great granddaughter, who prefers not to be identified. “We all knew about him, and when we were kids, we used to joke, ‘Behave, or Captain Gordon will get you!’ ” To others, he is the dark presence in the Gordon history, something they will neither acknowledge nor discuss. And to many, he was simply the slave trader from Maine who received just punishment for a truly despicable offense.

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