Articles of Interest

The Murder Trial of John Gordon

by Ken Dooley

When I was about five years old, my grandmother used to sing a little ditty about "poor Johnny Gordon." I remember asking my mother about Johnny Gordon and she simply told me he was a young Irishman who was punished for a crime he did not commit. She did not tell me that he was the last person hanged in the state of Rhode Island.

My Uncle, Leo Kenneally, a reporter for the Providence Journal, filled me in on those details when I was a little older. The real champion for John Gordon was my sister Eileen. No one could be more persistent about a good cause than Eileen. At the age of 18, she was fired as a parlor maid for a wealthy family on Bellevue Avenue, Newport, because she was forming the servants into a union.

I wrote a successful book about Red Auerbach, legendary coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics. Congratulatory messages from friends across the country were interrupted by an irate call from Eileen. "Why are you writing a book about sports heroes while John Gordon lies in his grave as a convicted murderer?" she demanded.

After living in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, I returned to Rhode Island in 2009. I spent some time with an old classmate and friend, Pat Conley, the historian laureate for Rhode Island.

Through Pat, I met Scott Molloy, a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. If I had any doubts about the guilt of John Gordon, they disappeared after I read Scott's article about the final minutes of John Gordon.

I wrote the play, "The Murder Trial of John Gordon" and convinced Piyush Patel, owner of the Park Theatre, to produce it. The theatre is located about two miles from the scene of the murder for which John Gordon was executed, The play ran for 21 times in January and February of 2011.

One evening at the theatre, Rhode Island State Representative Peter Martin asked me if I really thought Gordon was innocent. I replied "Yes but what do you think we can do about it?" The representative soon introduced a resolution asking then Gov. Lincoln Chafee to consider a pardon. The the rest is history.

Eileen died in 2003, seven years before the play opened. On the day that Gov. Chafee signed the pardon, I went to Eileen's grave and simply said, "We did it."