The Capture and Execution of Slave-Trader Captain Nathaniel Gordon, 1861-62
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
Nathaniel Gordon was born in Portland, Maine, in 1832. When a mere child, Nathaniel began to go to sea, serving as a cabin-boy and gradually advancing until, at the age of 28 years, he became a captain of a small 500-ton vessel named, Erie.
On April 17, 1860, he left Havana, bound for Africa, and among his crew were four sailors named Martin, Green, Alexander and Hetenburg.
As the cargo consisted of 150 barrels of liquor and a great many barrels of pork, beef, bread, and rice, the four sailors above mentioned suspected that the cargo was to be exchanged for African slaves. After a conference, which occurred when they were thirty days at sea, the sailors proceeded in a body to the captain and disclosed their suspicions. Gordon disclaimed any such purpose and after rebuking the sailors, ordered them back to work.
The vessel arrived at the mouth of the Congo River on the west coast of Africa in the latter part of July, 1860, and after disposing of the cargo, proceeded a few miles up the river on August 7.
It was then docked and 897 Africans, consisting of men, women and children, who were being held in bondage, were driven aboard and packed between decks.
With all possible haste the vessel was then navigated down the river and put to sea, bound for Cuba.
The captain of the American war-vessel Michigan, which was in the Congo River at the time, was informed of what had transpired, and he immediately started in pursuit.
On the next day, he overtook the Erie, and boarded the ship. Upon making an inspection of the boat, he found that eighteen of the unfortunates had died from suffocation. Many others were in a precarious condition and none were able to walk.
The crew was placed under arrest and the vessel was towed to Monrovia, where the Africans were taken ashore and given medical attention. The Michigan then brought the Erie and her entire crew to New York.
Gordon was indicted under the Fifth Section of the Act of May 15, 1820, United States Statutes, which provides that : “If any citizen of the United’ States, being of a ship’s crew of any foreign vessel, owned wholly or in part or navigated for any citizen or citizens of the United States, shall forcibly confine or detain or aid and abet in forcibly confining or detaining on board such vessel, any negro or mulatto not held in service by the laws of either the States or Territories of the United States, with intent to make him a slave, such person shall be adjudged a pirate and on conviction shall suffer death.”
Most of the crew were detained as witnesses against the captain, and to complete the case, witnesses were brought from Africa.
It was shown that when the vessel started to sea with the slaves, several of the sailors protested and the captain offered them a dollar for each slave landed in Cuba.
After the first trial, the jury disagreed, but on the second trial, ending November 8, 1861, Gordon was convicted.
An appeal was taken to the United States Circuit Court, but on November 30, a new trial was denied.
Judge Shipman then sentenced Gordon to be hanged on February 22, 1862. Before pronouncing the sentence, the judge, in addressing the prisoner, said in part:
Think of the cruelty and wickedness of seizing nearly a thousand human beings, who never did you any harm, and thrusting them between the decks of a small ship, beneath a burning tropical sun, to die of disease or suffocation, or be transported to distant lands, and consigned, they and their posterity, to a fate far more cruel than death.
Think of the sufferings of the unhappy beings whom you crowded on the Erie; of their helpless agony and terror as you took them from their native land, and especially think of those who perished under the weight of their miseries on the passage from the place of your capture to Monrovia. Remember that you showed mercy to none—carrying off, as you did, not only those of your own sex, but women and helpless children.
On February 19, two days before the execution, Gordon’s mother and wife went to Washington to plead with President Lincoln to save the condemned man’s life, but the President’s twelve-year-old son Willie died on that day, and they failed to obtain the desired interview.
On the night preceding the day of the execution, relatives of Gordon gave him several cigars, and at 3 o’clock the next morning he was seized with convulsions. Dr. Simmons, the prison physician, diagnosed the case as strychnine poisoning, and after working for several hours, he pronounced Gordon out of danger. The condemned man then stated that he had attempted suicide rather than suffer the ignominy of a public execution.
He declined to state how he obtained the poison, but it was suspected that it was concealed in the cigars.
He was hanged at 1 p.m. on February 21, 1862.
This is the only case in the criminal history of America where capital punishment was inflicted for the violation of this law.