PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Rhode Island's governor formally pardoned on Wednesday an Irish immigrant hanged in 1845 for murder under questionable circumstances amid the ethnic and class tensions of the time.
John Gordon was the last person ever executed in Rhode Island, a decade and a half before the start of the U.S. civil war.
The state banned the death penalty in 1984, 166 years after Gordon was put to death in the gallows, located in Providence.
A proclamation officially pardoning Gordon was signed by independent Governor Lincoln Chafee, who was joined at the ceremony at the old State House by Democratic state Representative Peter Martin, sponsor of a House resolution urging the pardon, and Senate sponsor, Democrat Michael McCaffrey.
"John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence," Chafee said, adding: "There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice."
Chafee also said Gordon's "wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island's abolition of and longstanding opposition to the death penalty."
Gordon, member of a fast-growing Irish Roman Catholic immigrant community in the Northeast, was hanged for allegedly murdering Amasa Sprague, a member of a prominent Rhode Island family that included Sprague's brother, former governor and later U.S. senator William Sprague.
But from the very beginning, controversy swirled over Gordon's guilt during a time of strong anti-immigrant sentiment.
According to historical reporting, the crime inflamed tensions between Rhode Island's mostly Yankee Protestants and the newly arrived Irish, who had been flocking there to work in the thriving textile mills.
When Sprague's body was found brutally beaten on New Year's Day, 1844 on a snowy Cranston road connecting his factory and his mansion, three local Irish brothers stood quickly accused: Nicholas, John and William Gordon.
A conspiracy theory that may have been based more on bigotry and class warfare than hard evidence was formed in which Nicholas was said to have held a grudge against Sprague, with John and William accomplices in an alleged revenge killing.
The brothers were each charged with murder but only John was found guilty, a conviction based on contradictory evidence, according to notes from the trial's judge, Job Durfee, which later came to light.
But Durfee may have influenced the jurors to convict Gordon anyway, instructing them "to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses."
(Additional reporting by Zach Howard in Conway, Mass.; Editing by Chris Michaud and Jerry Norton)