Nathaniel Gordon

Nathaniel Gordon
Born (1826-02-06)February 6, 1826
Portland, Maine
Died February 21, 1862(1862-02-21) (aged 36)
New York, New York Tombs prison[1]
Criminal penalty Death by hanging
Criminal status Executed
Conviction(s) Slave trading

Nathaniel Gordon (February 6, 1826 February 21, 1862) was the only American slave trader to be tried, convicted, and executed "for being engaged in the Slave Trade," under the Piracy Law of 1820.


Gordon was born in Portland, Maine. He went into shipping and eventually owned his own ship, Erie.

On August 7, 1860, he loaded 897 slaves aboard his ship Erie at Sharks Point, Congo River, West Africa, "of whom only 172 were men and 162 grown women. Gordon... preferred to carry children because they could not rise up to avenge his cruelties."[2]

The Erie was captured by the USS Mohican 50 miles from port on August 8, 1860.[3] The slaves were taken to Liberia, the American colony established in West Africa by the American Colonization Society for the settlement of free blacks from the United States.[2]


After one hung jury and a new trial, Gordon was convicted on November 9, 1861 in the circuit court in New York City. He was sentenced to death by hanging on February 7, 1862.[4]

In passing the sentence, Judge Shipman, in the course of his address to the prisoner, said:

Let me implore you to seek the spiritual guidance of the ministers of religion; and let your repentance be as humble and thorough as your crime was great. Do not attempt to hide its enormity from yourself; think of the cruelty and wickedness of seizing nearly a thousand fellow beings, who never did you harm, and thrusting them beneath the decks of a small ship, beneath a burning tropical sun, to die in of disease or suffocation, or be transported to distant lands, and be 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 of their miseries on 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.

Do not flatter yourself that because they belonged to a different race from yourself, your guilt is therefore lessened – rather fear that it is increased. In the just and generous heart, the humble and the weak inspire compassion, and call for pity and forbearance. As you are soon to pass into the presence of that God of the black man as well as the white man, who is no respecter of persons, do not indulge for a moment the thought that he hears with indifference the cry of the humblest of his children. Do not imagine that because others shared in the guilt of this enterprise, yours, is thereby diminished; but remember the awful admonition of your Bible, “Though hand joined in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished."

Worcester Aegis and Transcript; December 7, 1861; pg. 1, col. 6.


After Gordon's conviction, his supporters appealed to President Abraham Lincoln for a pardon. While Lincoln was well known for issuing many pardons during his presidency, he refused to consider one for Gordon, even going so far as to refuse to meet with Gordon's supporters. [5] As Lincoln said at the time

"I believe I am kindly enough in nature, and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon."[5]

Lincoln eventually issued a stay of Gordon's execution, setting the new date for February 21, 1862.[6] Lincoln made clear that the respite was only temporary to allow Gordon time for his final preparations.[7] In his Stay of Execution, Lincoln gave him a two-week stay of execution to “[make] the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him.”[8]

The evening before the execution, Gordon unsuccessfully attempted suicide with strychnine poison, prompting the local authorities to move up the execution to noon from 2:30 p.m. due to Gordon's health.[3] Gordon was survived by his wife, son, and mother.


  1. "Execution in Five Points: Piracy, Slave Trade, and the Tombs". Feb 28, 2012.
  2. 1 2 Spears, John R. (1900), "the Slave Trade in America. Third Paper, the Suppression of the Slave Trade.", Scribner's Magazine, 28: 464
  3. 1 2 "The Execution of Gordon, The Slave-Trader", Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862.
  4. Annual reports, p. 120 The prosecution was led by Assistant United States District Attorney, George Pierce Andrews.
  5. 1 2 "The Limits of Lincoln’s Mercy" by Ron Soodalter, The New York Times, feb. 23, 2012.
  6. Text of the stay of execution granted to Gordon by Abraham Lincoln, 1862, Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 182, Digital History.
  7. Behn, Richard. "Introduction." Mr. Lincoln and Freedom. The Lincoln Institute, 2002.
  8. Lincoln, Abraham. Stay of Execution for Nathaniel Gordon (February 4, 1862). 5 Collected Works 128 (1953).

Further reading

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/19/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.