Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
President Abraham Lincoln Refused to Pardon Slave Trader Captain Nathaniel Gordon
Nathaniel Gordon was executed at the Tombs in New York City.
President Abraham Lincoln refused to pardon Captain Nathaniel Gordon, making him the only mariner in America to be executed for being involved in the slave trade.
Captain Nathaniel Gordon practiced the wrong trade, slave trading, at the wrong time, 1861, and he earned the dubious honor of being the first and only slave trader ever executed in America. Many people upheld the justice of his conviction and hanging, but others just as firmly believed in his innocence.
A closer look at the evidence might provide a basis for the argument that while Captain Gordon engaged in an immoral trade and deserved to be punished, President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet used him as a political pawn and example to enforce Lincoln administration policies at the beginning of the Civil War.
The Slave Trade Is A Pervasive and Profitable Business
In the early 1860s, Captain Nathaniel Gordon bought into a well established, lucrative, although immoral and reprehensible traffic in human beings – the slave trade. Between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth centuries African slave traders snatched between 9.4 and 12 million central and western Africans from their homes and sold them to European slave traders.
The slave traders loaded their captives on ships and transported them to provide free, life time labor in North and South America. Slaves worked on coffee, cocoa and cotton plantations, in gold and silver mines, rice fields, timber and shipping or construction, or in the homes of their masters.
European countries involved in the transatlantic slave trade included Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. North and South Americans owned slave holding fortresses and ships, capital, and man power. The slave trade ultimately involved four continents, four centuries, and millions of people. The slavery question eventually shaped the American Civil War and a century long Reconstruction that overflowed into the Civil Rights wars of the 1960s. The slavery question also deeply affected maritime law and practices.
Slave Trading is Illegal But Profits Prevail
In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law that banned the transatlantic slave trade in America, but the law didn’t stop the buying and selling of slaves within the United States. The banning of the importation of slaves also made slave smuggling and underwriting slave ships a more lucrative business for both North and south.
In 1740, Newport, Rhode Island, boasted that her citizens owned a total of 120 slave ships, each capable of transporting 60 to 100 slaves. Ten years later, the number had grown considerably. As late as the 1850s, several New York businessmen invested in slave smuggling and some earned as much as $150,000 per voyage. In 1852, the Julia Eliza is on record as being fitted out as a slave ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Slave ships were fitted out and acquired crews in Northern port cities from Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. New England mariners were heavily involved in the slave trade.
For many a ship captain barely making his expenses, closing his eyes to his cargo meant seeing dollar signs instead of suffering human beings chained in the hold of his ship. Historians estimate that by 1860, the total number of illegal slaves smuggled into the United States had reached over 1.2 million.
Slave smuggling increased as different political administrations did not vigorously enforce piracy laws. Often the government and its officials sided with the captains of the slave ships, because even though the law had proclaimed slave trading piracy for over forty years it defied common sense to hang a mariner for practicing at sea what land dwellers all over American practiced everyday without punishment.
Captain Nathaniel Gordon’s Fateful Voyage
Captain Nathaniel Gordon hailed from Portland, Maine, and went to sea as a cabin boy at an early age. A young man, only 28, and weighing just 140 pounds and standing 5 feet 7 inches, he didn’t resemble the burly, whip cracking Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On one of his first slaver voyages, a British man of war captured his ship and he escaped disguised as a woman. Captain Gordon continued to elude capture and made many successful, profitable voyages.
Then in the summer of 1860, Captain Gordon sailed the little ship Erie to about fifty miles off the Congo River on the West Coast of Africa and loaded over 900 slaves aboard. On August 8, 1860, she stood to the northward with all sails set and flying the American flag when a gun from the United States Navy Ship Mohican stopped her.
Lieutenant Henry D. Todd, USN, boarded the Erie and he and is men eventually discovered 897 Negro men, women, and children covered with dirt and filth and smelling fearfully. Conditions were so crowded that the sailors couldn’t walk on the main deck without stepping on someone.
Several of Captain Gordon’s crewmen testified that the Negroes had been loaded the day before, and that Captain Gordon had treated them brutally and inhumanly. The Mohican’s crew took the surviving Negroes to Monrovia, Liberia, and arrested Captain Gordon. Several of Captain Gordon’s crew members testified that he had hired them without informing them that the Erie was a slave ship and when they discovered the true nature of the voyage and confronted him about it, Captain Gordon told them to hold their peace, do their jobs, and he would pay them for their trouble.
Captain Nathaniel Gordon Is Imprisoned In The Tombs
Captain Gordon and his mate were returned to the United States and imprisoned in a New York prison called The Tombs. Built in 1838, the first Tombs building where Captain Gordon died, held the more formal title of The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. Some people considered the Tombs a notable example of Egyptian Revival architecture in America. Other people like Charles Dickens weren’t as charitable. In his American Notes of 1842, Dickens asked, "What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama? "
The cells in the Tombs were notoriously damp and dank, because the entire building had been constructed on the site of a drained Colonial era pond and underground springs still bubbled up under the building. Despite his uncomfortable physical surroundings, Captain Gordon had emotional support from daily visits from his mother and his wife who kept him up to date with his child’s activities.
Before President Lincoln’s inaugural in March 1861, Isaiah Rynders served as United States Marshal and the slavers in the Tombs had many privileges. Captain Gordon even received leave to visit his family and money existed in plentiful amounts. After President Lincoln took office, Robert Murray became United States Marshal and the special privileges ceased. Captain Gordon slowly realized that the atmosphere had become threatening and his case had taken an ominous enforcement turn. Captain Gordon had read the signs correctly. Nathaniel Gordon endured two trials before his execution.
Captain Nathaniel Gordon’s First and Second Trials
Captain Nathaniel Gordon’s first trial took place in June 1861, and ended in a hung jury. His second trial took place from November 6-8, 1861. District Attorney E. Delafield Smith brought witnesses to testify against Captain Gordon from as far away as the West Indies. Ex-Judges Beebe and Bean defended Captain Gordon, arguing that he was an innocent man being sacrificed to a fanatical idea. They may have been correct, but their argument didn’t prevail and the jury found Captain Gordon guilty on November 9, 1861, in the circuit court in New York City.
Abraham Lincoln, Edward Delafield Smith, and Robert Murray
The Lincoln Administration was determined to enforce the slave trade laws. Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party won the presidential election of 1860, as the United States drew closer and closer to Civil War. President Lincoln appointed E. Delafield Smith as U.S. District Attorney and he took over that office in April 1861, determined to enforce the slave trade laws to their fullest extent.
On November 19, 1862, Edward Smith wrote a letter to President Lincoln’s Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, spelling out how he saw the Gordon sentence as a vital part of a three step strategy to end the slave trade at the port of New York. The first step of Smith’s strategy was to stop the fitting out of slave ships.
The second part was to restrain American officers and seamen from serving on slave ships and the third step was to institute meaningless bail for ships seized as slavers and then bonded or bailed and discharged. He used examples of three men he was prosecuting to illustrate his strategy. He said that first step would be accomplished with the conviction of the merchant, Albert Horn who had been sentenced to five years in prison for fitting out the City of Norfolk, a slave trade ship. Horn’s lawyers were trying to win a pardon for him.
The second part of his strategy was the execution of Nathaniel Gordon and the third the punishment of Rudolph Blumenburg, a ships bondsman who had been convicted of involvement in the slave trade. Blumenburg had attempted to use his Republican connections to escape punishment.
Smith opposed Horn and Rudolph Blumenburg winning their freedom. He believed that punishing them would preserve the Gordon conviction because all three cases were an important part of the antislave trade prosecutions. He said that Horn and Blumenburg had to be convicted or Gordon’s execution would be useless and "a cruel ceremony."
Captain Nathaniel Gordon’s Sentencing and Execution
Judge Shipman sentenced Captain Gordon to death by hanging at the Tombs Prison. He told Captain Gordon that "In the verdict of the jury, it is my duty to say that the court fully concurred. The evidence of your guilt was so full and complete as to exclude from the minds of your triers all doubt."
Judge Shipman originally set February 7, 1862, as Captain Gordon’s execution date, but President Abraham Lincoln issued a two week stay of execution for Captain Gordon, making it clear that the stay was just a temporary respite so Captain Gordon could get his affairs in order. He set Captain Gordon’s new execution date for February 21, 1862.
On the eve of his execution, Captain Gordon tried to commit suicide with strychnine, and the authorities moved his execution time from 2:30 p.m. to noon because of his deteriorating physical condition. Captain Gordon’s wife, son, and mother survived him. His wife later married his first mate, who had been arrested with him, but was found not guilty. Captain Gordon was buried in Portland, Maine.
Justice for Everyone But Captain Gordon?
A New York Court convicted Albert Horn, but President Lincoln pardoned him, and Rudoph Blumenburg also went free. It seems that Nathaniel Gordon had been selected to be executed and that the first execution of an American slave trader was intended to warn mariners that they risked their necks if they participated in the slave trade. The Tombs in Manhattan was the best execution site to have that warning broadcast widely and graphically.
Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin, 2008.
Soodalter, Ron. Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader. Atria books, New York, 2006.
Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. Simon & Schuster, 1999.
"The Doom of A Slaver." Desperate Efforts to Save Him From the Gallows. Brooklyn Eagle, February 10, 1895.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.