The Murder of Amasa Sprague
It was very cold and wintry that New Years's Eve Sunday in 1843. Still, Amasa Sprague--the owner of the local textile and dye factory in Cranston, Rhode Island--began his weekly ritual. After a hearty Sunday dinner with his family (his wife and four children: Mary Anna, Almira, Amasa Jr. and William) in his mansion, he began his walk of some several miles to a piece of property that acted as a family farm.
The Sprague family had achieved considerable wealth in two generations. Grandfather Sprague had started a small family business in fabric dying but was interrupted to fight in the Revolution. The father had built and expanded the business to the point it was the largest calico dying factory in the New Nation. Amasa, the strong vigorous son, took over the plant while a brother William went into the less lucrative and less prestigious activity of politics. William had been a Congressman to Washington D.C., then served as a one term governor of Rhode Island, and by 1843 was U.S. Senator.
As Amasa Sprague walked the cold and dark road he was unaware that he was the prey being stalked by hunters. The confrontation must have been a violent one because Amasa was a big and powerful person hard to put down. A bullet was fired and entered his right forearm near the wrist. A small bone of the arm was shattered disabling him enough for what was to follow. Amasa was struck on the left side of the head with a blunt weapon and his skull was fractured rupturing the brain membrane. Another blow on the right side did the same again. Either hit could have caused death. It was a violent struggle with all kinds of blood scattered about. Clearly, more than one attacker had taken part in the carnage.
Two forces played in the background of the Sprague murder.
First, there was the rise of the Irish population and the general hatred and suspicion they faced from the more established groups in New England. Beginning in the 1830's but accelerating in the 1840s the Irish migration impacted upon the economy and prejudices of the Rhode Islanders. The earliest groups that came were not wealthy but they had the means to start up businesses such as stores and taverns that catered to other Irish. Later groups--particularly those coming after the great Potato Famine of 1841--were ignorant and destitute. All who came, however, were Catholics and they did not sit well with the traditional Protestant population. The Irish would be accused of any problems that might surface. In the name of profits Amasa Sprague began hiring large numbers of these immigrants and housing them in company-owned tenements near the factory. He watched over them carefully making sure their private lives--socially and economically--did not affect his investments in them as workers. He naturally disliked any Irish businessmen who might provide goods to his workers.
Second, there was the Dorr Rebellion of Rhode Island. Thomas Wilson Dorr was of Irish descent whose grandfather had left Ireland in time to take part in the American Revolution, even riding with Paul Revere on his famous excursion. Thomas Dorr was well educated and early on got involved in state politics. He led a movement to change the state constitution, expanding the franchise and bringing more democracy to state government. Conservative elites on all sides united against this "people's movement." Frustrated politically, on May 18th 1843, Dorr and his supporters tried to overthrow the government of Rhode Island. For over a month a mini-revolution waged in the state putting the upper classes WASPs against the lowly migrants and other poorer people. The Dorr rebellion was put down and its leader was placed in prison. His trial and imprisonment would play as a counterpoint to those activities surrounding the Sprague murder suspects.
The air was filled with suspicion towards the Irish and the poorer people in general. The elites needed the Sprague case solved and brought to an end quickly so as to dispose of Dorr. Their position as the proper leaders--politically, economically and socially--needed to be reaffirmed.
"The Whiteboy" problem was always in the background of any anti-Irish paranoia. A "whiteboy" was a member of an illegal association of Irish peasants formed in 1760 to resist their landlord's collection of taxes and tithes. Mostly this was found in Ireland--as several landlords were killed--but Providence, RI, papers reported suspected occurrences in America. Of course, Amasa Sprague did not collect taxes and tithes but all housing and most stores and taverns were largely under his control.
Nicholas Gordon became an immediate suspect. He had come to America from Ireland about ten years earlier and through hard work he had achieved the American dream. He owned a grocery store-tavern that got a lot of business from the workers at Spragues. His success was so great that he sent for his mother, two brothers, and a sister earlier in 1843. Then, coincidentally, the city council under the control of Amasa Sprague denied renewal of his liquor license. This drove him out of business and he was heard to say that he would get even with the Spragues. The night of the murder, however, he was seen by countless members of the Irish community in Church miles away. It would have been impossible for him to be anywhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder.
John and William Gordon
The younger brothers of Nicholas Gordon had arrived in America six months before the crime thanks to the familial loyalty and generosity of Nicholas. They were devoted to their older brother. They were both very strong and gifted hunters.
William Sprague was ostensibly loyal to his brother too. Soon after the murder he resigned his position in the U.S. Senate and personally supervised all aspects of the investigation of the crime. Everyone was impressed with his brotherly devotion. However, some remembered past battles between the two on the current running and future direction of the factory. Amasa was conservative content to stay limited to the Rhode Island area. William, on the other hand, pushed unsuccessfully for expansion. Ironically, the local Sabbath meeting sermon story on the day of the murder was devoted to the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel.
True to his ideas, shortly after the murder William took over the factory and started an expansion program that made Spragues the largest calico dying plant in America. By 1873 it produced more calico cloth than all the other factories in the United States combined. Profits were at $20 million. But it had over expanded and failed in the depression of that year. With its crash in 1873 it became the largest business failure in American industrial history to that time.
There were some pieces of evidence that might help sort out the suspects.
First, there were those witnesses who had heard Nicholas Gordon declare his enmity towards the city politicians, especially Amasa Sprague, who had denied him his licenses.
Second, there was considerable blood on the scene which meant that the likelihood of blood on the killers and their clothing was great.
Third, some pieces of a gun--damaged or broken at the scene--were found nearby the body at the scene. Some testified that they thought they belonged to Nicholas Gordon. However, later Nicholas Gordon's gun was found in tact by his brother William in the family home.
Fourth, a valuable gold watch and $60 in cash were left untouched on the body.
Fifth, there were several tracks in the snow leaving the scene leading to a swamp where a bloody coat, with a bullet hole in the sleeve, was found. Then the tracks seemed to lead--but not conclusively--toward the direction of the Gordon house.
Sixth, there were the testimony of Susan Field, a local girl who had left the community to become a prostitute in Providence. She claimed to have seen the Gordon brothers in a coat "like" that found at the swamp. Also, she claimed to have heard them make threats toward the Spragues. Later, however, it was shown that she had lied on all of these matters.
Seven, some witnesses claimed they saw a man carrying a gun--it was hunting season in the area--walking in the vicinity of the crime earlier on the 31st. He was a stranger but described as tall, stout and dark. This description fit none of the suspects.
Questions to Ponder
1. Who killed Amasa Sprague?
2. How important is ethnicity and criminal justice in this period?
**Suggested Further Reading**
Charles and Tess Hoffmann, Brotherly Love: Murder and the Politics of Prejudice in Nineteenth-century Rhode Island (Amherst, Mass.: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993).