Nathaniel Gordon
Execution of Nathaniel Gordon, Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862
Born(1826-02-06)February 6, 1826
DiedFebruary 21, 1862(1862-02-21) (aged 36)
Tombs prison, New York, New York, U.S.[1]
Criminal statusExecuted
Conviction(s)Slave trading
Criminal penaltyDeath by hanging

Nathaniel Gordon (February 6, 1826 – February 21, 1862) was the only slave trader in the U.S. to be tried, convicted, and executed for having "engaged in the slave trade," under the Piracy Law of 1820.[2]

Early life

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

Slave trading

On August 7, 1860, he loaded 897 slaves aboard 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."[3]

Erie was captured by the USS Mohican 50 miles from port on August 8, 1860.[4] 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.[3]


Slave trading criminal case involving Nathaniel Gordon
Slave trading criminal case involving Nathaniel Gordon

After one hung jury and a new trial, Gordon was convicted on November 9, 1861, in the circuit court in New York City. The prosecution was led by Assistant United States District Attorney George Pierce Andrews.[5] Gordon was sentenced to death by hanging, with the execution date set for February 7, 1862. [5] In passing sentence, Judge W.D. Shipman, in the course of his address to the prisoner, said:

You are soon to be confronted with the terrible consequences of your crime, and it is proper that I should call to your mind the duty of preparing for that event which will soon terminate your mortal existence, and usher you into the presence of the Supreme Judge.

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.[6]

Appeals for pardon and execution

After Gordon's conviction, his supporters appealed to President Abraham Lincoln for a pardon. While Lincoln was well known among his contemporaries for his compassion and 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.[7] 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."[7]

Lincoln did give him a two-week stay of execution to "[make] the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him", [8][9] setting the new execution date for February 21, 1862.[10]

The evening before the execution, Gordon unsuccessfully tried to kill himself with strychnine poison, prompting the local authorities to move up the execution to noon from 2:30 p.m. due to Gordon's health.[4]


  1. ^ "Execution in Five Points: Piracy, Slave Trade, and the Tombs". Feb 28, 2012.
  2. ^ Soodalter, Ron (2006). Hanging Captain Gordon. Atria Books. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-7432-6727-4. His name was Nathaniel Gordon, and he was about to become the only man in the history of the United States to be hanged for the crime of slave trading.
  3. ^ a b Spears, John R. (1900), "the Slave Trade in America. Third Paper, the Suppression of the Slave Trade.", Scribner's Magazine, 28: 464
  4. ^ a b "The Execution of Gordon, The Slave-Trader", Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862.
  5. ^ a b Annual reports, p. 120.
  6. ^ The Harbinger, January, 1862.
  7. ^ a b Soodalter, Ron (February 23, 2012). "The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy". The New York Times. New York. Archived from the original on April 14, 2017. Retrieved April 14, 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  8. ^ Behn, Richard. "Introduction." Mr. Lincoln and Freedom. The Lincoln Institute, 2002.
  9. ^ Lincoln, Abraham. Stay of Execution for Nathaniel Gordon (February 4, 1862). 5 Collected Works 128 (1953).
  10. ^ Text of the stay of execution granted to Gordon by Abraham Lincoln Archived 2004-09-01 at the Wayback Machine, 1862, Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 182, Digital History.

Further reading