Nathaniel Gordon
Execution of Gordon the slave-trader, New York, February 21, 1862 LCCN2011647819.jpg
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)
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Criminal statusExecuted
MotiveFinancial gain
Conviction(s)Engaging in the slave trade
Criminal penaltyDeath
Span of crimes
1851–August 7, 1860 (allegedly did another voyage in 1848)
CountryMultiple regions across western Africa
Location(s)Pacific Ocean
Date apprehended
August 7, 1860

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. He had a wife named Elizabeth and a two-year-old son named Nathaniel at the time of his final voyage to Africa.[3]

When Gordon was 12, his father was arrested for attempting to smuggle slaves into the United States. The law stated that he should be deemed a pirate and given a mandatory death sentence. However, there are no records of how the case was resolved, albeit it is known that Gordon's father was not executed.[3]

Slave trading

In 1848, Gordon's boat, Juliet, was searched by the U.S. Navy for evidence of slave trading. After no evidence of slave trading could be found, Gordon was released from their custody. However, there were allegations that Gordon had indeed gone to Africa, taken a cargo of slaves, and returned to Brazil, where slavery was still legal at the time.[4]

In 1851, Gordon, captaining the Camargo, went on another expedition from Brazil to Africa. Gordon took on 500 Africans and set sail for Brazil. He had to take numerous measures to avoid naval patrol ships. Gordon was nevertheless chased by a British man-of-war. After arriving in Brazil and dropping off the Africans, Gordon burned his ship to destroy evidence. The Africans were seized and some of Gordon's men were arrested and charged. Gordon himself escaped by dressing into women's clothes.[4]

Shortly after the Camargo voyage, Gordon, captaining Ottawa, made a slaving voyage to Cuba, where slavery was also still legal, with a cargo of Africans. Only about 25 percent of the Africans survived, with Gordon later claiming that a rival trader had poisoned them. After landing in Cuba, Gordon burned his ship afterwards to destroy evidence.[4]

In late July 1860, Gordon set sale for the west coast of Africa. 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."[5] According to reports, Gordon was responsible for at least 29 deaths. Those who died were thrown overboard.[6]

Erie was captured by the USS Mohican 50 miles from a Cuban port on August 8, 1860.[7] 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.[5] Gordon was extradited to New York to face a federal trial.


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

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, James I. Roosevelt, offered Gordon a $2,000 fine and two-year sentence in exchange for information about his financial backers. However, Gordon, confident that he wouldn't face any severe consequences, rejected the deal, believing it was not lenient enough.[8]

The case was repeatedly delayed due to the onset of the Civil War. By the time of Gordon's trial, a new district attorney, Edward Delafield Smith, had been appointed. Smith saw the Gordon case as a chance to become prominent and an opportunity to set an example for all future slave traders. He wanted Gordon executed.[8]

Gordon's first trial in New York City in June 1861 ended in a mistrial, with the jury voting 7-5 in favor of a conviction, allegedly due to bribes. Smith immediately pushed for a retrial. To counter potential tampering and bribes, the government had the jury sequestered. Among the arguments used by Gordon's lawyers during his second trial were technicalities which had successfully been exploited in other trials:[9]

The first three arguments were dismissed by the judge, while the fourth argument was contradicted by witnesses testimony.[9] On November 9, 1861, Gordon was found guilty of piracy by engaging in the slave trade.[10][11] The prosecution was led by Assistant United States District Attorney George Pierce Andrews.[12] Gordon received the death sentence mandated under the law, with the execution date set for February 7, 1862. [12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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."[14]

On the question of a commutation, Lincoln wrote that "I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa."[15] Lincoln did give him a two-week stay of execution to "[make] the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him", [16][17] setting the new execution date for February 21, 1862, on the grounds that Gordon had been misled into thinking he would not be executed.[18]

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.[7] After regaining consciousness, Gordon begged the doctors, who pumped his stomach and gave him brandy and whiskey to keep him alive, to just let him die, saying he would rather die alone than suffer the humiliation of being publicly executed.[19][20] After mounting the gallows, Gordon, who was drunk due to the alcohol he had been given earlier, made a rambling speech saying that the prosecutor had misled him into believing he would be spared, and asked his friends to take care of his wife and child. His last request was to have a lock of his hair sent to his wife.[3]


  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 c "Man on the Gallows". Down East Magazine. 2012-02-28. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  4. ^ a b c "Sample text for Library of Congress control number 2005055897". Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  5. ^ a b Spears, John R. (1900), "the Slave Trade in America. Third Paper, the Suppression of the Slave Trade.", Scribner's Magazine, 28: 464
  6. ^ "Execution of Gordon The Slave-Trader". Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  7. ^ a b "The Execution of Gordon, The Slave-Trader", Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862.
  8. ^ a b "Historian sheds light on a shameful period - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  9. ^ a b Miller, William Lee (2009). President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Vintage Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-3416-1.
  10. ^ "United States v. Gordon, 25 F. Cas. 1364, 5 Blatchf. 18". Caselaw: U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. Legal Calculators. November 1861.
  11. ^ Miller, William Lee (2009). President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Vintage Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-3416-1.
  12. ^ a b Annual reports, p. 120.
  13. ^ The Harbinger, January, 1862.
  14. ^ 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.((cite web)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  15. ^ Soodalter, Ron (2009-08-18). "Hanging Captain Gordon". HistoryNet. Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  16. ^ Behn, Richard. "Introduction." Mr. Lincoln and Freedom. The Lincoln Institute, 2002.
  17. ^ Lincoln, Abraham. Stay of Execution for Nathaniel Gordon (February 4, 1862). 5 Collected Works 128 (1953).
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "How the Slave Trade Died on the Streets of New York". The Gotham Center for New York City History. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  20. ^ "The Daily Dispatch: February 27, 1862., [Electronic resource], The recent execution in New York". Retrieved 2022-05-11.

Further reading