Books by Tess Hoffmann

Released: Oct. 1, 1993

An intriguing account of a New England rush to judgment in the Jacksonian Era. The murder of textile manufacturer Amasa Sprague on New Year's Eve 1843 in Spragueville, Rhode Island, launched an enthusiastic but careless manhunt led by the victim's brother William (US senator from Rhode Island) and carried out by longtime residents of town. Within 24 hours, even though no physical evidence was found to tie them to the crime, three Irish brothers were arrested. The theory was that Nicholas Gordon, furious over Amasa Sprague's opposition to his renewal of a liquor license, had retaliated by enlisting brothers John and William in a murder conspiracy. The Hoffmanns (both English/University of Rhode Island) carefully explain the political tensions that colored the case (Yankee farmers in remote rural areas felt threatened by Irish immigrants, as well as by reformers who sought to change the state's constitution in order to institute universal adult white-male suffrage). The prosecution charged that John and William Gordon had killed at their brother's request because ``the tie of kindred is to an Irishman almost an indissoluble bond,'' while the judge urged jurors to weigh the character of prosecution witnesses versus that of Irish defense witnesses. Nevertheless, the evidence against the brothers was so weak that one was acquitted, a second was freed after two hung juries, and the third was convicted in what came to be seen as a miscarriage of justice. John Gordon's execution—the last in the state—caused so much guilt that seven years later it contributed to Rhode Island's abolition of capital punishment. The conclusion here—that William Sprague had conspired to kill his senior business partner, the overly cautious Amasa—is supported only by speculation about motive and opportunity, but the authors have little doubt that William helped engineer the death of an innocent man. Well-researched local history on a still timely issue: the effect of class and ethnicity on criminal justice. (Seven b&w illustrations) Read full book review >