How the Slave Trade Died on the Streets of New York

By Jerry Mikorenda

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Shortly before noon on Friday, February 21, 1862, a detachment of Marines with bayonets fixed for battle marched passed the wooden gallows and took up their positions. In the streets, an angry mob milled about purchasing liquor and trinkets as if a sporting event was about to begin. Drum rolls echoed off the courtyard walls as the black shroud pulled across the prisoner’s face. The Marshal held his sword high in the air.

How could it have ever come to this point for “Lucky Nat?”

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Born in Portland, Maine in 1826, Nathaniel Gordon was the middle child sandwiched between two sisters. He was the son of merchant sea captain in a family that had ancestors in New England since the early 1620s. When he was 12 years old, his namesake father was arrested for smuggling a single slave into America [1]. In 1820, the United States made slave trading an act of piracy and a capital offense. However, it was highly unlikely that the elder Gordon ever faced any retribution for his crime. Slave trading was a “dead letter” law –- unenforceable and always pardonable.

Young Nat followed his father into the family business working his way up ship’s ranks. Nat grew into a respected and industrious seaman and quickly became a captain himself. According to a New York Times expose, by age 25 Gordon was a part owner of a vessel and land worth thousands of dollars. Yet he wanted more. Gordon sold all his assets during the Gold Rush and headed to California to stake his claim. He soon reevaluated his position and decided to pursue a more lucrative fortune. In 1851, he signed on to captain a ship delivering hides from San Francisco to New York. After setting sail, Gordon convinced the crew to dump the hides overboard and head to Brazil where he outfitted the ship as a slaver.

To Sail a Slaver

It was during this decade as a slaver Gordon earned his nickname “Lucky Nat.” He made at least four voyages to Africa returning to Brazil and Cuba with slaves. British and American patrol boats guarded the shipping lanes between these countries. Gordon was always a step ahead. With authorities closing in, he once eluded capture by disguising himself as a woman.

“Excitement ruled the hour with him,” wrote the Times reporter in his expose, “and he has confessed to having enjoyed more pleasurable sensations when slipping slyly through the cordon of ‘slavecatchers’ than at any other period of his existence.”

To avoid capture, slavers routinely hoisted foreign flags and appointed an international crewmember as captain. Slave patrols couldn’t board or seize vessels under another country’s banner or captain. Despite their international flavor, many slavers originated from the slips of New York Harbor. These ships were built, outfitted, and insured by the city’s financial centers. During the first 60 years of the 19th century, New York City financed and fitted out more slaving expeditions than any other American port [2]. In The Rise of New York Port, Robert Albion estimates that before the Civil War, Manhattan took 40 cents of every dollar from Southern cotton sold overseas. New York City was wedded to the slave trade as much as any Southern state. It was no wonder that slavers took to Manhattan with impunity knowing they oiled the wheels of the city’s economy.

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Filled with this hubris, in April 1860 the sails of the brig Erie set a course for Cuba under Captain Gordon. There the ship loaded 150 hogsheads of whiskey, rice and farina before heading to the Congo River. The Erie was a small ship (500 tons), but that didn’t stop Gordon from taking on 897 slaves in less than an hour. His cruelty was efficient and driven by optimizing profit. Filled with stolen lives, the Erie headed back to Cuba in August 1860. About 30 miles into open water, a cannon ball shot across her bow. Gordon immediately showed his American colors, but it was too late. The Erie was now in the custody of the USS Mohican of the African Slave Trade Patrol.

Out of his Latitude

In Manhattan, Gordon and his first mates were brought before William Shipman, district judge for the federal circuit court of the Southern District of New York. The very same court where Gordon’s father faced similar charges nearly 25 years earlier [3]. This Gordon expected the same results and for good reason. The prosecuting attorney for the government was James Roosevelt, young Teddy’s uncle. While a grand jury was considering charges against Gordon and his men in late October 1860, Roosevelt was paraphrased in a New York Times editorial, “Punishment for Slave Trade to be Abolished” stating, “in the view expressed by Judge ROOSEVELT, that public opinion, both at the North and South, has ceased to regard this crime as deserving a pirate's doom … even in case of conviction of the full offence, the President would "probably pardon" the guilty man or men -- we confess to a shock of not pleasant surprise.”

Roosevelt offered Gordon a $2,000 fine and two-year prison sentence in exchange for information about his financial backers. Although they both knew he would serve little if any of that time, Gordon turned down the plea bargain believing he deserved a better deal.

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Worth an estimated $80,000 (about $2 million today) at the start of his ordeal, Gordon exuded confidence. [4] A short powerfully built man; his black eyes, conical nose and full beard were an unmistakable sight. Despite living in a jail cell, he regularly bribed guards to let him wander the streets so he could eat at the finest restaurants. Explaining his situation, he once proclaimed, “I am not as a felon, but a gentleman temporarily out of his latitude.” [5]

Gordon’s latitude was about to change in a way he hadn’t planned. With the presidential election just days away, New York City stood firmly by the South against Lincoln. The Republican victory for the White House meant a turnover of federal judges in New York City. Led by Mayor Fernando Wood, in January 1861, the Common Council voted to secede from the Union to “make common cause with the South” while also denying Federal troops access to the city. Roosevelt delayed prosecuting Gordon as long as he could. No better plea bargain was coming in this environment.


Mr. Smith Comes to Town

When the trial began on June 18, 1861, much had changed for Gordon. He was moved from the relative comfort of the Eldridge Street jail to the infamous Halls of Justice already well known as the Tombs [6]. Edward Delafield Smith a hardnosed and ambitious prosecutor looking to put a Republican boot print on the city replaced Roosevelt. More importantly, the Civil War was underway and attitudes toward New York’s role in the slave trade were changing.

The trial dealt with three key issues – was Gordon a US citizen or a foreigner as he claimed; was the Erie owned by a foreigner, or an American, as Gordon claimed to have sold it during the voyage; and finally, were the 897 Africans onboard the Erie taken by force with the intent to make them slaves in Cuba. The defense asserted that Gordon was born at sea in foreign waters. The prosecution produced witnesses that said he was born in Portland. Likewise, the defense claimed Gordon sold the Erie to foreign interests and the government couldn’t prove that he didn’t [7].

With inconclusive evidence on both sides, the case would come down to the abduction and selling of human beings into slavery. To do that Smith needed the two officers who first boarded the Erie to testify. The New York Daily Tribune reported Lieutenant, midshipman at the time, Todd was available but Lieutenant Dunnington, who sided with the Confederacy as a “rebel privateer,” wasn’t. Even so, Smith offered to pay all of Dunnington’s expenses “out of his own private means” if he would testify. Gordon was dealing with a man driven to deliver him to the noose.

If any question existed as to the poor conditions the abducted Africans faced under Gordon, Todd’s testimony reported by The New York Times removed it.

“He [Todd] found on board of the Erie… eight hundred and ninety-seven (897) negroes, men, women, and children, ranging from the age of six months to forty years. They were half children, one-fourth men, and one-fourth women, and so crowded when on the main deck that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on them…until Gordon showed him, he was unable to stow them or feed them -- finally he learned how, but they were stowed so closely that during the entire voyage they appeared to be in great agony. The details are sickening, but as fair exponents of the result of this close stowing…” [8]

The jury left the courtroom and went their separate ways. They returned after 20 hours hopelessly deadlocked seven to five to convict. With no chance for a unanimous decision, on June 22, 1861, Judge Shipman declared a mistrial.


Second Trial

Any hopes Gordon had that the Lincoln Administration would let his case quietly fade away were quickly dashed. The government moved immediately for a second trial. This time the jury would be sequestered avoiding potential tampering and bribes [9]. The highlight was testimony from an Erie crewmember who witnessed slaves loading on the ship in the Congo with no exchange of ownership -– Gordon was still the captain. The defense stuck to its guns and the formula that worked so well during forty-two years of slave trading prosecutions by insisting Gordon sold his ship and was no longer in charge.

On November 8, 1861, the jury heard summations that began after breakfast but they didn’t hear the judge address them until past dinnertime. Justice Nelson, who sat on the case with Judge Shipman, was firm and direct in his orders. He dismantled Gordon’s claim on foreign citizenship (both parents were American) and stated there was no evidence of the ship’s sale. That left the jury with only one issue to grapple with – did Gordon intend to deliver those 897 lives aboard his ship into slavery?

It took the jury less than thirty minutes to respond [10]. Gordon was guilty.

On November 30, 1861, Gordon received the sentence he dreaded. He had no words for the court as Judge Shipman delivery an elegy upon him. Pale, haggard and bone thin, Gordon wasn’t half the muscular man who once sauntered along Schermerhorn Row and the various slips of New York Harbor. The Judge ended his missive with “you be hanged by the neck until you are dead and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”


Fate Sealed

The sentence was scheduled for February 7, 1862. After some haggling over where a federal execution should take place in Manhattan, the Tombs remained the location. There were various requests for a Presidential reprieve, clemency and pardons. Then, like an early spring thaw, Lincoln granted Gordon a two-week stay of execution to “meet his maker and prepare himself for another world.” In a desperate move to nullify his sentence, Gordon’s mother and wife traveled to Washington to beg Lincoln for his life. However, they arrived the morning the President’s son Willie died and were unable to see him.

Lincoln's two-week reprieve for Gordon

Lincoln's two-week reprieve for Gordon

With his fate sealed, Gordon spent his last hours writing about a dozen letters and enjoying cigars [11]. Several of these letters are reprinted in Hanging Captain Gordon. As the end drew near, he remained resolute in his innocence: “my hand is not stained with the blood of any man,” he wrote in a letter “To the Public.” Like the hides he tossed overboard a decade before, the lives he sacrificed for profit weren’t worth mentioning.

Around 3AM the morning of his execution, Gordon took strychnine. Three doctors worked feverishly to save his life using a stomach pump and copious amounts of whiskey. Ironically, the suicide attempt only shortened his stay on earth. His execution accelerated from 2PM to noon. A last minute telegraph from New York Governor Edward Morgan to President Lincoln asking for a reprieve went unanswered. Gordon’s last request was to have a lock of his hair sent to his wife.

He was buried in an unmarked hillside grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery (Lot 403, Section 4, Grave 13) [12]. Within a year of Gordon’s death, the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the Confederacy, changing the tenor of the war. New York City reinvented itself as a pro-Union supplier of the uniforms, boots, and weapons necessary for the massive war effort. Slavery’s days were numbered.

The turn of events must have seemed unfathomable to Gordon as he stood on the gallows that dismal February afternoon. Just a few years earlier, he was riding high in a city that embraced his trade. With the dip of the Marshal’s sword, 243 years of slave trading in America ended.


Jerry Mikorenda is a freelance writer. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, and the Boston Herald, and in various magazines and blogs.



Notes

[1] Ron Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader (New York: Atria Books, 2006), 15.

[2] Ron Soodalter, "The Day New York Tried to Secede," October 26, 2011. Retrieved August 3, 2016, from http://www.historynet.com/the-day-new-york-tried-to-secede.htm.

[3] Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 15.

[4] Id., 93.

[5] Id., 77.

[6] Id.

[7] Id., 108.

[8] "The Case of Gordon," New York Times, February 21, 1862, p. 3

[9] Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 133.

[10] Id.

[11] Mix, B. J. (ed), Mackeever, S.A. (1874). The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and Its Mysteries. Being a History of Noted Criminals, with Narratives of Their Crimes, United States Publishing Company, p. 295-302.

[12] Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 231.