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 . 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.
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 . 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.
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 . 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 .
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…” 
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.
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 . 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 . 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.”
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.
He was buried in an unmarked hillside grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery (Lot 403, Section 4, Grave 13) . 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.
 Ron Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader (New York: Atria Books, 2006), 15.
 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.
 Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 15.
 Id., 93.
 Id., 77.
 Id., 108.
 "The Case of Gordon," New York Times, February 21, 1862, p. 3
 Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 133.
 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.
 Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon (2006), 231.
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