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On a frosty day in late February 1862, hundreds gathered in New York City's "Tombs" prison to watch the execution of Nathaniel Gordon. A sea captain from an old and respected Portland, Maine family, Gordon was about to become the only man in the history of the United States to be hanged for slave trading. What events led up to this pivotal moment? In Hanging Captain Gordon, Ron Soodalter explores the many compelling issues that came together to seal one man's fate.
When Gordon had sailed two years before to bring Africans back in chains from the Congo River, he had no reason to fear a hanging. Although his horrible crime had been a capital offense for over 40 years, the government - through corruption and disinterest - never bothered to enforce it. President Buchanan himself had stated publicly that he would never hang a slaver! But Gordon didn't realize that a major change was coming. With the nation embroiled in a civil war, and a new president at the helm, social reform was the order of the day. Captain Gordon got caught up in the most vital turning point in American history.
This little-known drama, set in the city that was the center of the American slave trade, is filled with a sharply drawn cast of real-life characters, including the young and aggressive prosecutor who made Gordon his personal demon; the U.S. marshal who did everything in his power to ensure Gordon's death; the corrupt officials who tried to help him escape; Gordon's beautiful and tragic young wife; the old-guard justices who would bend the law to the breaking point to spare a slave trader; and the president, widely known for his compassion, now forced to choose between mercy and justice. These and many other players come alive in Soodalter's vivid accounting of a lost chapter in American history - one that would change the course of our nation forever.
Soodalter's final chapter - "Captain Gordon's Legacy" - addresses the issue of the modern-day slave trade. Most Americans are unaware of the extent to which the crime of human trafficking has blighted America. The author shows how tens of thousands of people are brought into the United States every year, and forced to work as slaves in nearly every State - in our citrus groves, laundries and restaurants, brothels and strip joints, and in our homes. As Soodalter states, "The slave trade didn't die with Captain Gordon; it merely went dormant for over a century, and now it's back."