Act abolishing capital punishment

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Act abolishing capital punishment


An Act abolishing capital punishment in the state of Rhode Island, February 1852.

In January 1838, a report entitled, “Report of the Committee On the Abolishment of Capital Punishments” was made to the General Assembly Committee to Revise the Penal Code. The recommendation was to abolish capital punishment. On December 31, 1843, Amasa Sprague, who was the brother of the first RI Governor named William Sprague, and the father of the second Governor (later U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator) William Sprague, was murdered. In January 1844, the General Assembly had abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder and arson. Amasa Sprague was one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in the state. John, Nicholas and William Gordon were indicted for the murder in March, 1844. Nicholas Gordon had been involved in a dispute with Amasa Sprague over the renewal of Gordon’s liquor license.

The Gordon’s, who were Irish Catholics, received the support of the state labor movement, which consisted primarily of Irish and Italian immigrants. At the trial in 1844, Nicholas and William Gordon were found to have ironclad alibis, but considerable circumstantial evidence was presented against John Gordon. John Gordon was convicted of the murder in 1844 and was sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out on February 14, 1845. The labor movement had seen the trial of the Gordons as part of the struggle with the commercially and politically powerful industrialists represented by the Sprague family. John Gordon’s conviction was appealed to the House of Representatives, which denied it by a vote of 36 to 27. It was then appealed to Governor James Fenner, who reviewed the conviction but refused to intercede.

John Gordon was executed for the murder of Amasa Sprague on February 14, 1845. This was the last execution in Rhode Island. On January 23, 1852, after seven years of discussion and debate regarding the merits of Gordon’s conviction and of capital punishment, the Senate Committee on Education issued a report on the history and merits of capital punishment. This report contains literary quotations on the death penalty and contemporary U.S. and European practices regarding capital punishment. On February 11, 1852, the RI General Assembly abolished capital punishment entirely. In 1872, the General Assembly enacted the penalty of death by hanging for murder committed while under sentence of life imprisonment.

In a special session held on June 26, 1973, the General Assembly enacted Public Law Chapter 280, which provided for the penalty of death by lethal gas for murders committed by persons while under confinement in the state correctional institutions. In 1979, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued the opinion that the mandatory death sentence provisions of 1973 Chapter 280 (RI General Laws 11-23-2) violated the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution (State v. Anthony, 398 A.2d 1157 and State v. Cline, 397 A.2d 1309). On May 9, 1984, the General Assembly enacted Public Law Chapter 221, which removed the mandatory death sentence language from RI General Law section 11-23-2. There have been many pieces of legislation introduced since 1984 to reinstate the death penalty for specific crimes, but nothing has been passed into law.
Source: Rhode Island State Library-Abolishing of the Death Penalty in Rhode Island

See also:
Petitions to the General Assembly finding aid

General Assembly - Prisoner/Judicial Petitions, Committee on, 1829-1862

General Assembly - Petitions Failed / Withdrawn, 1811-1874

General Assembly - Petitions Received, 1725-1890

Legislation as Introduced

C#244 & C#245 - Journals of the House & Senate

Capital Television video recordings, 1984-2000

C#0210 - Acts & Resolutions of the General Assembly

Failed Legislation

Journals of the House & Senate

Rhode Island Colony Records, 1646 - 1851

Acts & Resolutions of the General Assembly

Private Acts of the General Assembly

Committee Reports


C#00210 – Acts & Resolves of the RI General Assembly, 1852–1853, Vol. 49 #6


Rhode Island State Archives


1852 February


Copyright is in the public domain unless otherwise specified. We reserve the right to restrict reproduction of materials due to preservation concerns.





Document Item Type Metadata


An Act to abolish capital punishment,
and to provide for the more effectual Punishment
of crime. -
It is enacted by the General Assembly as

Section 1. The punishment of Death is hereby

Section 2. Any person convicted of any crime,
punishable with death by the laws now in force in
this State, shall be confined in the State's Prison,
at labor, for the period of his or her natural life.

Section 3. On the conviction of any person for a crime
now punishable by law with death, he or she, shall there-
upon, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of
matrimony, and all civil rights and relations of
whatever nature, be deemed to be dead in all respects
as if his or her natural death had taken place at
the time of such conviction.

1 Section 4. Hereafter no person convicted of any crime
2 now punishable with death, or other crime for which
3 the punishment is now, by law imprisonment for a
4 term of not less than five years shall be pardoned or
5 released from prison - except by a concurrent recorded
6 vote of three fourths of all the members elected to each
7 House of the General Assembly and approved by the Governor. And all challenges to jurors except for cause in the trial of any criminal case are hereby abolished. So much
8 of any Act as is inconsistent is repealed.

The House of Representatives
February 11th AD 1832
Read + concurred with the
following amendments, In the seventh
line, 4th section after the word Assembly strike
out the word "and" + insert the following
"and approved by the Governor. And all challenges to jurors except for cause, in the trial of any criminal
case are hereby abolished" By Adm W. Hayes, Clerk

Senate Feb 5 AD 1853
By Order-
A. Potter

Original Format



Rhode Island. General Assembly, "Act abolishing capital punishment," in Virtual Exhibits, Item #484, (accessed August 24, 2019).