PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CNA) — Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed an official pardon on June 29 for an Irish Catholic man who was hanged in the state for a crime he didn’t commit in 1845.
The move closes an ugly chapter in the long history of discrimination against Catholics in the U.S. and follows the May 4 decision by the Rhode Island Legislature to pardon John Gordon, a 29-year-old Irish immigrant who was executed for a murder many say he was falsely accused of.
“Rhode Island is reaffirming its commitment to religious tolerance,” Nancy Schultz, Ph.D. of Salem State University in Massachusetts told CNA on June 29.
Schultz said the pardon is evidence of a growing consciousness about the nation’s history of anti-Catholic prejudice.
“U.S. Catholic historians have done an admirable job bringing some of this history to light, and it has deepened national awareness of our past,” she said.
Gordon was convicted in 1843 and hanged two years later for allegedly killing a wealthy Rhode Island mill owner who had political connections.
Historians now believe that the evidence against Gordon was tainted and indicative of widespread discrimination against Irish Catholics. During the trial, witnesses failed to positively identify Gordon and a judge instructed jurors to take “Yankee” witnesses more seriously than Irish ones.
“Anti-Catholicism was certainly one of the first religious prejudices brought to the New World, and it became widespread” in the 19th century,” Schultz told CNA in a May 10 interview.
“Catholics had difficulty getting a fair trial in New England during the 19th century.”
Schultz is an authority in English and American Literature and is the author of several books on historical religious discrimination in America.
Her new book, Mrs. Mattingly’s Miracle, (Yale, $30) traces how the more tolerant Maryland tradition in the nation’s capital of accepting Catholicism during the 1820s began to decline into “full-fledged, New England-style anti-Catholicism.”
She said that from 1830 to 1860 in particular, movements such as the “Protestant Crusade” attempted to stop the spread of Catholicism in the United States.
Schultz pointed to examples of public discrimination against Catholics such as the case involving arsonists who burned down a Massachusetts convent in 1834. The trials, she said, “were an occasion for anti-Catholic mockery.”
When the mob leaders who destroyed the Charlestown convent were acquitted, there was “great rejoicing in the streets of Boston.”
Schultz also noted that Gordon’s hanging in 1845 came just nine years before a gift of a block of marble from Pope Pius IX for the construction of the Washington Monument “was thrown into the Potomac River” by members of the anti-Catholic “Know-Nothings.”
She explained that “large numbers of Irish fleeing economic turmoil in 19th-century Ireland and immigrating to America” helped give rise to the nativist (“Know-Nothing”) party, which rose to national prominence in the mid-19th century.
The name came from the response of members of this anti-Catholic secret society. When asked about their activities, they would say, “I know nothing.”
According to Schultz, the roots of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. can be traced back to the Puritans, who came to New England several centuries ago.