Slave Trader - History's Most Ignoble Trade?
One who buys, sells or barters commodities or materials of value.
The term "Trader" is innocent enough, and no doubt, there are many
throughout history who have practiced this profession with honesty and
honor. The problem occurs when the "commodity of value" becomes men,
women and children. The Slave Traders, or those who traffic in slaves,
will doubtless claim the position as History's Most Detestable
A Slave Market in Atlanta Georgia in 1864
Slave traders were those who fitted
ships, sailed to the Slavery Coast of Africa, and procured men, women,
and children to bring back to be sold as enslaved laborers. This was an
expensive endeavor, and the Slave Traders were often backed by the Rich
and Powerful. In many cases, Slave Traders themselves were made
rich by their work.
Under any conditions, this work would be
detestable, but the outrage was multiplied by the complete inhumanity
with which they pursued their chosen profession. The conditions on
the slave ships were reprehensible, with
people packed so closely they could not even lie down.
It is against this backdrop that we
present the following story. It is an engraving and article from
the March 8, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly. The story describes
one of the most notorious of the Slave Traders - Nathaniel Gordon.
The story describes Mr. Gordon's capture, trial, and execution. Make
note of the detailed description of the conditions on Mr. Gordon's ship,
and the abject misery of his "passengers".
Of particular interest is Mr. Gordon's
last few hours of life. He was unrepentant to the end. His last
few hours were agonizing and miserable, as he prepared to face his
ultimate judgment for a life of greed and brutality.
THE EXECUTION OF GORDON, THE
Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862
NOT the least important among the changes
which are taking place in the current of national policy and public
opinion is evidenced by the fact that on Friday, 21st February, in this
city, NATHANIEL GORDON was hung for being engaged in the slave-trade.
For forty years the slave-trade has been pronounced piracy by law, and
to engage in it has been a capital offense. But the sympathy of the
Government and its officials has been so often on the side of the
criminal, and it seemed so absurd to hang a man for doing at sea that
which, in half the Union, is done daily without censure on land, that no
one has ever been punished under the Act. The Administration of
has turned over a new leaf in this respect. Henceforth the slave-trade
will be abandoned to the British and their friends. The hanging of
Gordon is an event in the history of our country.
He was probably the most successful and
one of the worst of the individuals engaged in the trade. A native of
Maine, he had engaged in the business many years since, and had always
eluded justice. The particular voyage which proved fatal to him was
undertaken in 1860. The following summary of the case we take from the
It was in evidence (given by Lieutenant
Henry D. Todd, U.S.N.) that the ship Erie was first discovered by the
United States steamer Mohican, on the morning of the 8th day of August,
1860; that she was then about fifty miles outside of the River Congo, on
the West Coast of Africa, standing to the northward, with all sail set;
that she was flying the American flag, and that a gun from the Mohican
brought her to.
It was shown by Lieutenant Todd that he
went on board himself about noon, and took command of the prize. He
found on board of the Erie, which our readers will remember was but 500
tons burden, 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. The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth
and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive.
EXECUTION OF GORDON THE SLAVE-TRADER, NEW
YORK, FEBRUARY 21, 1862.
At first he of course knew nothing about
them, and 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, we
will but mention that running sores and cutaneous diseases of the most
painful as well as contagious character infected the entire load.
Decency was unthought of; privacy was simply impossible — nastiness and
wretchedness reigned supreme. From such a state of affairs we are not
surprised to learn that, during the passage of fifteen days, twenty-nine
of the sufferers died, and were thrown overboard.
It was proved by one of the seamen that
he, with others, shipped on the Erie, believing her to be bound upon a
legitimate voyage, and that, when at sea they suspected, from the nature
of the cargo, that all was not right, which suspicion they mentioned to
the Captain (Gordon), who satisfied them by saying that he was on a
lawful voyage, that they had shipped as sailors, and would do better to
return to their duties than to talk to him. Subsequently they were told
that they had shipped on a slaver, and that for every negro safely
landed they should receive a dollar.
The negroes were taken on board the ship on the 7th day of August, 1860,
and the entire operation of launching and unloading nearly nine hundred
negroes, occupied but three quarters of an hour, or less time than a
sensible man would require for his dinner. As the poor creatures came
over the side Gordon would take them by the arm, and shove them here or
there, as the case might be, and if by chance their persons were covered
from entire exposure by a strip of rag, he would, with his knife, cut it
off, fling it overboard, and send the wretch naked with his fellows.
Several of the crew testified, all agreeing that Gordon acted as
Captain; that he engaged them; that he ordered them; that he promised
them the $l per capita; that he superintended the bringing on board the
negroes; and that he was, in fact, the master-spirit of the entire
For this crime Gordon was arrested, tried, and, mainly through the
energy of District-Attorney Smith, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Immense exertions were made by his friends and the slave-trading
interest to procure a pardon, or at least a commutation of his sentence,
from President Lincoln, but without avail. He was sentenced to die on
21st. We abridge the following account of his last hours and execution
[which we illustrate above] from the Herald and Times:
THE ATTEMPT TO COMMIT SUICIDE.
Nothing worthy of note occurred until
about three o'clock A.M. on Friday morning, when the keepers were
alarmed by the prisoner being suddenly seized with convulsions. At first
it was supposed that he was trying to strangle himself; but on a close
examination it was evident that he was suffering from the effects of
poison. Dr. Simmons, the prison physician, was immediately sent for, and
stimulants were freely administered for the purpose of producing a
reaction. For the first half hour or so the efforts of the physician
appeared to have but little effect. The patient became quite rigid under
the influence of the poison, his pulse could scarcely be felt, and it
was thought that after all the gallows would be cheated of its victim.
Drs. James R. Wood and Hodgman, who were also in attendance upon the
prisoner, labored hard to resuscitate the dying man, and finally, by
means of the stomach-pump and the use of brandy, the patient was
sufficiently recovered to be able to articulate. It was not until eight
o'clock, however, that the physicians had any hope of saving Gordon's
life. From that hour, however, the prisoner gradually recovered,
although he was subject to fainting fits for hours afterward. When
sensible he begged of the doctors to let him alone, preferring, he said,
to die by his own hand rather than suffer the ignominy of a public
It has not been satisfactorily
ascertained how or in what manner the unfortunate man procured the
poison with which he contemplated self-destruction. The symptoms were
evidently those of strychnine, and the only way in which the keepers can
account for the presence of the poison is its introduction in the cigars
which Gordon had smoked so freely the night before. On Thursday the
prisoner was compelled to undergo a rigid search, his clothing was
changed entirely, and he was placed in a new cell, so that it would seem
impossible almost for him to have procured the poison in any other way
than that suggested by his keepers.
A few minutes after eleven o'clock, when
it was apparent to Gordon that the execution would certainly take place,
notwithstanding his attempt at suicide, he sent for Marshal Murray, and
said he had something of a private nature to communicate. The Marshal
repaired to the bedside of the culprit and asked if any thing could be
done to alleviate his sufferings. Gordon raised himself slowly from his
cot, and with much difficulty, said: "Cut a lock of hair from my head
and give it to my wife." Then taking a ring from his finger, he
requested that that also should be sent to his wife in remembrance of
her husband. The request was cheerfully complied with, and the official,
quite overcome with emotion, left the unhappy man to his fate.
At 12 o'clock, Marshal Murray notified
Gordon, through Mr. Draper, that the hour had arrived. At this he
expressed great surprise, and said he thought he had two hours more in
which to live. The clergyman entered the cell and prayed with him, or
rather for him. Deputy Marshal Borst aided him in dressing and gave him
a large drink of clear whisky, when his arms were tied, the black cap
was put carelessly on one side of his head, and he was carried on the
deputy's shoulders to a chair in the corridor. The sight was simply
The man was not sober—that is, so powerful had been the effect of the
poison that, in order to keep him alive till the necessary moment, they
had been obliged to give him whisky enough to make an ordinary man drunk
three times over. He sat lollingly in the chair, gazing listlessly
around, while the Marshal, with unaffected emotion, read the former
reprieve to him. That done, he was helped to his feet, and held there
while the Marshal read to him. the death-warrant.
After this he looked around with a senseless smile, asked for some more
whisky, which was kindly given him. The procession was then formed,
Gordon stalking with a bravadoish air, upheld by the Marshals, toward
To a casual spectator it would appear that, exhausted by mental or
physical suffering, Gordon was making a great effort to walk manfully to
his fate. As it was, however, he had just sense enough left to endeavor
to follow out the suggestion of the well-meaning deputy, who told him to
die like a man, and to walk to the rope, so that no one could accuse him
of fear. When he reached the scaffold, he said, "Well, a man can't die
but once; I'm not afraid." The cap was drawn over the whitened,
meaningless features, the noose-knot was carefully adjusted under his
ear, and he stood, an unthinking, careless, besotted wretch waiting for
he knew not what, when with a jerk he went high in air, and fell to the
length of the rope, still senseless, still unfeeling, still regardless
of pain or pleasure.
The body swayed hither and thither for a few moments, and all was quiet.
No twitchings, no convulsions, no throes, no agonies. His legs opened
once, but closed again, and he hung a lump of dishonored clay.