“Hope that…I may be the last victim of the slave power:” George Gordon, an Abolitionist Prosecuted and Pardoned by Lincoln

ECW welcomes back guest author Max Longley

George Gordon’s gravesite. Courtesy of Ellen McMurray, Morrow County Historical Society.

“Who’s there?” “A friend in the dark.” These were the jealously-guarded passwords by which those fleeing slavery exchanged recognitions with Underground Railroad operators in Morrow County, Ohio.[1]

The President of Morrow County’s racially-integrated Iberia College was George Gordon, an Underground Railroad supporter and abolitionist minister in the antislavery Free Presbyterian Church, which had founded the college. Black and white students studied together, black and white trustees deliberated together, and despite the low income of the college and most students, students worked hard, with intervals of mischief…or activism.[2]

In September 1860, federal marshals and volunteer assistants went hunting for three alleged Kentucky fugitives in Morrow County – they were acting under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The manhunters split into three parties. One party seized their prey, but the other two parties came up empty-handed. One group of pursuers not only failed to seize their target, Grandison Martin, but they excited the indignation of the community when one of their group seized a black Iberia student who was not even a fugitive, and shot the fingers off the student’s hand as he tried to escape. As they were returning to the railroad station, the official kidnappers found themselves confronted by a mixed race abolitionist mob, including Iberia College students.

The behavior of the mob, and of George Gordon, would be the subject of conflicting testimony. The would-be kidnappers alleged that the mob members threatened to hang or shoot them, and that Gordon and others whipped them. Gordon claimed, in contrast, that he arrived on the scene during the last ten minutes of the mob’s actions, and witnessed with approval the kidnappers receiving a whipping, but that he did not do the other things imputed to him.[3]

Near Christmas 1860, amid the secession crisis, a federal grand jury indicted Gordon and his alleged associates for interfering with the carrying out of a fugitive slave warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The grand jury foreman was Kent Jarvis, a prominent Republican – an early indication that some in the Republican Party were opposed to Gordon and his “radical” actions.[4] Republican “moderates” like President-elect Lincoln (and presumably Jarvis) accepted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as valid.[5]

A member of the militant Radical Abolition Party, Gordon did not trust either Democrats or Republicans to put up a vigorous resistance to the Slave Power (as antislavery advocates referred to the pro-slavery side). However, Gordon believed that his chances of a fair trial would be better under Lincoln’s incoming Republican administration   than under the lame-duck Democrat James Buchanan’s administration. Gordon fled to Canada, and waited for the appointment of a Republican U. S. Marshal in northern Ohio before he surrendered himself.[6]

Iberia Presbyterian Church, the last remaining building of Iberia College, later known as Ohio Central College. The church is fittingly the home of the Reverend George Gordon conference room. Public domain.

Even in Canadian exile, contemplating surrender to U. S. authorities for a felony trial, Gordon did not forget his responsibilities as a university President. In a letter to the Anti-Slavery Bugle, Gordon recommended Iberia College to readers as an ideal institution for young people seeking an inexpensive, good education in a moral atmosphere, free from city vices and proslavery influences.[7]

In late April, after the start of the war, George Gordon traveled from Canada to Cleveland and turned himself in to the authorities, who promptly released him on bail. As Gordon had anticipated, the Lincoln administration intended to prosecute. For one thing, the alleged slaves whose capture Gordon had tried to thwart were from Kentucky, a state Lincoln sought to keep in the Union through conciliation. For another thing, the federal prosecutor for Northern Ohio, Robert F. Paine, relied on U. S. Marshals to fight what he considered a nest of antiwar conspirators in his jurisdiction.[8] Paine wouldn’t want to undermine the marshals’ morale by being lenient on those accused of attacking marshals.

Gordon went on trial in November 1861. The prosecution witnesses told their lurid stories, while Gordon gave his testimony minimizing, but still admitting, his interference with the marshals. The jury found Gordon guilty, and Judge Hiram Willson imposed a sentence of six months in prison, a fine of $300, and $1,700 in court costs. Gordon protested that the Fugitive Slave Act he was charged with resisting was both ungodly and unconstitutional. “I cannot repress the hope,” he added, “that, in this line of persecutions I may be the last victim of the slave power.”[9]

Paine defended himself in the press, wrote to the Cleveland Morning Leader defending his conduct of the case, but the prosecutor experienced backlash from militant antislavery people. He was said to be “in sympathy with the rebellion,” and was compared unfavorably with Judas.[10]

Meanwhile, Gordon was serving his sentence in an Ohio prison in Cleveland. Thanks to Cuyahoga County Sheriff James Craw, Gordon had a comparatively comfortable upper room in the prison, where he received many supportive visitors.[11]

Gordon’s privileges ended after he made the acquaintance of a new roommate – George F. Davenport, who was awaiting trial in state court for forgery. Obviously a silver-tongued sort, Davenport told a sad story about how he had committed his crime under the influence of drink, and how his family now faced poverty. Gordon administered a temperance pledge, which Davenport took with every appearance of sincerity. If only he could escape, Davenport pleaded, he would be able to make reparation for his fraud and put things right. Gordon decided to look the other way when Davenport made his escape, which Davenport did in February 1862 by leaving with some of Gordon’s visitors. Davenport was quickly recaptured, and Sheriff Craw decided that Gordon had insolently abused the government’s hospitality. Craw put Gordon in the lower levels of the prison with the regular prisoners, whose blasphemies and insults Gordon now had to endure. Also, the cold conditions gave Gordon rheumatism.[12]

Many clemency petitions came into Washington on Gordon’s behalf.  On March 27, 1862, Pardon Clerk E. C. Herman wrote a memo for Attorney General Edward Bates on the Gordon case. Herman thought that Gordon’s supporters, instead of attacking the Fugitive Slave Act, should have focused, as Herman now did, on the argument that Gordon’s lawbreaking was “a venial offense and his sentence [indecorously?] severe.” Herman found Gordon’s role in the “Iberia riot” to be comparatively minor and inspired by compassion for the slaves. In “similar cases” in “another western district,” Bates had approved dismissal of the charges.

To be sure, according to Herman, Lincoln “cannot disregard and nullify” the Fugitive Slave Act. But Lincoln could look to Gordon’s good motives and respond to the “common sense of the people” on the matter.   Herman concluded that Gordon should get equivalent clemency to what the government was (allegedly) copiously granting to Confederates.[13].

At the same time, Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio (brother of General William T. Sherman) gave a speech emphasizing Gordon’s good character and calling the sentence excessive. Keeping Gordon in prison, Sherman argued, was based on the discredited policy of appeasing the slaveholding states.[14]

On April 2, shortly after Herman’s memo and Sherman’s speech, President Lincoln signed a pardon proclamation. Gordon, Lincoln proclaimed, had simply lent some encouragement to the mob “near the end of the scene.” In light of Gordon being a Christian clergyman with an excellent reputation in his community, Lincoln deemed that Gordon’s “sentence though legal was yet severe.” Gordon had “atoned sufficiently” due to his “imprisonment and suffering” and “the law has been vindicated.”[15]

On the morning of April 5, the U. S. marshal for Northern Ohio showed Gordon the pardon. Gordon refused to accept it. He did not want to accept a pardon suggesting that the Fugitive Slave Act was “legal.” U. S. Attorney Paine said there was no way to force Gordon to accept the pardon. But Gordon’s friends visited him in prison and pleaded with him to accept, which the sickly minister finally agreed to do on April 9.[16]

Gordon was released on $600 bail – he still faced state charges in Davenport’s escape.[17] He then proceeded to Iberia for a rapturous welcome.[18] Back in Cleveland, a jury convicted him for helping Davenport’s abortive escape. On May 22, 1862, Judge Horace Foote imposed a $100 fine and $38.87 in costs, but no prison sentence.[19]

Gordon lived until 1867, continuing to suffer from the effects of the rheumatism he had contracted in prison.[20] “He is buried at the Oval at the Iberia Cemetery, a place of highest honor in commemoration of those who served in the Civil War.”[21] Apparently, fighting against the Slave Power in his home community, plus the respect in which his neighbors held him, earned him this place next to the soldiers of the war.

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles. He is on Substack (https://maxlongley.substack.com/about) where he is working on articles about various topics, definitely including the Civil War.


[1] History of Morrow County and Ohio (Chicago: O. L. Baskin and Company, 1880), 402-03.

[2] George Gordon, letter to the editor, The Anti-Slavery Bugle, March 30, 1861, p. 2; Matthew Anderson, Presbyterianism. Its Relation to the Negro  (Philadelphia: John McGill White and Company, 1897), pp. 137-141. George Gordon is not to be confused with Nathaniel Gordon, a sea captain hanged in 1862 for enslaving Africans. See Ron Soodalter, Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader (New York: Washington Square Press, 2007). Iberia College later became Ohio Central College, from which Warren G. Harding graduated. In 2009, Ohio Central Bible College was established on the site. “About Ohio Central Bible College,”  http://www.ohiocentralbiblecollege.org/About-Us.html

[3] John R. McKivigan, “Prisoner of Conscience: George Gordon and the Fugitive Slave Law,” Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter 1982), pp. 336-354, at 341-43;

John Jolliffe, In the Matter of George Gordon’s Petition for Pardon (Cincinnati: Gazette Company Steam Printing House, 1862), http://www.loc.gov/resource/llst.034; E. C. Herman to Edward Bates, March 27, 1862, George Gordon Clemency file, https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/papersofabrahamlincoln/PAL_Images/PAL_PubMan/1862/04/242107.pdf E. located via http://papersofabrahamlincoln.dataformat.com/Search.aspx. Herman’s signature is difficult to make out, so I checked the spelling against what I could find in Jonathan W. White, “The Presidential Pardon Records of the Lincoln Administration,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 39, Issue 2 (Summer 2018), pp. 55-65, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0039.205/–presidential-pardon-records-of-the-lincoln-administration?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

[4] Ashland Union, December 19, 1860, p. 1; Holmes County Farmer, December 27, 1860, p. 1; Fremont Journal, June 1, 1860, p. 4 (Ohio Republicans expected to nominate Jarvis for Board of Public Works); Wyandot Pioneer, April 5, 1860, p. 2 (Jarvis elected to a railway board of directors)

[5] Lincoln’s nuanced, but almost certainly pro-enforcement, view of the Fugitive Slave Act is found in the six paragraphs beginning “There is much controversy,” in his First Inaugural Address, see https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp. Basically, he supported the return of fugitive slaves and, while having reservations about the 1850 Act, seemed to indicate that he would enforce “unrepealed” statutes such as that Act.

[6] McKivigan, 343; Anti-Slavery Bugle, January 5, 1861, p. 2; Anti-Slavery Bugle, March 23, 1861, p. 3.

[7] George Gordon, letter to the editor, The Anti-Slavery Bugle, March 30, 1861, p. 2.

[8] McKivigan, p. 343; Anti-Slavery Bugle, May 4, 1861, p. 3; John David Smith, “‘Gentlemen, I too, am a Kentuckian’: Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Bicentennial, and Lincoln’s Kentucky in Recent Scholarship,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society,” Vol. 106, No. ¾ (Summer/Autumn 2008), pp. 433-70, at 436-39; Stephen E. Towne, Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America’s Heartland (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015), pp. 30-31.

[9] McKivigan, 344-45.

[10] Cleveland Morning Leader, December 7, 1861, p. 2; same, December 9, 1861, p. 2; Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1861, p. 2; Daily Ohio Statesman, December 11, 1961, p. 2

[11] Cleveland Morning Leader, January 15, 1862, p. 3

[12] McKivigan, 347-48; Cleveland Morning Leader, February 14, 1862, p. 2; Cleveland Morning Leader, May 30, 1862, p. 4.

[13] Petitions on behalf of Gordon; E. C. Herman to Edward Bates, March 27, 1862; all in Pardon File of George Gordon.

[14] Green Mountain Freeman, April 5, 1862, p. 2.

[15] Text of pardon at https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/papersofabrahamlincoln/PAL_Images/PAL_PubMan/1862/04/209248b.pdf, located via http://papersofabrahamlincoln.dataformat.com/Search.aspx.

[16] Cleveland Morning Leader, April 1862, p. 3; McKivigan, 349. Abolitionist lawyer John Jolliffe had been preparing a pardon petition for Gordon, focusing exclusively on the alleged unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln pardoned Gordon before Jolliffe could send the petition, so Jolliffe published it as a pamphlet. Jolliffe, op. cit. As for Jolliffe: “Following passage of the Fugitive Slave [Act] in 1850, John Jolliffe argued practically every fugitive case tried before federal judges and commissioners in southern Ohio.” Steven Weisenburger, Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), p. 98.

[17] Docket book, Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas, 1862. P. 307, Cuyahoga County Archives.

[18] Cleveland Morning Leader, April 18, 1862, p.2

[19] Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga County, Docket Book, p. 315, Cuyahoga County Archives; Cleveland Morning Leader, May 30, 1862, p. 4; Judge Horace Foote, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66828930/horace-foote.

[20]McKivigan, 350.  In February, George F. Davenport received a three-year sentence, at hard labor, for forgery. Governor David Tod pardoned Davenport on October 23, 1863, “in view of promise made by prosecuting attorney on pleading guilty, and on recommendation of judge and prosecuting attorney, and the time served.”Common Pleas Docket book, p. 294; Messages and Reports to the General Assembly and the Governor of the State of Ohio for the Year 1863, Part I (Columbus: Richard Nevins, State Printer, 1864).

[21] “Iberia Presbyterian minister jailed for role in the flogging of a U. S. Marshal,” The Morrow County Sentinel, March 4, 1998, p. 5-A, article image courtesy of Ellen McMurray, Morrow County Historical Society.

3 Responses to “Hope that…I may be the last victim of the slave power:” George Gordon, an Abolitionist Prosecuted and Pardoned by Lincoln

    1. “Herman” is actually “Stedman”. I tried to make that fix during the page proofs of my article in the JALA, but the folks at the journal missed it and the mistake wound up in the article. His name should be “E. C. Stedman.” I think his first name was Edward.

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