|John True Gordon|
Date: June 17, 1873
Location: Thorndike, Maine
Victim: Almon, Emma, and Millie Gordon
Cause of Death: Blows from an axe
Accused: John True Gordon
Elden Ward was awaked by child’s screams around three o’clock, the morning of June 17, 1873. He slept in an upstairs room in the farmhouse of Almon Gordon and family, in Thorndike, Maine, where he worked as a hired hand. Ward immediately smelled smoke; the house was in flames. He ran downstairs to the Gordon’s bedroom and found the bed and the floor covered with blood. Almon Gordon, his wife Emma, and their seventeen-month-old daughter, Millie were lying dead with their skulls crushed. Their five-year-old son, Ira, who slept in the same room, appeared to be dead as well. Ward ran out of the house to alert the neighbors.
The Gordon’s neighbors were able to extinguish the fire before it did too much damage to the house. When the smoke cleared they went inside and found the partially charred bodies of Almon, Emma, and Millie. They had been attacked with an axe; their heads had been split open. Ira had been injured as well, but was still living. The room was awash with blood mixed with the water that extinguish the fire.
Two others sleeping in the house managed to escape unharmed; Anna Gordon, seven-year-old niece of Almon Gordon, and Almon’s brother, John True Gordon. Ward said that John Gordon had tried to prevent him from notifying the neighbors and while the neighbors were fighting fire, John was more concerned with saving the furniture than putting out the fire. His strange behavior and the fact that he had blood on his clothing made John Gordon the prime suspect. A coroner’s jury was hastily called, and they ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold John True Gordon for murder. As morning broke in Thorndike, Maine, news of the murder spread through town and the authorities feared for John Gordon’s safety as they took him to jail in Belfast, Maine.
John and Almon Gordon had not been on good terms since their father gave Almon the deed to the Gordon Homestead—as the successful farm was known—to Almon, in exchange for taking care of the parents, John True Gordon, Sr. and Lucilla Gordon, for as long as they lived. John was three years older than Almon, and felt the Homestead should go to him. The brothers’ parents lived in the farmhouse as well, but on the night of the murders they were away on a visit to Bangor, Maine.
At the inquest, another motive came out. John Gordon’s fiancé, Julia Edwards, received several anonymous letters which disparaged John’s character. Determined to find the source of the letters and to take revenge, John took them to a clairvoyant in Bangor, named Mrs. Toward. She confirmed his suspicion that they had been written by his sister-in-law, Emma. The Saturday evening before the murders John True was heard to say that he would get even with her and he was quoted as saying, “I know one thing: Almon’s life or mine is damned short in this world.”
John True Gordon was tried for the murder of Emma Gordon. Presumably, if he managed to escape conviction he could be tried for two more murders. The case against him was entirely circumstantial, but very strong, with more than fifty witnesses scheduled to testify. On the first day of the trial, the prosecutor opening statement lasted two hours, then the jury was taken to the Gordon Homestead to see the scene of the crime.
Gordon’s defense was weak. His mother Lucilla Gordon testified that the brothers lived together in friendship and that John had no displeasure when the farm was conveyed to Almon. John testified in his own defense but in his rambling testimony he did not even directly deny his own guilt.
The Attorney General made the closing argument, speaking for six hours. Then the judge gave the jury instructions that were strongly against the prisoner. The jury deliberated for an hour and a half before returning a guilty verdict.
Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder
The trial was appealed on technicalities, but on January 20, 1874, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the verdict. John True Gordon was sentenced to hang.
The night before the execution, Gordon was visited by two friends. Either one of them slipped him a knife or one of the prisoners had passed a knife to him, but the next morning Gordon was able to stab himself in the chest, probably deep enough to pierce his heart. Gordon was bloody and unconscious when was found, but the execution proceeded as planned. Wagner walked firmly to the gallows but Gordon, pale and covered with blood, was borne by four men. When they reached the gallows, Wagner saw the condition of his fellow prisoner and said, “Poor Gordon, poor Gordon, you are gone!”
The reporter for the Portland Daily Press who witnessed the execution said:
Those who saw the miserable wretch Gordon upon that trap will always remember it. That ghastly face with the bright sun showing up its hideousness, the deep groans, the bloody limp form held up by the officers, made up a picture of such utter horror and despair as is rarely seen even in the fiercest conflicts of war.On the gallows Louis Wagner professed his innocence; had he been conscious, John Gordon would have done so as well. At 11:49, the sheriff sprung the traps and the men fell. Seventeen minutes later both were pronounced dead.
John True Gordon is buried in Sayward Cemetery in Thorndike, Maine.