Saturday, April 18, 2015

John True Gordon.

John True Gordon
John True Gordon was convicted of one of Maine’s most heinous crimes, the axe murder of his brother Almon, his brother’s wife Emma, and their infant daughter, Millie. Gordon denied any knowledge of the crime and maintained his innocence through two trials. When the courts found him guilty, John True Gordon attempted to cheat the gallows by stabbing himself in the heart. The result was Maine’s most gruesome execution.

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 extinguished 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.”

Trial:  November 11, 1873

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.

Louis Wagner
At the time when the news of the Gordon murder came out, Maine was prosecuting another terrible crime, the axe murders of Anethe and Karen Christensen on Smuttynose Island. The two stories shared the front page of Maine’s newspapers. At the State Prison in Thomaston, the convicted Smuttynose killer, Louis Wagner, and John Gordon struck up a friendship of sorts. On June 26, 1885, the two men would be hanged together in the most horrific execution that the state of Maine has ever performed.

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.

"Black Friday!" Portland Daily Press 26 Jun 1875
"Closing Scenes of the Gordon trial." Portland Daily Press 21 Nov 1873.
"John True Gordon." Bangor Daily Whig and Courier 21 Jan 1874.
"Terrible Tragedy in Maine." Boston Herald 17 Jun 1873.
"The Gallows." New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette 30 Jun 1875.
"The Gordon Horror--Indictment of John T. Gordon." Daily Albany Argus 27 Oct 1873.
"The Gordon Tragedy." Boston Post 18 Jun 1873.
"The Gordon Trial." Portland Daily Press 13 Nov 1873.
"The Thorndike Murder Trial Belfast, Me." New York Herald 14 Nov 1873.
"The Thorndike Tragedy." Boston Journal 24 Jun 1873

Scee, Trudy Irene. Rogues, Rascals, and Other Villainous Mainers. Camden: Down East Books, 2014.
Schechter, Harold. Psycho USA. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012.
Luminous-Lint: John True Gordon. Rockland, Maine


Unknown says:
October 24, 2015 at 9:37 PM

The Thanatos Archive is a collection of Victorian post-mortem photographs. Amazingly, they have some of the Gordon family.

WARNING: they are gruesome, which is highly unusual for post-mortems. Usually the photographer or family cleaned them up to look better.

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 25, 2015 at 6:14 PM


Thanks for posting, I had no idea these photos existed. Unfortunately, it looks like you need to be a member to log in, and they only take new members on the first of the month. I'll try again next week. If the pictures are not too gruesome, I will try to post them here.


SavageGrace says:
February 16, 2016 at 4:22 PM

On this it's stated Wagner professed his innocence but Gordon was unconscious but on the Smuttynose blog, it's state Wagner was silent and Gordon begged for his life. Which is true? (And I'd love to see the Thanatos images if possible!)

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 17, 2016 at 12:34 PM

SavageGrace, The Smuttynose post was based on sources relating to Smuttynose, this post is based on sources relating to Gordon, so it is not surprising that they don't agree. Maybe someday I will go though these posts and try to make them all consistent, but that will probably mean adding a lot of fudge words like, "reportedly," "allegedly", "some say...others say." The event was more than 140 years ago and the press was no more accurate then than it is now.

SavageGrace says:
February 17, 2016 at 3:34 PM

I figured but thought I should ask "just in case." Thanks for the prompt response - love the site! :-)

rjpsmith says:
June 10, 2017 at 9:20 AM

Readers should also look into the story of Martin Bergen of North Brookfield, Mass. He was a professional baseball player for the Boston Beaneaters. He purchased Snowball Farm from my great-grandfather, John S.C. Smith in the late 19th century and murdered his wife and two children with an axe before committing suicide. They are all buried together but only Martin's name is on the headstone which was purchased by his two boyhood friends, Connie Mack and George M. Cohan. Martin's wife, Hattie was the great aunt of a buddy of mine from high school but neither of us had heard of this until I found my GGF's obituary in the Worcester Telegram in 1912.

Unknown says:
October 18, 2017 at 1:07 PM

Hello Robert. my name is Cassie and I am a direct descendant of the Gordon's. I live in Thorndike Maine and I actually have photo copies of hand written letters from John true Gordon to his mother while he was in jail. I also have a photo copy of the hand written confession letter from the man whom actually did the murders. I will try to share copies the hand writing is hard to make out in some places but I will try to post copies that are clear and easy to zoom in on. Did you find the photos on the website posted above by any chance I would love to see them

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 23, 2017 at 10:08 AM

Hi Cassie, If you would like to email copies of the letters to I will put up a special post for them in Murder by Gaslight. RW

Charity says:
August 23, 2020 at 9:14 AM

Where can I view these?

Charity says:
August 23, 2020 at 9:15 AM

How does one view the photos?

Allyssa says:
April 16, 2021 at 9:32 PM

Greetings. Great blog but I believe the matriarch's name was Drusilla. I can send you a picture of their headstone as we live in Thorndike, possibly on their property.

Unknown says:
April 19, 2021 at 10:03 PM

So this is a relative in my blood line I miss my grampa Kenwood Gordon telling us this story

Unknown says:
April 19, 2021 at 10:06 PM

We are related :) Laurel Story, grand daughter to Kenwood Gordon

Unknown says:
October 16, 2021 at 10:43 PM

Cassie..please contact me about this story..Rita D. email at Thanks!

Unknown says:
April 19, 2022 at 7:57 AM

I have lived in Thorndike 7 years, near the Gordon farm property. This history struck a cord with me. Love this site.

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