Hanging Captain Gordon

The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader

Hanging Captain Gordon

On a frosty day in February 1862, hundreds gathered to watch the execution of Nathaniel Gordon. Two years earlier, Gordon had taken Africans in chains from the Congo -- a hanging offense for more than forty years that no one had ever enforced. But with the country embroiled in a civil war and Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a sea change was taking place. Gordon, in the wrong place at the wrong time, got caught up in the wave.

For the first time, Hanging Captain Gordon chronicles the trial and execution of the only man in history to face conviction for slave trading -- exploring the many compelling issues and circumstances that led to one man paying the price for a crime committed by many. Filled with sharply drawn characters, Soodalter's vivid account sheds light on one of the more shameful aspects of our history and provides a link to similar crimes against humanity still practiced today.
  • Atria Books | 
  • 352 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416522928 | 
  • May 2010
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Reading Group Guide

Hanging Captain Gordon
Ron Soodalter
Nathaniel Gordon, a prosperous sea captain from Maine, was executed for slave trading during the early days of Lincoln's presidency. The crime had been a hanging offense for over forty-two years before Captain Gordon was put to death, yet no one before or after Gordon shared his fate. Hanging Captain Gordon delves into the reasons behind the execution, and explores the actions of both the young prosecutor and the dedicated civil servant who went out of his way to ensure that Captain Gordon paid the penalty, and into whose care Captain Gordon entrusted his family as the rope was placed around his neck.
Discussion Questions:
1. Before reading Hanging Captain Gordon, were you aware that while "the South called for slaves, it was largely the New York and New England captains and their ships and crews that delivered them" (13)? If this fact is surprising to you, why is that? What are the popular assumptions about the North's role in the slave trade, and why do you think they differ from the reality revealed in the book?
2. Explain the moral distinction between slavery and the slave trade in Captain Gordon's time. Why was slavery legal while the slave trade was illegal? If District Attorney Delafield Smith called the slave trade "'against humanity, unjust and impolitic'" (155) how could he also be "by his own admission, at most a moderate on the slavery issue" (155)?
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About the Author

Ron Soodalter
Photo Credit:

Ron Soodalter

Ron Soodalter is a passionate educator and lay historian. With a master's degree in education and full master's credits in American folk culture, he has taught American history and was formerly a museum curator. He has also been a professional artist and concert guitarist, and has field-collected the traditional ballads of America, Scotland and Ireland. He operates a consortium of special effects and animation studios for the commercial television market. Mr. Soodalter lives in Chappaqua, New York.