Skip to Main Content

About The Book

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.

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)?
3. Hanging Captain Gordon provides many examples of the era's biased newspapers, including the "hate-mongering New York Daily News [which] was so vitriolic a critic of the war that the federal government temporarily suspended its postal rights, effectively stopping publication for nearly a year" (220). What was the role of the press in the Gordon case? Do you think that the media plays a bigger or smaller role now in shaping popular opinion -- whether of criminal cases, politics, or waging war -- than it did in the Civil War era? Is the media more or less biased now than it was then?
4. Soodalter states, "Nathaniel Gordon was caught up at this most vital turning point in American history; and by standing in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time, he would provide the example with his death" (24). Do you agree that Gordon's bad luck and convenient example are the primary reasons for his execution? As Soodalter speculates, "Could it have been his personality?" (58) Can you think of any other reasons why Gordon was singled out for arrest and punishment?
5. The book describes 1860s New York in rich detail, from the vibrant smells of New York Harbor to the corrupt political machine of Tammany Hall. How does the New York described in the book resemble today's New York, or contemporary urban America in general? How does it differ?
6. Why does Elizabeth Gordon, whom Nathaniel Gordon calls "'the partner of all my joys and sorrows'" (311), evoke such sympathy in her own time as well as with contemporary readers?
7. Do you think District Attorney Smith went too far in his prosecution of the slave trade, or not far enough? Why did he fiercely prosecute exactly three men involved in the slave trade -- Nathaniel Gordon, Albert Horn, and Rudolph Blumenberg -- while allowing leniency in his other cases?
8. In his final letters, Gordon expressed no remorse: "'I have no feeling that I have done any wrong action....I have not injured any man knowingly through the whole course of my life'" (310). Why did Gordon vehemently deny inflicting harm upon men? Had he expressed remorse for his crime, do you think his fate or his legacy in American history might have been different? If so, how?
9. What does Abraham Lincoln's handling of the Gordon execution -- from his meetings with representatives of both sides of the issue, to his controversial two-week reprieve -- reveal about his character and his presidency?
10. At the end of the book, Soodalter states, "The slave trade did not die with Captain Gordon; it merely went dormant for over a century, and now it is back" (378). Were you aware of the severity, or even the existence, of the contemporary slave trade before reading this chapter? What actions do you feel you can take to help wipe out slavery?
11. Why, after passing a series of increasingly restrictive laws prohibiting slave trading, did the government do virtually nothing to enforce them, from the days of George Washington until the Civil War? Why did the government pass these anti-slave trade laws in the first place, culminating in legislation that prescribed death for violations? What insights do we have into Lincoln's attitude -- officially and personally -- regarding slavery and the slave trade? Why did he avoid interfering with the one, while setting out to destroy the other?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416522928

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Fascinating and disturbing...a story replete with political intrigue, cynical opportunism, and, of course, immense tragedy."
-- Booklist (starred review)

"A remarkable story."
-- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Hanging Captain Gordon tells with satisfying thoroughness, clarity, and drama the half-forgotten story of the only slave trader executed under American law.... A solid achievement."
-- William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues and Arguing About Slavery

"An engaging book about a forgotten incident in American history."
-- The Washington Times

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images