While offering a D’var Torah/sermon about capital punishment at my former synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, I shared the following story of a Jewish execution victim local to that area. I also informed the kehillah that in attendance at the synagogue that same morning was Vancouver resident Bethany Bourgeois, the daughter of Alfred Bourgeois, who was an innocent man put to death by the US federal government on the second night of Hanukkah, 2020. Both her presence and the history outlined below served as reminders that the death penalty impacts every community, including the Jewish one.
During my stint as Jewish prison chaplain for the federal prisons of British Columbia, I learned about the 1957 hanging of Joseph Gordon, a Jewish man from Vancouver. Gordon was one of the most notorious Jewish prisoners in British Columbia. He was guilty of the brutal murder of 40-year-old Constable Gordon Sinclair, Z’L (of blessed memory) – a father of two daughters and a son – during a failed robbery on the rainy night of December 7th, 1955.
This horrific crime took place in South Vancouver on Oak Street, on which several blocks north one would find Congregation Beth Israel – where I served at the time as a cantor – as well as other community synagogues. Gordon’s trial has been called “one of the most sensational murder trials in the history of Vancouver, British Columbia, one that revealed the evil, violent underworld that flourishes at a time of widespread local police corruption.” (Macdonald and O’Keefe, Born to Die) Joseph Gordon’s execution at the Oakalla Prison Farm in 1957 was the third-to-last incident of capital punishment to have taken place in British Columbia before Canada abolished the death penalty for nearly all cases in a parliamentary vote on July 14, 1976. (Canada abolished remaining capital offenses – i.e. treason – in 1998.) As of 2011, older members of Vancouver’s Jewish community still remembered both the trial and execution. One individual wishing to remain anonymous vividly recalled visiting Gordon in prison with Rabbi Bernard Goldenberg, spiritual leader of Congregation Schara Tzedeck from 1952 to 1964. Chaplain Gary Friedman, former head of the Seattle-based organization Jewish Prisoner Services International, also recalled the infamous case.
So well-known is Gordon’s tale in the wider collective memory that one can find it in book-form today under the title Born to Die: A Cop Killer’s Final Message by Ian Macdonald and Betty O’Keefe. That title refers to Gordon’s final major statement as published posthumously by the Vancouver Sun. This message, written in his cell in the final days before his execution, did not mention his Jewish background, though it did tell of his broken childhood. Gordon described how he was born in Montreal, where he was raised in a large middle-class family of four sisters and three older brothers. They moved to Vancouver in 1929, at which point Gordon began his first of multiple stints in juvenile detention homes at the age of six for the crime of running away from home. In his final message, Gordon depicted the physical abuse he endured from his father and the negative influences that met him within the youth facilities. By twelve-years-old, Gordon found himself in the Boys Industrial School for small offenses, often involving theft. His first sentence at Oakalla Prison Farm came at the age of fifteen, when his possession of burglary tools caught up with him. It was here that, as Gordon put it, he “learned what a drug addict was.”
Gordon’s last published words are most renowned for the final lesson he hoped to teach the world before his state killing. Gordon wished to illustrate how his poor upbringing became his undoing. Through his own example, he sought to underscore for the adult members of the public the need to treat their children appropriately so they might avoid a fate similar to his. Gordon’s swansong opened with the following assertions:
“Whatever good I can do before I depart this world of pain and tears, let me do now…so that whatever joy and happiness I may bring can in some measure replace the sufferings that others may feel. Juvenile delinquency begins in the home, and expands on the street, for the path of juvenile delinquency is but a step from the road of rim and that twisting, tortuous land of unfortunate humans who walk by night; the lepers of society. For some it is a means of experience; for others a career. Live dangerously and die young – to use a tired cliché.
As one glances in retrospect the phrase “born to die” leaps into mind. As Sophocles put it:
“Never to have been born is much the best,
And the next best by far,
To return whence by the way speediest,
Where our beginnings are.”
Every person has criminal elements within him – but he is not born a criminal. Many factors go into the ruination of a personality; home environment and parental love are basic in the development of a child.
Gordon continued by citing his own childhood and life to prove his thesis, and warn future generations. His letter essentially was a petition to parents of the 1950s to work to foster the type of childhood for their boys and girls that he never knew in what he considered to have been a wasted life. Authors MacDonald and O’Keefe wrote of how Gordon “was an intelligent man who read a great deal, but still could do nothing to change his own lifestyle and avoid the gallows.” Still, the conclusion of Gordon’s final message ends with somewhat of a hopeful tone:
“This is not a tirade against society. It is meant as a frank appraisal of what society should be and how it can protect its future. The youngsters of today will represent [the] society of tomorrow.
Guided by understanding and parental love, these juveniles may well be tomorrow’s leaders and go on to help other good citizens.”
The authors of Gordon’s biography comment that “in Vancouver, even in all of BC, there had never been a last message like his from a condemned killer. Believable or not, he made his points, his arguments, suggestions and pleas. His letter might have been the basis of study and comment by those interested and working in the fields of delinquency and the social sciences; perhaps it did influence some of them, but that is unknown.”
Though Gordon did not explicitly mention his Jewishness in this last official message, other sources attest to the importance of his religious background as his execution approached. Former Oakalla correctional officer Earl Andersen drew attention to this relationship in his work Hard Place to do Time: The Story of Oakalla Prison, 1912-1991. Andersen described Gordon as someone who “considered himself a poet of sorts, and while in Oakalla he wrote numerous poems and letters,” particularly during the final days before his slated execution, when the “gaol-house poet wrote letters to his lawyer, rabbi and fellow prisoners.” The rabbi to which Andersen referred is the aforementioned Bernard Goldenberg who visited Gordon while he was incarcerated. The authors of Born to Die offer a unique insight into Gordon’s connection with the local Jewish community via Rabbi Goldenberg even in his final hours:
Rabbi Bernard Goldenberg visited Gordon on death row, but after a short stay Gordon asked him to leave. He also told the rabbi not to attend the hanging. Goldenberg complied with Gordon’s wishes, but he did make one last attempt to help him. He contacted a friend, lawyer Arthur Fouks, to ask if anything more could be done for Gordon. Fouks in turn got in touch with well-known criminal defender Angelo Branca, and the two lawyers rushed to the penitentiary that night for one last meeting with Warden Christie. But they could do nothing to stay the execution. Gordon turned down the chance of a special last meal.”
One might interpret Gordon’s actions at first as a lack of interest for Rabbi Goldenberg and the Jewish ties that he represented. Upon closer examination, these might also have been gestures on the part of Gordon to distance the rabbi from his fate, or perhaps to preserve the rabbi’s memory of him before the hanging.
Gordon’s final unofficial communication penned in his cell the night before the hanging most clearly demonstrated the role of Rabbi Goldenberg in his mind at the time. He wrote the note for Attorney Norman Mullins, the lawyer of his ex-partner Jimmy Carey. The message was all of seven sentences long and was made public after the execution. Within the missive, Gordon singled out the rabbi as of only two individuals whom he specifically thanked by name (the other being Atty. Larry Hill, his lawyer). Gordon wrote, “To Mr. Hill and Rabbi Goldenberg, I express my deep appreciation for their sincere belief in me and for their many kindnesses.”
The execution of Joseph Gordon reinforces how the issue of capital punishment is – among many things – also a “Jewish issue.” The death penalty that the US government recently issued for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shooter serves as but the most recent example of this relevance. Texas’s attempted killing of Jewish death row resident Randy Halprin on the day after Yom Kippur in 2019 was a similar reminder, as is that same state’s slated killing of my longtime Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy on October 10th, which is World Day Against the Death Penalty. Other examples of Jews on death row abound. In response to this human rights issue – and “Jewish issue” – In response to this human rights issue – and “Jewish issue” – for the many reasons I have outlined in this blog below, I join the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” in chanting forevermore: “L’chaim – to Life!”
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty
Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action