The Death of Pensacola Police Officer John William Robert Gordon: September 22, 1889
When a police officer dies, the whole community feels the effect. When an officer is killed in the line a duty, a strange phenomenon occurs. The citizens in the community feel a loss, and the department members feel like a member of their family has died. The members of the Pensacola Police Department had never experienced this feeling until September 23, 1889. It was the first time.
He was one of the first. On February 14, 1885, the 16 police officers who were on the department’s payroll at the time made history. They were officially listed as police officers when the state of Florida and the City of Pensacola reorganized. Officer John William Robert (JWR) Gordon earned $60 every month, or about $15 a week. So, even though lawmen had existed in our town for many years, they were now officially numbered as the first police officers.
John was born in Prattville, Alabama in 1856, just when the young United States were in danger of breaking apart. The town itself was busy with the industrial way of life that most of the citizens knew. By his fifth birthday, the nation was at war with itself. For five years, John experienced chaos as a way of life. When the war came to an end, life got better. Unlike many small towns after the Civil War, Prattville continued to exceed as a town with great industrial strength. It was incorporated as an official city in Alabama in 1865.
John was a likeable teenager, popular with all the young people. In 1880, he decided he found the love of his life and wanted to settle down. On October 13, 1880, he married the beautiful Jessie Howell.
The young couple soon began a family. A year after they were married, a daughter was born to them. She was named after her mother – Jessie. Then came John William Robert Gordon Jr. They also moved from their home 200 miles south to the coastal town of Pensacola, Florida, where John got a job as a police officer.
John was one of the guys. He loved his job. And he was popular; he always had a circle of friends that he spent time with off duty. They were close. John was making a new life for himself and his family. He was a citizen of the growing town, had an honorable position and a beautiful family. Life was good.
Then it happened. Shortly after the birth of his third child, Jessie died suddenly, leaving John a young widower and single parent with three hungry mouths to feed. Life went from good to a daily struggle.
4 ½ years after the city reorganized, John was still on the job, working his foot beat as normal. On September 22, 1889, Officer Gordon found himself investigating a complaint against a tug-boat employee named David Sheehan. When John determined that enough evidence existed, he placed Sheehan under arrest. That’s when the fight started. Sheehan violently resisted, leaving John no choice but to subdue Sheehan with his club. Shortly after the arrest, Sheehan posted bond and was let out while awaiting his appearance in court.
The next day, Sheehan went onto his tug-boat and, searching through his belongings, located what he was looking for – his pistol. He didn’t usually keep it with him, but this was a different matter. He opened it and found it loaded with only one round. Thinking he would need more and fresh ammo, he walked further into the boat yard and fired the round off. Then he loaded the handgun full – just in case of a shootout. He headed out in search of Officer John Gordon.
He had to get his courage up. After all, this was an officer of the law. They are tough. He thought about it, then knew what to do. He went to the home of his friend Thomas Mullen.
“Hi, David. Are you okay? I heard you got into a fight with a policeman last night and went to jail. Is that true?”
“Yeah, it’s true. Maybe I should have gone to jail, and maybe I didn’t have to put up a fight, but he didn’t have to hit me so hard! I’m gonna get him back. You can be sure of that!”
The two men sat at the home of Mullen and had a beer. It made David feel better. They ate supper and took in more liquid courage. David was now beginning to feel a little more brash.
“Let’s go,” said David. “You wanna come with me?”
“No, I don’t. And I don’t want you going either! But, if you aren’t going to listen to me, I might as well go along and keep you out of trouble.”
The two men walked downtown. Officer Gordon wasn’t hard to find. He was working his usual foot beat at Palafox and Zarragossa Streets at 6:30 pm.
“There he is,” blurted the somewhat inebriated Sheehan. “I’m gonna…”
“Hey, David,” said his friend Mullen. “Let’s go get a beer at ‘Smarts.’”
With his gaze on Officer Gordon, Sheehan reluctantly followed his friend into the bar. The two men nursed their beers for half an hour. Mullen was hoping to get Sheehan to forget about the feud with Officer Gordon, but it was not to be. With every minute, Sheehan became more agitated and louder.
Finally, Mullens had had enough. “David, go ahead. Do whatever it is you’re going to do,” he said and went home. A few more minutes of fuming and mustering courage brought Sheehan to make his decision. He got up and stumbled out onto the street.
Morris Dannheisser owned the Palace Saloon, an icon of south Palafox Street. Everyone knew where Dannheisser’s was. As Sheehan passed by the door, he saw Police Captain Jonathan Stokes talking with Boat Captain Collins on the sidewalk.
“Hey, Cap’n,” said an intoxicated Sheehan.
“Mr. Sheehan,” the captain replied. “Are you okay from your arrest yesterday?”
“Look, Officer Gordon didn’t have to hit me, you know.”
Captain Stokes looked at him and said, “David, you became violent. You were fighting him. What did you expect? Any officer would have done the same thing, maybe worse.”
“You other officers were close by. He could have called you. He didn’t have to hit me!”
“You didn’t have to hit him either, David,” said the captain. “Now, why don’t you go home and get some sleep. Maybe you will feel better tomorrow.”
Sheehan began walking. Further up Palafox is where he came near Officer Gordon.
“Hey, Gordon,” he said loudly, attracting the attention of everyone around.
Gordon said “Hi, David. You seem to be recovered well. How are you feeling?”
“You didn’t have to hit me, you know. You could have called the other officers.”
Gordon explained that he was just doing his duty, then encouraged him to leave, but Sheehan refused and continued with the accusations, becoming increasingly louder and more disorderly.
Gordon tried to get him to go home, “David, don’t make me take you in again. If we have to fight, it might be worse. You are already nursing an injury. Let’s not add to it, okay?”
Suddenly, Sheehan pulled his pistol from his waistband and pointed it at Officer Gordon. “We’ll see about that!”
Gordon dove for cover and blew his whistle for backup. Despite warnings to put the weapon down, Sheehan continued to try and get a shot at the officer. Gordon was afraid. Here was a man who violently resisted him, is drinking, and has now drawn a weapon in revenge. This was not good. Gordon hastily drew his service weapon and fired but missed Sheehan. Shots rang out on the crowded corner like the OK Corral. After at least five rounds were fired, Officer Gordon had been struck in the left side of the chest, the bullet passing through his heart, and exiting near his left arm pit. He staggered into nearby Sheppard’s Drug Store, collapsed and died 20 minutes later. Officers quickly arrived on the scene and Officer Hutchinson took Sheehan into custody.
In one moment of intoxicated revenge, David Sheehan immediately made three children orphans. He virtually stopped the entire city. This had never happened before. Pensacola was in shock.
A coroner’s jury was soon formed. After viewing the evidence and presenting to the judge, Sheehan was remanded to custody. When a grand jury was convened, they brought murder charges against David Sheehan.
On the day – December 20, 1918, the courtroom was packed to capacity. The prosecution presented a cut and dry case. After all, the murder happened in front of many witnesses.
Then it was the defense’s turn. The only weapon they had in their arsenal was to put Sheehan on and let him tell his side of the story, which he did.
The jury’s deliberation seemed like an eternity, not only for the crowd, but for the defendant. Finally, the time had come for the verdict to be read.
The jury foreman nervously stood, looked at the judge, the defendant, the crowd, and back at the judge. Then he began “We the jury, find the defendant, David Sheehan, not guilty of murder.”
The crowd was devastated. A killer was let loose. The only thing that made sense was that Sheehan did a good job on the stand. Anyway, he was free.
Following the coroner’s inquest, Officer Gordon’s body was shipped to Alabama for burial.