End of Watch: The killing of Pensacola Police Officer John Gordon

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End of Watch: September 22, 1889

An excerpt from the book, “Some Gave All,” available on Amazon

By Mike Simmons

John William Robert Gordon was born in Conecuh County, near the town of Evergreen, Alabama in 1859 John Williams Robert Gordon. The family, like most of that time, were farmers and lived a very rural but happy life. Jessie Howell lived in the town of Prattville. That was where, after dating for a time, Jessie and John were married on October 13, 1880. The young Gordon couple settled in Pensacola. In 1885, he was listed as being part of the 16-man police department. He earned $60 every month, or about $15 a week.

The January 16, 1886, edition of The Pensacolian newspaper gives an account of Gordon’s work. It details how a man named Charles Mason broke into the store of Mr. C. Perry on Railroad Street by opening a rear window. He stole a box of tobacco, a gold watch, and some money. The paper says that “through the indefatigable efforts of Officer Gordon, he was captured and now languishes in a cell in the county jail.” The tobacco and pistol were recovered.

The first known photo of the Pensacola Police Department

Three years later, Gordon was still on the job, walking his beat as usual. On the evening of September 21, 1889 – a typical, wild Saturday night – Officer Gordon arrested David Sheehan, an engineer on the steamer Echo, at Palafox and Zarragossa Streets. When Gordon placed him under arrest, Sheehan resisted, drew back, and struck Officer Gordon. To bring him under control, Gordon had to use force and strike him with his nightstick. Shortly after the arrest, Sheehan posted bond and was let out while awaiting his appearance in court.

The next day, Sheehan approached Gordon at Palafox and Zarragossa Streets at 6:30 p.m. Sheehan had been drinking. He accused Gordon of striking him unnecessarily. Gordon explained that he was just doing his duty, and then encouraged him to leave, but Sheehan refused and continued. Gordon said, “Dave, if you was an officer like me standing on your beat and I walked up and struck you like you did me and got clubbed, it would be right” Sheehan turned his back on Gordon and began to pace back and forth. Suddenly, Sheehan produced a firearm, turned toward Gordon, raised the gun to Gordon’s face, and said, “I’ll give you a chance for your life.”  

Palafox and Zarragossa Street

Gordon took cover, drew his service weapon and fired. After at least five rounds were fired, Gordon was shot through his heart. He staggered into nearby Sheppard’s Drug Store and collapsed. In a few minutes, his breathing became labored. All efforts to help were fruitless. His breathing became slower and shallower, then, about twenty minutes later, it stopped. He would suffer no more, but his wife and children would. They would never see him alive again. He would never again go fishing with his son and someone else would have to give his daughter away at her wedding.

Officer Hutchinson arrested Sheehan and charged him with murder. It seemed as if the trial would go easy. After all, Sheehan shot Gordon in front of a crowd of people – people who knew them both personally. The trial took place ninety days later, on Friday, December 20, 1889. The trial took a day. The verdict…not guilty!

Sheehan became the president and long-time officer of the Marine Engineers, often representing them in democratic clubs. He became involved with the Tammany Association, the Fire Association, and the Mardi Gras Committee. He served as the town’s Harbormaster, owned property, and operated the bathhouses on the bay, which were named after him. David Sheehan died in 1905 at age 59. He was a favorite in town, perhaps being part of the reason for his acquittal.

Rest in peace, Officer Gordon. Your service to Pensacola is not forgotten.

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