“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.” —Joe Gordon, writing within days of his execution.
Joe Gordon was born in Montreal in 1923 but grew up in Vancouver. He was the last of eight children of a Jewish family ruled by an alcoholic father who was a veteran of the First World War and a brutal disciplinarian. At least so far as Joe was concerned, as he would inform the world from his Oakalla Prison death cell. Rather than spoiling him as the youngest, his parents appear to have run out of love and patience by the time he arrived on the scene.
His first stay in a youth detention home was at the age of 11. His crime: running away from home to escape another beating. There, he was put with older, more experienced and more hardened boys. It was the first of several detentions and, as events would prove, the die was cast: Joe Gordon was on his way to becoming a career criminal.
Not a particularly successful one, his escalation to armed robbery and, ultimately, murder, invariably ending with arrest and conviction, and it was in Oakalla that he experimented with heroin although he never became an addict. It was in prison, too, that he began to read good books, including those of the Greek philosophers, and he wrote some poetry. But, out on the street, it was back to chasing the ladies’ man while consorting with fellow criminals on Vancouver’s East Side where he was popular for his good looks, his brashness, his snappy clothes and his high living when in the chips.
All this came to a tragic and dramatic end on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1955, when Vancouver City Const. Gordon Sinclair, responding to a complaint of two men acting suspiciously, hailed Gordon and James Carey as they were casing a small business to rob. Both were armed: Gordon with a .38 revolver, Carey with a .45 automatic. Sinclair only had time to stop his car before Gordon fired. The first, fatal bullet struck Sinclair in the face at point-blank range; the second shot was fired into his back as he fell onto the roadway. He hadn’t even drawn his own weapon.
Within days, after a massive manhunt, Gordon was arrested without a struggle. After a two-week-long trial, he and Carey were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. For testifying against his partner, Carey was commuted to life imprisonment. Joe Gordon, after several stays of execution, went to the gallows just after midnight, April 2, 1957.
There, in the proverbial nutshell, is the story of a smalltime career criminal who ultimately killed a police officer in cold blood. The first shot was likely fired in panic — but that second bullet, into Sinclair’s back, had been to ensure that Sinclair couldn’t ID him.
During those last, lonely days on Oakalla’s Death Row, Gordon took up his pen and, in what has been described as his “spidery” hand, began to write of his own experiences as a frightened and unwanted child who progressed to being a hardened criminal. He said he wanted his life story to serve as an example for others. Published in full in the Vancouver Sun, it’s an intriguing amalgam of self-pity and florid rhetoric, condemnation of the judicial system as it was then administered in this province, and a warning to parents to do better by their children. He’s not a professional writer and he continually slips between first and third person. But it’s what he had to say that counts even now, 60 years later.
He begins by referring to “this world of pain and tears,” and expresses the hope that he can “in some measure replace the sufferings that others may feel”. He believes that 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 crime and that twisting, tortuous lane 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 cliche.”
He quotes Sophocles: “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.”
Gordon again: Every person has criminal elements within him — but no one is born a criminal. The key factors in the ruination of a personality: home environment and lack of parental love such as he had endured: “Mine was a heart yearning for the love I felt was denied by my father.
“You are raised in a large family — a middle-class home which includes four sisters and three other brothers. But somehow you are unlike them. You receive practically the same sort of treatment by your parents as the others, but you feel something is lacking. You think you are not receiving the love and understanding you think you deserve.
“Then again, it is probably the resentment every time you receive a severe thrashing from your father. You believe your father indulges the whims of your brothers and sisters, but you are scolded or receive the strap.
“Perhaps because you seem more mature, you are left to your own devices and consequently, not having reached the age of reason, emotions rule. You feel unwanted. Bewildered, just beginning public school, you come to know the gnawing sensation of hatred. Anxiety and pain, humiliation and sorrow in those tender years become a scar seared in your soul. It will grow larger with age…”
(To be continued)