When Margaret Martin married the Reverend Alexander Gordon, she probably didn’t know what she was getting into. Gordon’s first wife had died, and left behind two children for his second wife to raise. Gordon wasted no time getting his second wife, a young parishioner in his congregation, pregnant. Since the Margaret’s first baby was a girl and Gordon did not have any girls, they named her after his first wife. Between 1824 and 1832, Margaret gave birth to five children, bringing the size of her family to nine. The family was poor. Gordon never earned more than $200 a year.
Alexander Gordon was born in Scotland in 1789 and was put to work in a spinning factory as a child because his father was lame and his mother suffered from ill health. Later he was apprenticed to various tradesmen in Montrose, Scotland. He had little formal schooling, but taught himself mathematics, Greek and Latin, and by the age of twenty-one opened a school of his own in Montrose. He then paid his way through the University of Edinburgh by tutoring.
After that, Gordon was licensed to preach and married his first wife. He was a Presbyterian minister and emigrated to America in 1817 to Maryland where he pastored his first church. After marrying his second wife, Margaret, they moved to Putnam, New York on Lake Champlain, where they would stay for seventeen years. The town was far from Margaret’s home, remote from civilization and its population even today hovers around 600.
Gordon’s religion was very strict with strong emphasis on sin. After giving birth to her fifth child, Margaret became very depressed about what she perceived to be her sinful condition. She felt extremely guilty about her sins, although it would appear from the record that she was a pious, upstanding woman. While her husband was away, attending a clerical conference, Margaret’s delusions became so great, according to one of her descendants, “she resolved to expiate her imagined shortcomings by cutting off her right hand.” She had taken literally the words in the Gospel of Matthew “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
The shock of what she did brought her back to her senses. Unfortunately, a few months later she died of the effects of what she had done, although the actual cause of death is not clear. Six days after his wife cut her hand off, the Gordon’s house burned down and they lost all their possessions. Some people spread rumors that Mrs. Gordon started the fire, but Rev. Gordon said it was his fault for being careless with fireplace ashes. That same year, their oldest son broke his leg and another son was scalded.
Gordon’s bad luck continued. His brother David, who was sixteen years younger, and whom he had brought to America and educated, went to Trinidad as a missionary and died there within two years. His eldest son, John, married badly and after only a few weeks John’s wife had an affair and he and she separated and eventually divorced.
A year or so after Margaret’s death, Gordon remarried. His third wife, Elizabeth Craig, not to be confused with his first wife, Elizabeth Greig, only lived a few years after her marriage. Gordon then married Sarah McQuarrie on May 4, 1841, who outlived her husband by forty years.
The congregation in Putnam was the primary reason Gordon ended up moving to Johnstown, NY in 1842. Gordon’s parishioners were upset with the second Mrs. Gordon for cutting her hand off, considering it a sin. Gordon defended his wife and believed she did what she did because of what we would call mental illness today. They also objected to the third Mrs. Gordon because she was much younger than her husband, and they were upset because Gordon’s son got divorced. This made it untenable for Gordon to stay in Putnam.
During his short stay in Johnstown, Gordon was involved in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists were not well liked in upstate New York. One of his parishioners, Amanda Miller, tells the following story about him.
“There was an anti-slavery meeting in Johnstown which the Rev. Abel Brown a Baptist addressed. Some persons had stirred up those of the baser sort to make a riot—first making so much noise as to drown the speaker’s voice—stones were thrown and a poor colored man much abused. To prevent bloodshed Mr. Brown intimated he would leave the meeting as the house of Mr. Gordon would give him refuge. He and the colored man ran all the way to Mr. Gordon’s house closely followed by the infuriated mob who threw various missiles at them. After the two had made entrance to Mr. Gordon’s house the mob continued yelling hideously before the door. All this time Mr. Gordon notwithstanding his nervous excitability at other times acted with the most perfect calmness, and though apparently in so imminent danger, showed no alarm whatever.”
Gordon was involved in an attempt to start an abolition society in Johnstown. However, he still retained many of the prejudices of the day, including using the n word to refer to Blacks.
Gordon was only a pastor of the Johnstown Presbyterian Church for three years when he died on August 20, 1845 at the age of 56. He is buried in the Colonial Cemetery in Johnstown.
The Memoir of the Reverend Alexander Gordon, which tells of his life and his four wives can be downloaded for free from the Internet Archives.