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John BILLINGTON

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   


A.K.A.: "The Mayflower Murderer"
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Argument - The first Englishman to be convicted of murder in what would become the United States and the first to be hanged for any crime in New England
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: September 1630
Date of birth: 1580
Victim profile: Fellow colonist John Newcomen
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on September 30, 1630
 
 

 
 

John Billington (ca. 1580-1630) was the first Englishman to be convicted of murder in what would become the United States and the first to be hanged for any crime in New England.

He came to the Plymouth Colony on the famous voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 with his wife and two sons. He soon made enemies with many aboard the ship. He was known as a "foul mouthed miscreant" and "knave." He was not a member of the separatist Brownist congregation that dominated the colony's life, but rather, he fled England to escape creditors.

In September of 1630, after a heated argument, Billington fatally shot fellow colonist John Newcomen in the back with a blunderbuss. After counciling with fellow governors, Governor William Bradford concluded that capitol punishment was the necessary penalty. Billington was convicted of murder and hanged at Plymouth, Massachusetts.


John Billington (c. 1580 September 30, 1630) was the first Englishman to be convicted of murder in what would become the United States, and the first to be hanged for any crime in New England. Billington was also a signer of the Mayflower Compact.

Billington came to the Plymouth Colony on the famous voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 with his wife and two sons. He soon made enemies with many aboard the ship. He was known as a "foul mouthed miscreant" and "knave".

He was not a member of the separatist Brownist congregation that dominated the colony's life, but had fled England to escape creditors. His sons were also seen as troublemakers.

In March 1621, Billington was convicted of contempt for insulting Captain Myles Standish. His punishment was to have his heels tied to his neck. Billington apologized profusely and was spared from the penalty.

In 1624, Billington became a follower of the Reverend John Lyford, who was banished from Plymouth Colony in 1625 for being a danger to the community. Though Billington was nearly convicted as Lyford's accomplice, he was permitted to remain in Plymouth Colony.

In September 1630, after a heated argument over hunting rights, Billington fatally shot fellow colonist John Newcomen in the shoulder with a blunderbuss. After counseling with Governor John Winthrop, Governor William Bradford concluded that capital punishment was the necessary penalty. Billington was convicted of murder and hanged at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The inland pond known as Billington Sea was named after his son, Francis.

U.S. President James Garfield was a descendant of Billington.

Wikipedia.org


The Mayflower Murderer

American murder came over on the Mayflower. The homicidal innovator, John Billington, made the first Pilgrim voyage with his wife Elinor and his young sons John Jr. and Francis. Both John Sr. and Elinor were born around 1580, perhaps near Spaulding, Lincolnshire.

At the time he was recruited by the promoters of the Mayflower venture, Billington, of uncertain occupation, was living in London; he and his family were not among the ranks of those emigrants who professed a separatist Puritanism (the so-called "Saints") but belonged instead to the majority group of at least nominally Anglican passengers (known to colonial history as the "Strangers").

In the course of the Mayflower's voyage to the New World, the unruliness of the Billingtons became plain to the Pilgrim company. John Billington Sr. was, according to historian George F. Willison, "unquestionably one of those mixed up in the mutiny on the Mayflower," which was resolved on November 11, 1620 by the adoption of the Mayflower Compact, under which the settlers bound themselves to submit to a civil body politic to be governed by just and equal laws.

Billington was one of the signatories and thereby forswore the aim of the mutineers to break free of the Puritan leadership. His son Francis also left an indelible impression on his fellow-passengers, firing off a squib near a powder keg in the ship's crowded cabin on December 5, 1620, a rash act that threatened to send them to colonize the ocean floor.

During the first winter at Plymouth the terrible epidemic (perhaps of typhus) that halved the settlers' population to about 50 left only the Billington family intact, and the two boys were soon off on adventures of their own. Francis, hoping to discover a new ocean, found a small lake behind the town that was given the grand name Billington Sea, which survives to the present day. John Jr. became lost in the woods in 1621 and turned up on Cape Cod where he is credited by some with having established the first contact with the local tribes.

The adventures with which the head of the Billington household is associated are less heroic. In March 1621 Billington was condemned to be tied up by his neck and heels for making "opprobrious speeches" against Captain Myles Standish when called to perform military duty, but he supposedly escaped this penalty by smooth talking; Billington's insubordination was described as "the first offence since (the Pilgrims') arrival." There is no basis other than suspicion to associate him with the unexplained arson that destroyed four houses in 1622.

Billington was at the center of controversy in 1624 when John Oldham and John Lyford were banished from Plymouth for writing letters critical of affairs in the colony. Questioned before the Governor's Council, Lyford claimed that "Billington and some others had informed him of many things, which they now denied."

After the furor over the two exiles died down, Billington's anti-government agitation continued unabated; on June 9, 1625 Plymouth Governor William Bradford, in a letter to Deacon Robert Cushman in England, wrote: "Billington still rails against you and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore. He is a knave, and so will live and die."

Governor Bradford's prophesy was to be realized within five years. In 1630, John Billington entered his name on the first page of American murder annals by shooting John Newcomin, who, true to his name, was a later arrival at Plymouth. Bradford includes a terse account of the case in The History of Plymouth Colony.

"This year John Billington the elder, one of those who came over first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of willful murder by plain and notorious evidence, and was accordingly executed. This, the first execution among them was a great sadness to them. They took all possible pains in the trial, and consulted Mr. Winthrop, and the other leading men at the Bay of Massachusetts recently arrived, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged of blood. He and some of his relatives had often been punished for misconduct before, being one of the profanest families among them. They came from London, and I know not by what influence they were shuffled into the first body of settlers. The charge against him was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomin, about a former quarrel, and shot him with a gun, whereof he died."

In a recent interview in connection with the preparation of this article, Glenn Billington, a Cleveland lawyer, has illuminated this chronicle by recalling oral traditions of his family that challenge both the jurisdictional and evidentiary bases of its ancestor's condemnation.

Governor Bradford, Mr. Billington notes, might not have been reluctant to hang John Billington given his past activity as a leading dissident among the "Strangers" in Plymouth. There was a substantial legal question as to whether the local authorities governing the Plymouth colony possessed criminal jurisdiction sufficient to impose capital punishment but Bradford was able to persuade John Winthrop, newly-appointed Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to concur in the death sentence.

The Billington family's oral history regards the conviction itself as based solely on "circumstantial" evidence. John Billington may have quarrelled with Newcomin over a woman or in a tavern brawl. Later Newcomin was seen leaving town and shortly afterwards Billington was also observed to depart; Newcomin's dead body was soon discovered. We are left to surmise whether the murder weapon of which Governor Bradford writes could with confidence have been traced to the defendant.

Researchers for the Society of Mayflower Descendants have questioned the accuracy of Bradford's commentary on the trial, observing that the Governor "obviously disliked and criticized the entire family from the beginning."

The Billingtons, they assert, "were not in sympathy with the aims and tenets of the Plymouth church," and John Billington "stoutly supported individual independence and freedom of speech, raising the voice of opposition when he disagreed with the rule of government"; he and his descendants "surely contributed to that integral part of the American character."

Even though John Billington's link to American civil liberties remains tenuous, he has made his mark in literature and genealogy. The "brawling, turbulent" Billingtons figure prominently in Stephen Vincent Benet's posthumous narrative poem of America's colonization, Western Star (1943); John, hanging from his gallows, is apostrophized in sorrow as "a man who came with the first and should have thriven."

It was only in 1990, however, that America's first murderer achieved his greatest celebrity from beyond the grave. An article in the Los Angeles Times claimed President James Garfield as Billington's descendant.

* This article was previously published in 147 New Law Journal 1758 (Nov. 28, 1997).

Collected Essays of Albert Borowitz
1966-2005

 

 

 
 
 
 
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