(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
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,
(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
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
The Mayflower Murderer
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").
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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 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).
Essays of Albert Borowitz