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True crime. Casually done.

John Billington: America’s First Murderer

Written by David Baker

Ladies and gentlemen, just a head’s up. After Ed Gein, and especially after spending 6 hours researching and writing up the revolting contents of his house, I needed this next script to be a light one. Deepest apologies to the gore-mongers in the audience. Though I know still others appreciate the occasional breath of fresh air.

Today’s episode also comes with a direct personal connection. As a result of my sometimes dark and grim tone of writing, a few people in the comments have been speculating that I am a serial killer in real life. And I am not sure whether that makes me want to laugh or cry. On the one hand, I am extremely gratified that my true crime writing sometimes leaves people shaken and uneasy. It makes me feel like Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first season of True Detective. On the other hand, I must stress that knowing how to efficiently dismember and discretely dispose of a corpse can come from research, rather than practical firsthand experience. And now that I think of it, I am a bit worried what the Australian police might think of my recent Google search history.

It also does not help that I try to be precise about the methods of serial killers and sometimes try to unpack their psychology. But I can assure you, dear listeners, that this all comes from sheer dedication to the craft, not from background knowledge derived from my hobbies. Those hobbies are much more benign, mostly consisting of walking my dog, hiking, spending time at the beach, cooking, occasionally drinking to excess, and, entirely separately, exchanging shouted obscenities with people on Xbox. There is not a single literal skeleton in my closet. Or under my porch. Or hidden in the Belanglo State Forest.

And yet here I am, about to throw more fuel on the fire, by letting you in on a little secret. I am descended from America’s first murderer. Or, rather, the first man to be executed for murder in the Thirteen Colonies which preceded the United States. Make of that what you will.

Meet John Billington

My great-great-great-great grand-pappy 12 times over was born around 1580 in Elizabethan England in the southern part of the county of Lincolnshire. Not much is known about Billington’s early life because he undoubtedly came from the lower orders. He was born into an old-fashioned rural community, where most people worked on farms and coalesced in small villages, where written records were seldom kept of England’s great unwashed masses. It is likely that Billington worked at some aspect of agriculture since he would later employ that knowledge when farming his land in the New World. 

Meanwhile, the Old World was about to enter the modern age. England was slowly ceasing to be the largely rural and peasant-based economy that it had been throughout the Middle Ages. England was transforming into a commercial and mercantile power. As such, like many other farmers’ sons whose ancestors had never strayed more than a few miles from home, John Billington headed all the way to London to earn his fortune. The fact he did so may imply that Billington did not have firm established ties within the community of Lincolnshire, much less any property. He is also described in historical records as, quote, “a very profane man”, which in historical context can be interpreted as John being irreligious, irreverent, mischievous, prone to the carnal pleasures of the world, and with a big foul mouth. Perhaps many of his neighbours in southern Lincolnshire were glad to see the back of him.

When John was in his early 20s, he met his wife Eleanor, who may also have come from Lincolnshire, though it is also possible she was a Londoner. We don’t exactly have a lot of information about my dear beloved great-great-great (etc) grandmama. She also gained something of a reputation for being quarrelsome, outspoken, and having feuds with other people. John and Eleanor had two children, John Jr born in roughly 1604 and Francis Billington, born in approximately 1606. In their younger years, at the very least, the Billington boys had a reputation for being juvenile delinquents. 

For the next few years prior to 1620, the Billington family lived in London and just barely avoided poverty and destitution. We don’t know exactly what Billington did for a job in London, but it certainly did not pay well. Or it is possible that John was simply a spendthrift with his money, splashing out on an expensive place of residence, along with wine, women and song. That wouldn’t be unusual for London.  

Either way, John accrued a massive amount of debt from various creditors in order to make ends meet. And in those days, failure to repay a debt could see you landed in prison until you paid it off. Which is demented, because if you are in prison, you can’t exactly work. As such, in a bid to escape his creditors and give his family a decent life, in 1620 John Billington entered into a seven-year labour contract with a merchant investor for a new colony being set up in North America. 

The colony was rather lamely and predictably called “New England.” It would be established just a few dozen miles north of the existing English colony of Virginia. The territory had warm weather, and good land for planting food and tobacco crops. New England would be run by a group of Puritans, religious radicals who rejected the Church of England, and who formed a good chunk of the colonists.

It is worth noting that John Billington was not a Puritan. He was a member of the Church of England, otherwise known as an “Anglican.” And, given his rather outspoken nature, his irreligiosity, his reputation for being “profane”, and his frequent resentment of all forms of authority, it is likely he wasn’t a very devout Anglican either. 

There is an old joke in England that Anglicanism isn’t so much a religion as it is a social club, where not even the priests and bishops really believe many of the things that they preach. Or, in other words, Anglicanism is, quote, “the least Christian version of Christianity.” And while the truth of that joke is mixed, since many Anglicans (particularly large numbers outside England) are quite devout, the fact that membership of the Church of England was legally compulsory for all English subjects at the time, meant that a lot of people just paid lip service in order to get by. John was undoubtedly one of those people.

Unfortunately, Billington’s own religious beliefs (or lack thereof) would place him on a collision course with his more zealous, Bible-bashing compatriots. The Puritan faction in the expedition referred to people like John as, quote, “the strangers” because they adhered to the ungodly Anglican church. And John was also rather disreputable and troublesome, while the Puritans were exactly the opposite. In front of the upright and austere Puritans, Billington didn’t stand a chance. It was as if Charlie Sheen had shown up for tea with Queen Victoria. It could not possibly end well.

Meet the Puritans

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Europe in the early 17th century was a tinderbox of factionalism and deep division between neighbours. All sides were gearing up for yet another religious war. People who, generations earlier, would have lived peacefully side by side began dehumanising each other to an extreme degree purely based on what they believed. Think of early 17th century European society being like what Twitter is today. Except in Europe, fanatics were fighting, torturing, and killing each other over what kind of Christian they were, rather than whatever the hell it is political fanatics are fighting over nowadays. On the one side, you had the Catholics, staunchly supporting the Pope and centuries of Vatican dogma believed to be handed down by God himself. On the other hand, you had the Protestants, who objected to a large number of Vatican practices and edicts, and who rejected the authority of the Pope. We don’t really need to go into detail about the Wars of Religion. This isn’t Biographics.

England had gone Protestant in the previous century, thanks to the family values of Henry VIII, and the Church of England was placed under the authority of the monarch rather than the Pope. This was Anglicanism. Yet, some more radical Protestants, aka the “Puritans”, felt that Anglicanism did not go far enough. Many of the trappings of Catholicism remained: pompous bishops, huge cathedrals, graven images, exorbitant Church spending and grandeur, and even the tying of pagan and Catholic traditions to Protestant religious holidays. Some of these radicals even felt that England should ban the celebration of the overly-Catholic holiday called “Christmas” (which they briefly did under the religious dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell).

When King James I came to the throne in 1603, he incompetently managed to piss off both the Catholics and the Puritans. On the one hand, the Catholic fanatic Guy Fawkes tried to blow him up, along with all of Parliament. On the other hand, some Puritans began to work to take over England, which they briefly did under Cromwell and the English Republic from roughly 1649 to 1660. Yet some Puritans weren’t willing to sit around for half a century in order to wait to worship God the way they wanted, and so they set up various branches of the Separatist Church after 1605, flouting Anglican supremacy in England. Bear in mind, that during this time not attending Anglican mass was a crime punishable by fines. It’d cost you the equivalent of roughly $25 USD in today’s money for every Church of England service that you missed. For poorer people, that added up significantly over a year. Furthermore, if you were caught preaching or circulating ideas contrary to the authority of the Church of England you could be imprisoned or executed for sedition. The head of the Church was the monarch after all.

In 1608, after the Separatist Church had been running for about three years, the Puritans got wind that the Crown had discovered their existence and was moving to arrest them for being illegal radicals. Approximately 400 Puritans abandoned most of their property and fled penniless to Leiden [lie-den], in South Holland, which practiced a modicum of religious tolerance toward different religious denominations. Already the Dutch were nurturing a culture of tolerance and permissiveness. I just wish I could say, both then and now, that they weren’t the least bit smug about it.  

As a brief aside, for local colour, the Dutch have a thing they call “Dutch bluntness” where they openly speak their minds without regard for politeness or giving offense. However, during my own time living in the Netherlands, I soon suspected that prefacing a statement with a warning of “Dutch bluntness” was often a get-out-of-jail-free card for them to be rude to foreigners. And judging by how many of them could dish rudeness out, but not take it, I concluded that the whole thing was just a pretense and a sham. Human beings instinctually don’t like excessive and insulting rudeness, no matter the culture.

And “Dutch bluntness” was on full display in the 17th century when local Leiden preachers and Calvinist church leaders began arguing publicly with the impoverished English interlopers. This gave rise to some religious instability, a deepening of radicalism, and even promoted fears that the Catholic Spanish would invade again in order to shut the whole thing down. The 400 English refugees also began to fear that, in a few years, their own brand of Puritanism would soon become assimilated and absorbed by Leiden’s 30,000 other residents. The situation worsened in 1617 when the Dutch cut a deal with James I, where, in exchange for an English alliance against Spain, the Dutch would ban church services by the English Separatists in Holland. And so, the Dutch culture of tolerance crumbled in the face of blunt political reality. It was at this point that the English Puritans resolved to go to the New World.

Two of the Puritans travelled to England to negotiate with a governing body which held all the deeds to land in America called simply “The London Company.” Originally they set their sights on settling the area which is now New York. After a series of political machinations, the London Company granted the Puritans permission to settle a territory just north of the existing English colony in Virginia. One condition came attached. The Puritans’ religion would not be officially recognised. Instead, James I was merely utilising some radical Protestants to gain another foothold in North America.

Nevertheless, the agreement allowed the Puritans to be able to be largely self-governing. They would not fall under the authority of the existing Virginia colony. And so the Puritans leaped at the opportunity to create their own brand of religious theocracy where they’d largely be left alone by the Crown.  

The Puritans finally struck an agreement with the London Company in 1620, after religious war had broken out again in Europe, and the Netherlands was once again threatened with Spanish invasion. Many of the English Puritans did not have the money or time to depart Holland on the small English ship, the Speedwell, to return to England in order make the leap across the Atlantic. Only a few dozen English Puritans of the original 400 refugees crossed the English Channel. The Speedwell arrived in Southhampton and rendezvoused with the Mayflower, which carried a further 65 passengers composed of additional Puritans and also non-Puritanical colonists who were just hoping for a new life in North America. John Billington and his family were amongst them.

The Mayflower and the Speedwell set sail for the New World on August 5th 1620, but the Speedwell started leaking heavily and so both ships were forced to dock at Plymouth in southwest England. The Puritans spread the rumor that the Speedwell’s captain had deliberately sabotaged his own ship in order to avoid making the long voyage. The Mayflower was already full of passengers, and so 20 Puritans from the Speedwell were forced to go to London and find another way to the New World. Meanwhile an overcrowded Mayflower, chock full with 102 passengers and roughly 30 crew, set sail on September 16th 1620 and made the perilous journey to America completely alone.

From just half of those 102 passengers on the Mayflower are descended approximately 35 million people alive today. You can check to see if you’re one of them and apply to join the Mayflower Society which operates around the world. I myself am member #43 of the Australian Mayflower Society, which is still fledgling due to the fact that Australian descendants made the leap to not one, but two, British colonies over the past few centuries. My family has in fact made three such leaps. 

In that sense, I’m British Empire through and through, baby! We’ll just ignore the fact that two of those colonies in my history were associated with criminal behaviour…

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The Past Was the Worst

John Billington and his family boarded the cramped Mayflower, which set sail September 16th 1620. Already luck was not in John’s favour. September on the Atlantic Ocean was a dangerous place for sailing ships. Erratic winds could blow a ship off course. Nevertheless, the month’s delay caused by the Speedwell made the journey at this time inevitable. Also, to be honest, the Mayflower was a pretty stupid choice of ship for the journey. It was usually employed as a cargo ship between England and southwest France, sailing along the European coastline. It was not an ocean liner. 

The Billingtons were trapped with 98 other passengers in a living space below decks that had a ceiling 5 feet high – and, yes, due to malnutrition people were shorter on average back then but not that short – and about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide, or 25 metres long and 6 metres wide. That is roughly four people for every metre along the length of the ship. And they were stuck there for two months. I can only imagine that made for a rather sneaky bit of hanky-panky between couples, and a rather challenging wank for the bachelors. Along the way a man died in that space. And a woman gave birth. I shall never complain about British Airways or Delta Airlines ever again. Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I will. At least the Mayflower had the excuse of it being the 17th century. You’d think in the 21st century we’d no longer pay thousands of dollars to be cooped up like sardines and receive rancid slop for food. Or pay thousands of dollars more, sometimes tens of thousands more, for the “”””first-class luxury”””” of fully reclining our chairs and not having to sleep upright like a herd of f*cking cattle.

Anyways, the human rights violations of modern airlines aside, back in 1620 the rotten September weather caused massive waves that bashed the Mayflower, loosening its timbers and causing water to seep inside. And so, Billingtons got to spend the entire trip not only clustered together with a bunch of Puritans, but soggy and cold, even as they lay in their beds. This led to quite a few illnesses. Yet there the colonists experienced a perverse bit of luck. Given the appalling conditions, it would have been quite reasonable to expect many more people to have died. Instead, all but one person survived the journey, which the Puritans aboard the Mayflower attributed to Divine Intervention. Because of course they did.

John Billington meanwhile set about alienating quite a number of his fellow passengers with his curt and rather argumentative ways. One person in particular whose ire Billington drew was William Bradford, a prominent Puritan separatist who had spent time as an exile in Leiden. Intelligent, disciplined, and devout, Bradford was repulsed by Billington’s prickly personality and rough edges. And given Bradford’s standing in the Puritan community, this was an unwise enemy to make. 

Over the course of the journey, the Mayflower got blown wildly off course. On November 19th 1620, the colonists sighted land. They were looking at Cape Cod, which is today in the state of Massachusetts [massa-chew-sits]. That is roughly 1000 kilometres or approximately 620 miles to the north of their intended target of the coast of Virginia. The Mayflower tried in vain to sail south along the coast, but unruly winter seas forced the small cargo ship back, and on November 21st they dropped anchor at Provincetown Harbour at Cape Cod. The colonists essentially said, “screw it” and decided to set up the colony of New England where they were.

Billington found himself among the 41 passengers who signed the “Mayflower Compact” a historic document in which the Mayflower colonists declared self-government, an embryo of United States independence, while at the same time maintaining symbolic obedience to King James back in England.

On December 15th, while the Mayflower was still at anchor and most of the passengers were still dwelling aboard, John Billington’s son, Francis, then roughly 14 years old, fired a gun near a powder keg. This threatened to set off a chain reaction, igniting all the gunpowder aboard, effectively blowing up and sinking the ship. The outrage at Francis’ actions caused a scuffle between John Billington and several other passengers which deepened attitudes against John and his family. They had barely begun their lives in the New World, and a large portion of the other colonists already deeply disliked them.

Meanwhile, several expeditions onto the land began, led by Myles Standish, a hard-nosed and somewhat authoritarian English soldier. It is probable that John Billington joined some of these expeditions. The weather was freezing and the ground caked in snow. The plucky English were not used to such severe winter temperatures. The clothing they wore was inadequate. On their first night ashore, several of the men froze to death. And due to the build-up of snow, it became fairly impossible for the colonists to move very far inland. 

The second problem that the colonists encountered was that there was a shortage of food. The Mayflower had already depleted some of their supplies when the Speedwell had delayed them at Plymouth for a month before the Atlantic crossing. The ground in New England was also too hard by December to do any planting. Most frustratingly, the colonists had not even brought any equipment with which they could fish – a source of food which probably would have saved them.

The third problem was illness struck the passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower. The winter weather caused many to die of pneumonia. Others contracted some other sort of fatal coughing disease (most likely tuberculosis). And the lack of Vitamin-C endemic to ocean voyages caused still others to die of scurvy. As an aside, the practice of British sailors to supplement the Vitamin-C in their diets by adding lemon and lime juice to their allotted rum is why Americans sometimes to this day call the British by the derogatory nickname “Limeys.”  

All told, of the 102 passengers who boarded the Mayflower, 49 men women and children died that winter. The Puritans did not comment on whether, like most people surviving the Atlantic voyage, this downpour of death was also Divine Intervention. More would have died, but thankfully the colonists found a large cache of buried food left on the shore by the Native Americans, along with several graves. The next morning, the local Nauset people arrived, angered that the English had dug up their supplies and disturbed their graves. The natives shot at the landing party with arrows. The English returned fire with guns and chased the Nauset into the woods until the Limeys lost sight of them.

In just a few weeks, half of the Mayflower passengers had died. And a number of historians over the years have mused that it was a shame not a single one of the Billingtons were amongst the casualties. I’ve even heard one amateur historian go as far as to use the phrase “it was typical bad luck” for the New England colony that my family back then was not wiped from the human gene pool.

Little did they know that the Billington dynasty was one day fated to repeatedly traumatise Simon of house Whistler with particularly dark and graphic episodes of the Casual Criminalist.

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The Bad News Billingtons

In January 1621, Francis Billington, the same kid who nearly blew up the Mayflower, went ashore with an exploratory party. Not far inland from the Atlantic coast, Francis climbed up a tree and spotted what he called, “a great sea” which he thought might be the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the Pacific lay some 5000 km or 3000 miles further to the West. What Francis had found was in fact was a small pond. But it is still to this day referred to as “Billington’s Sea.”

In March 1621, John Billington was brought up on charges for defying the orders of Myles Standish, the English soldier who was now leading the local militia. John apparently also made, quote, “abusive speeches” when Standish had tried to give him some orders.  Essentially, John had told Standish to go f*ck himself. John was brought up on charges, the first criminal proceedings in the New England colony. Nevertheless, John displayed humility during his disciplinary hearing and escaped punishment, mostly thanks to the mercy displayed by the governor of the New England colony, and Puritan, John Carver. But the incident left a sour taste in the mouth of other Puritan observers.

In early April 1621, Governor Carver, was working in the fields on a hot spring day when he complained of a severe pain in his head, most likely a brain aneurysm. He went home, laid in bed, and fell into a coma. He died on April 5th. His replacement was none other than William Bradford, the influential Puritan who had already developed a deep dislike for John Billington and his family.

In June or July 1621, John Jr, Billington’s eldest boy, wandered away from the settlement and got lost in the woods for five days. John Jr walked around aimlessly, living off any roots, berries, and nuts he could find. Thereafter, he was captured by the Nauset people. A search party of ten men, including two native interpreters, was dispatched to find him. This was done at great risk to their own lives, since much of the territory remained uncharted, and the Nausets were fairly hostile to the English ever since the exchanging of fire over the supplies and graves. 

Before dawn one morning, the settlers were confronted by 100 Nauset warriors, wielding bows and arrows, and outnumbering the search party 10 to 1. Fortunately, the Nauset had John Jr with them. He had been bedecked in a large quantity of beads and honoured with the gift of a ceremonial knife. He was returned completely unharmed.

In 1622, four houses in the colony burned to the ground. The cause of the inferno is unclear. It is also unclear whether the fire was an accident or deliberate arson. Nevertheless, many in the colony suspected John Billington of causing the fire, on account of his reputation and growing animosity toward several people. Naturally, the other settlers had no evidence to substantiate this rumour and no charges were ever brought against my grandpappy John.

In 1624, John was again implicated in more criminal activity. But this time was different. Although today we see the Mayflower pilgrims as escaping religious persecution in England (which they undoubtedly were) they had not gone to North America to set up a pluralistic society akin to a modern secular democracy. They had gone to New England to set up a puritanical society. A quasi-theocracy, if you will. And the Puritan church of the Plymouth colony ruled the roost. Two settlers, John Oldham and John Lyford had written several letters that were critical of the puritanical church, which saw them banished from the colony. In North America, in 1624, this was a potential death sentence. 

During their interrogation, the two men implicated John Billington, claiming he partook in many of their heretical mutterings and supplied them with information about the colony. Billington denied all these charges. Though, given what we know of Billington’s character and his own religious affiliation, it seems likely that Billington had indeed grown tired of the austere moral governance of the Puritans. And he’d probably have had difficulty keeping his mouth shut. Although these activities were technically criminal according to the scruples of the Puritans, in reality John Billington was likely just bristling at the lack of religious freedom in the colony, in a way that no modern person could really fault him for today.

The following year, in 1625, Billington allegedly continued his subversive activities. At least according to letters written by William Bradford. According to the governor, Billington was loudly and abusively outspoken against the puritanical church, the local government, and even against the agents of the colony back in London. Billington even threatened to have one of the London agents arrested, though for what charge, and how he would manage to do that from the other side of the Atlantic, is unknown. Bradford, whose rule John had challenged, was now bitter in his dislike of my dear old grand-pappy. “Billington is a knave,” Bradford wrote, “And he will live and die a knave.”

In 1626, the people of the Plymouth colony gained full ownership of the land from their investors back in London. The farmland was accordingly divided amongst the settlers. In this respect, John Billington got cheated by being given one of the smallest shares of all. He was given a modest house and 63 acres of land. To modern ears, this might still sound like a hell of a lot, but relative to the gains of his peers, this was a slap in the face. But nobody in the colony really gave a sh*t because the overwhelming majority of people, particularly the Puritans, deeply disliked and distrusted John.

In 1627, Billington’s eldest son, John Jr., died unmarried and childless. The future of my lineage rested entirely on his second son, Francis, who was at that point also still unmarried and childless. I don’t know if you have ever considered this, Simon. But in the roughly 300,000 years Homo sapiens have been around on Earth, an estimated 120 billion people have had to survive and reproduce in order to spawn any of us today. And an astounding number of people did not survive and never had kids. And when you consider that an average male ejaculation contains, let’s say, 250 million sperm, and only a tiny percentage of those ejaculations are made with the possibility of conceiving a child, the odds of any of us being born are downright astronomical.

And we are fast approaching the point where two more individuals were wiped from the gene pool.

A Murder in New England

John Newcomen had not arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. He was one of the many settlers who came aboard later ships, as the English tried to inflate the population of the colony from the 50-odd people who initially survived that first winter, to several hundred. It is possible Newcomen came over in 1630, along with the first major wave of immigrants from England. Not much is known about John Newcomen or his family. In fact, aside from the report that he was murdered, we know next to nothing about the victim at all. We are not even sure if Newcomen was his surname, or if it was simply a reference to the fact he was a new arrival in the Plymouth colony. 

All we know was that Newcomen had arrived by 1630 – the year he died. And although my ancestor is allegedly responsible for his slaying, I would like to take a moment of respect to mark this man’s passing.

And the literal thousands of descendants he otherwise might have had, if his life had not been cut short.

Because here, at the Casual Criminalist, we respect the victims of crimes and the tragedies those people endured. Even when it is our distant grandfathers who were the perpetrators.

By September of 1630, Billington and Newcomen already despised each other. Allegedly. It is not clear what the source of their bad blood was. Some historians have speculated that it had arisen from a disagreement over a woman, or a night of drinking at a tavern which had escalated into a fist-fight between the two men. Other theories speculate that Billington and Newcomen disagreed over religion or politics, which given Billington’s outspoken and rebellious nature, may well be a possibility. Another theory goes that Billington had caught Newcomen stealing rabbits from his traps out in the woods. Finally, it is possible that Billington and Newcomen were engaged in some other sort of illegal activity (one such theory points in the direction of livestock theft) and Billington needed to shut Newcomen up before he spilled the beans. All we know for certain is that, in September 1630, John Billington allegedly hated Newcomen’s guts and wanted him dead.  

Newcomen had headed out of Plymouth into the woods. John Billington was seen leaving town not long after, carrying a gun. Or a blunderbuss, to be precise. According to one witness, Billington had claimed he was going out of town to hunt some deer. According to accounts of the trial, Billington cornered Newcomen, who hid behind some trees. But, even with a blunderbuss, Billington turned out to be a fairly good shot. As are a lot of people in my illustrious ancestry. My grandfather used to be the coach of the Olympic skeet-shooting team, and used to practice his aim by throwing pennies up in the air and shooting them. But I digress. In the second version of events, Billington fired on purpose. Billington hit Newcomen in the shoulder, and the man went down. 

Now, in the movies, a shoulder wound is what a script-writer gives the protagonist if they want him to be hurt, but don’t want him to die, be crippled, or horrifically mutilated. And he’d usually show up in the next scene with his arm in a sling. And usually in the scene after that, the sling is gone and the protagonist’s arm is somehow fully recovered. In real life, however, this is bullsh*t. The shoulder contains the subclavian artery, which if severed by a bullet, will swiftly cause you to bleed out if you are not quickly treated. The shoulder also contains a bundle of nerves called the brachial plexus, which, if damaged, can paralyse your arm, and, in the 17th century, probably meant that the arm had to be amputated without anesthetic (during which you had good chances of dying from shock or exsanguination). And naturally in the 1600s you also had a high chance of getting an infection. Even with modern medicine, according to one study from a New Orleans hospital, there is a 10 to 25% chance that a gunshot wound to the shoulder can kill you, if you are not immediately operated on.

In one version of events, Newcomen’s artery was pierced and he rapidly bled out. He was later found dead lying in the woods where he originally fell. In another version of events, Newcomen actually made it to a doctor, but later died of infection after the 17th century quack tried to operate on him.

Either way, John Billington denied killing Newcomen. Nevertheless, a witness claimed he saw Billington following the victim out of town. The gun allegedly used to kill Newcomen was claimed by Plymouth authorities to have belonged to Billington. However, John denied ever owning the gun. Thus, John’s guilt rested entirely on hearsay, an unverified claim that he was the gun’s owner, and speculation that John headed out of town to track down Newcomen, when he could have gone anywhere in the woods, heading in any direction other than Newcomen’s. Today, the degree of reasonable doubt and lack of concrete evidence would have seen the charges thrown out.

However, this was the 17th century. The same century as the Salem Witch Trials. And the frail evidence against the unruly Billington seemed more solid to the sanctimonious settlers of Plymouth. William Bradford said the evidence was, quote, “plain and notorious”, though his grudge against the Billingtons was well documented even in Bradford’s own letters. The case was put to a trial by jury, and there was little doubt of the outcome. The settlers, almost uniformly hostile to John after years of aggravation and his constant dissent, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

There was some argument, however, over whether the Plymouth colony even had the legal authority to sentence a man to death and carry out the King’s justice. They were, after all, just a tiny, early colony on the other side of the world from the King. In terms of legal precedent, they should probably have kept Billington in prison for a few months while they consulted with London. However, William Bradford managed to convince the newly appointed Governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, that no such consultation was required. They had the legal authority. Additionally, it was important, as Bradford put it, “to purge the land of blood” which would somehow bizarrely be achieved by an execution.  

At any rate, Bradford pointed out, the family was, quote, “one of the profanest families in the colony” and they had been punished for misconduct before. Bradford went on to add that he had no idea how the Billingtons managed to bluff and con their way onto the Mayflower in the first place. None of this is even remotely relevant to a murder charge, but such was the logic of the vindictive William Bradford. Given the evidence was so flimsy, he needed to nail the legitimacy of his actions home somehow. In his view, a rotten egg who had caused a little bit of trouble in the past, who did not easily follow orders, and who did not subscribe to his particular brand of Christianity, was likely to have committed every single crime of which he subsequently stood accused. Politically, Bradford had every motive for getting Billington out of the way, since the troublesome man had for 9 years represented a threat to Bradford’s authority.

Billington was put to death by hanging only a few days after his arrest and hasty trial.

It is alleged that after John Billington’s death, the rest of his family continued to be victimised by the local government. In 1636, Eleanor Billington was convicted of slandering local politician John Doane, and she was placed in the stocks and whipped, in addition to being given a fine. There is no record of what rumours Eleanor was spreading. She died in 1642. One of John Billington’s granddaughters, meanwhile, was also placed in the stocks for fornication. Allegedly she had sex with her husband before they had gotten married and had one of their sons out of wedlock. 

Francis Billington, meanwhile, the boy who nearly blew up the Mayflower, seems to have kept his nose relatively clean. He married in 1634 and had 9 children. A vigorous series of acts for which I am intensely grateful.

Exonerating John Billington

In the centuries following John’s death, numerous members of the Billington brood have argued that John was either innocent of murder, or else was wrongly convicted and sentenced in a miscarriage of justice. Part of this may be motivated by the Billington desire to clear the dynasty’s name. We are decidedly more notorious than any of the other Mayflower families.  

There is very little doubt that the claims of Billington following Newcomen out of town are entirely hearsay. No one saw the shooting. When it came to tying the murder weapon to Billington, it was his word against an accusatory Puritan government. And even if the gun was his property, that does not necessarily mean it was Billington who pulled the trigger. All of this leaves open significant reasonable doubt that should not have secured a guilty verdict. One could also, by modern standards, have called a mistrial given that the jury was almost uniformly biased against him. If this had happened a couple centuries later, the trial would have been moved to a different town, and placed in front of a jury who had no prior knowledge of Billington. As for fingerprints or testing for gunpowder on Billington’s fingers, or testing for DNA, you are about 350 years ahead of the forensics. There is next to nothing tying Billington to the murder. We don’t even know what Billington and Newcomen had quarreled over previously, if they had in fact quarreled at all, or assessed the likelihood the argument would have come to violence. Hell, we don’t even really know who Newcomen was.

What we do know is that Billington was not a Puritan, was not well liked, was prosecuted in 1621 for telling a militia leader to f*ck off, and was not convicted of anything again, though the townsfolk did gossip he was involved in other crimes (which included the act of criticising the government and the church, which aren’t really crimes). We also know that once the guilty verdict was reached, William Bradford went to great lengths to secure Billington’s execution and to justify his death with irrelevant assaults on his family’s character. History is often written by the victors, and in this case it was William Bradford who wrote the history.

With all that said, I would be less troubled than some members of the Billington family if grand-pappy John was indeed guilty of killing Newcomen. I do not find having a murderer in the family such a horrific stain on our honour. I’m pretty sure, with thousands of generations in every single family tree on Earth, that every single one of us has a killer in our family history. Hell, there are millions of descendants of Genghis Khan in the world. In fact, as a writer for the Casual Criminalist, I have to say that being related to the first man to be executed for murder in the Thirteen Colonies is actually a badge of honour.

There is one aspect of John Billington’s death that does anger me, however. The man was obviously an opponent of theocracy and tried to use his free speech to denounce bad government. And, regardless of whether he was guilty of killing Newcomen, the governing body of the day railroaded him and rushed him to the scaffold. In his own blustering and mischievous way, Billington stood for freedom of religion, free speech, and rebellion against unjust government, in a way that keenly represents the founding principles of the United States of America. He was just a century ahead of his time.

Perhaps that is why Stephen Vincent Benet in the 1943 poem, Western Star, bestowed upon Billington the epitaph: “A man who came with the first – and should have thrived.”

Dismembered Appendices

  1. Other descendants of John Billington include, James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, who was assassinated in 1881 after serving just a few months in office. Richard Gere, who was a Hollywood heartthrob until an unfortunate rumour circulated about a gerbil. John Lithgow, who was in 3rd Rock from the Sun, and in a MASSIVE COINCIDENCE also played a serial killer in the show, Dexter. The Wilson brothers who founded the pop group, the Beach Boys. Taylor Swift, who has had a fantastic career writing songs that bad-mouth her ex-boyfriends. And Vanessa Hudgens, a singer and actress, who got famous from being in High School Musical.
  2. Rest assured, dear listener, that despite a century of searching, no biologist or psychologist has ever discovered the existence of a “criminal gene”. Or some DNA passed down in family trees that make some families more likely to become murderers than others. It would appear that the propensity to murder is something more universal to the entire human race. So, no, the fact that I am descended from John Billington is not proof that I am a serial killer. However, if they one day find that a so-called “criminal gene” exists, I am comforted by the knowledge that I’ll be under just as much suspicion as Taylor Swift. Hell, maybe she can even lend me her lawyer.
  3. In case you were wondering, I’m not aware of any other murderers in my family tree, though I do not doubt some exist. I do know that on the Billington side, my ancestors hung around New York for a couple centuries before heading off into the Wild West. One of my ancestors became one of the first sheriffs of a county in Montana, falling on the right side of the law. I myself briefly worked for the police. Another batch of my relatives were Scots and English who went to Canada as part of Britain’s second drive to establish an Empire after the War of American Independence. And then on yet another branch of my family tree, they are more immediately British, with one twig being wealthy landowners in Wiltshire, and another twig, my grandfather, being in the RAF facing down Rommel in Egypt in World War II. Meanwhile, I’m just some git in Australia who definitely has never killed anyone and just writes books and scripts and buys a suspicious amount of rope and duct tape from hardware stores. Oops. I’ve said too much!

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