John Billington isn’t a household name today, but when Englishmen started settling in the New World, he became infamous as the colonies’ first convicted killer.
In 1620, the Mayflower left England and sailed across the Atlantic to New England. Many of the ship’s passengers were Puritan dissenters who had separated from the Church of England -- the so-called “Saints,” or what we now call the Pilgrims -- and were seeking religious freedom.
Also on board were a group known as the “Strangers.” These other settlers didn’t necessarily share the Saints’ ideals and piety, and went to the New World for a variety of non-religious reasons. Among the group were John Billington, his wife Elinor, and his teenage sons John, Jr. and Francis, who are thought to have fled England to escape John’s debts.
Rocking the Boat
Before the Mayflower even landed in North America, the family caused trouble. One of the Billington boys -- it’s not clear which -- almost blew the ship apart as it sat anchored offshore. He’d been playing with his father’s gun and firing it off in one of the below-deck cabins. Never mind that the cabin was full of people -- the real problem was that he was shooting just a few feet from an open barrel half-filled with gunpowder. Had the muzzle flash of one of the shots ignited the powder, the Pilgrims would have settled their colony on the ocean floor.
Things didn’t improve much once the settlers got on dry land, and Billington scoffed at taking part in the military service required of the able-bodied men. He was to be punished by being hogtied, but the colonial leaders chose not to carry out the sentence after Billington pleaded with them and pointed out that it was his first offense.
It wouldn’t be his last. Billington disliked the governing style of Plymouth’s Puritan leaders and was implicated in a plot to overthrow them. Settlers John Oldham and John Lyford had been banished from the colony for writing letters critical of its government, and Oldham had fingered Billington as part of their group of dissenters before he left. When questioned by the governor’s council, Billington denied any involvement and was never charged.
Billington's anti-government rhetoric didn’t die down after the near-miss, and he continued to rail against Governor William Bradford, the rest of the colony’s leadership, and church and government officials in England. In a letter to Deacon Robert Cushman in England, Bradford 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."
After ten years in Plymouth, Billington got caught up in trouble he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of. In early 1630, Billington and John Newcomen, a recent arrival in Plymouth, got into an argument, the subject of which isn’t clear. According to an early chronicle of the colonies, A General History of New England (which contains some details not found in the colonial records and can’t be corroborated), Billington waylaid Newcomen in the woods soon after their quarrel and attacked him with a musket. “The poor fellow, perceiving the intent of this Billington, his mortal enemy, sheltered himself behind trees as well as he could for a while; but the other, not being so ill a marksman as to miss his aim, made a shot at him, and struck him on the shoulder….”
The wound was survivable, but after Newcomen returned to the village, he fell ill with a cold. An infection developed and then gangrene. Several days later, Newcomen died, and Governor Bradford had Billington arrested and tried for the first recorded homicide committed by a settler in the New World -- America’s first murder.
On the last day of that September, Billington was hanged until he died.
Bradford gives a succinct account of the incident in The History of Plymouth Colony:
"This year John Billington the elder…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. [John] Winthrop [governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony], 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."