Of the 102 passengers aboard the historic 1620 voyage of the Mayflower, one family became synonymous with trouble. The Billingtons—John Billington and his wife, Eleanor (or Ellen), along with their two teenage boys, John and Francis—were described by William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, as “one of the most profanest families” in the English colony.
The Billingtons weren’t Separatists, the religious refugees also known as the Pilgrims. They were one of the many “strangers,” as Bradford called them, who were recruited for the Mayflower voyage by its London investors.
While it was common for non-Separatists to disagree with and even criticize the Pilgrim leadership in Plymouth, John Billington’s behavior repeatedly crossed the line.
“The level of anger that’s hinted at in [the records of Plymouth] is serious and significant,” says Donna Curtin, executive director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “In John Billington, we have someone who publicly expresses rage and discontent and mutinous speeches, and who ultimately commits the greatest act of violence by murdering a fellow colonist.”
In 1630, Billington was “found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence,” wrote Bradford in Of Plymouth Colony, and was hanged for his crime. With that heinous act, Billington entered history as the first English colonist to be executed for murder.
An Explosive Start
The Mayflower was originally supposed to land in Northern Virginia (which extended up to modern-day New York), but was blown off course. On November 11, 1620, the storm-tossed ship set anchor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, prompting “discontented and mutinous speeches” from non-Separatists like Billington.
Because they weren’t in Virginia, the non-Separatists wanted to void their harsh work contracts—which required toiling six days a week for the “Virginia Company”—and have the freedom to settle the new land on their own.
Ultimately, Bradford and the Separatists narrowly avoided a mutiny and convinced all of the adult men onboard, Separatists and “strangers” alike, to sign the Mayflower Compact, a pledge of loyalty to the leadership of the new English colony.
But before the colonists had even settled in Plymouth, the whole enterprise almost went up in smoke. And the culprit, unsurprisingly, was a Billington.
Young Francis Billington, 14 years old, was playing around with “squibs”—homemade fireworks made from gunpowder and paper—and his father’s musket, when he managed to ignite a half-empty barrel of gunpowder. The room caught fire and threatened to spread to the rest of the ship, but “by God’s mercy, no harm [was] done,” wrote Bradford in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
“Bradford paints a picture of the teenage Billington boys as absolutely out of control,” says Curtin. “If the fire spread, it would have done some very significant damage. That might have been the end of the Plymouth story right there.”
'The First Offense'
During that first dreadful winter in Plymouth, more than half of the Mayflower passengers died from disease and malnourishment. By March of 1621, the harsh weather began to break and the starving English colonists struck their first peace treaty with the Wampanoag, the local indigenous tribe.
But just when the Plymouth Colony was finding its footing, Bradford reported a shocking act of insubordination by none other than John Billington. At the time, Miles Standish was Plymouth’s military leader, but Billington refused to follow orders. Even worse, he mouthed off to Standish in public (Bradford called it “opprobrious speeches”).
“It’s dangerous that Billington would be so brazen as to articulate in public his disagreement with Standish,” says Curtin. “Billington was extraordinarily outspoken for this period, especially in this context and in this place.”
Billington’s rude behavior prompted the very first legal action in Plymouth Colony. A judge found Billington guilty of “contempt of the captain’s lawful command” and sentenced him “to have his neck and heels tied together.”
“Punishing someone by tying their neck and heels together and leaving them like that for a time was pretty common in the English-speaking world,” says Frank Bremer, an historian of the New England colonies, “particularly in a situation like this, when you didn’t have any jail or prison in which to incarcerate someone.”
In the end, Billington skirted the painful punishment by “humbling himself and craving pardon,” but his crime was reported as the “first offense” since the colonists had arrived in Plymouth. It wouldn’t be his last.
Young John Gets Lost
Not long after John Billington’s brush with the law, his 16-year-old son, also named John, caused a different kind of trouble. The teenager “got lost” in the woods and disappeared for five days. He was found 20 miles away by a Wampanoag settlement at Nauset.
Retrieving the lost Billington boy was anything but certain. Just a few years earlier, in 1614, another English voyage led by the notorious Captain Thomas Hunt had kidnapped several Nauset youth and sold them into slavery in Spain. The wounds were still fresh. The Plymouth leaders humbled themselves before the Nauset and apologized for the past crimes of their countrymen.
The Nauset returned the Billington boy “behung with beads,” wrote Bradford, an act that Curtin calls “a very magnanimous gesture on their part.”
Once and Always a 'Knave'
In 1624, the Plymouth church leadership was shaken by what’s known as the “Oldham-Lyford scandal.” The London investors sent a Puritan clergyman named John Lyford to Plymouth. But instead of serving the Pilgrims’ spiritual needs, he acted as a spy. Bradford intercepted letters from both Lyford and another non-Separatist colonist named John Oldham badmouthing the Pilgrims to their investors back in England.
When Lyford and Oldham were put on trial, they claimed to only be relaying complaints told to them by colonists like John Billington. Lyford and Oldham were banished from Plymouth, but Billington protested his innocence and was allowed to stay.
Still, Bradford was seething. In a letter to a friend in England, Bradford had this to say about Billington: “[H]e is a knave, and so will live and die.”
To call someone a “knave” was no small insult in the 17th century.
“‘Knave’ was a very strong word,” says Curtin. “It meant unscrupulous, disrespectful, hostile. A knave is a bad deal. You don’t want to do business with a knave.”
'And the Land Be Purged from Blood'
By 1630, the Plymouth colonists had been settled for a decade. In that time, Plymouth had grown into a stable colony and the Billingtons had been allotted a parcel of land and cattle to raise. Sadly, the records show that young John, the son, died in 1627 from unknown causes.
The elder Billington was still a quick-tempered, angry man. He got in a quarrel with a neighbor, and some time later he decided to settle it. He “waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen,” wrote Bradford, “and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
According to the records, Billington would have been nearly 50 at the time while his victim was just 17. There are no details about the nature of the dispute.
“A 50-year-old man and a kid?” asks Curtin. “What kind of disagreement could this be?”
Under English law, Billington was given a full trial—arraigned by a grand jury and tried by a “petty jury” of Plymouth magistrates, including Bradford. When Billington was found guilty “by plain and notorious evidence,” the Plymouth leaders wrestled with whether to impose the death penalty. They even consulted with the newly arrived Puritans in Boston, who agreed that Billington “ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood.”
Billington was hanged. “[A]s it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them,” wrote Bradford of the dark mood among the Plymouth colonists. But even in his account of Billington’s death, Bradford couldn’t resist making a final comment on Billington’s questionable character and background.
“He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them,” wrote Bradford. “[T]hey came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company.”
Was Billington the “first murderer in America,” as he’s often called? Many Indigenous people were murdered by earlier colonists, but never received justice. And Curtin notes that Native Americans had their own systems of justice and punishment for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
“We can say for sure that Billington committed the first homicide by gun in English America,” says Bremer. “And it is the first execution for a crime in the Plymouth Colony.”