John Billington – 1630

By | November 12, 2016

“Justice rewarded him, the first murtherer [sic], with the deserved punishment of death”


The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour by William Hassell


America’s first recorded murderer travelled to the New World in December 1620 on the Mayflower, with his wife Eleanor or Ellen, and their two sons John and Francis, in an attempt to escape creditors. The Billingtons caused trouble among the 102 pilgrims on board the ship, with Billington, a thug from the slums of London, labelled a “foul-mouthed miscreant” and his sons troublemakers.

The ship’s captain Miles Standish ordered that Billington’s feet and neck be bound after an attempted mutiny but it had no effect on him. In March 1621 Billington was convicted of contempt for insulting Captain Standish but escaped punishment after begging for mercy. Three years later he was part of a failed revolt against the Plymouth church but again escaped punishment. It was only a matter of time before serious trouble found John Billington and in September 1630 he got into an argument with fellow colonist John Newcomen, just 17 years old, that ended with Billington shooting Newcomen with a blunderbuss.

“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, with which he died soon after,” wrote William Hubbard in A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX, published in 1680.


Pilgrim Colony, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA


September 1630


Billington was tried by jury, hoping that “either for want of power to execute for capital offences, or for want of people to increase the Plantation, he should have his life spared; but justice otherwise determined, and rewarded him, the first murtherer [sic) of his neighbor [sic) there, with the deserved punishment of death, for a warning to others”.

He was hanged on Thursday 30 September 1630 and his corpse left to rot. His skull was nailed to a tree as a warning to others. His son John predeceased him. His other son, Francis, married Christian Penn Eaton, the widow of Mayflower passenger Francis Eaton. They had nine children who at one point were taken into care. Francis Billington died on 3 December 1684 at Middleboro, Massachusetts.

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