When the Mayflower left England in 1620, it carried men, women, and children who sought peace and freedom from religious persecution. They hoped that the New World would offer a new beginning. Little did the intrepid travelers know that they shared their ship with a dangerous man.
John Billington lived in debt and on the brink of poverty in England. In order to board the Mayflower, he made a deal with prominent businessmen in London. Upon arrival, he and his family were to “work on behalf of the colony until 1627”—effectively locking them into servitude.
Billington, who was loyal to the Church of England, soon realized that he was vastly different from his fellow voyagers. Many aboard the ship were religious dissenters who had been living in self-exile in Holland before setting sail to the Americas. For their part, the Pilgrims referred to Billington and other servants and adventurers as the “Strangers.”
Billington made multiple enemies on the harsh trip across the Atlantic, earning a reputation as a “foul mouthed miscreant.” After many weeks at sea, the crew finally sighted land and dropped anchor off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts—where an unexpected blaze nearly sunk the ship. The cause? Billington’s son, Francis, who shot off his father’s gun near a barrel of gunpowder, almost killing the passengers before they set foot on shore.
Billington, his wife Elinor, and his two sons, were quickly marked as troublemakers.
Nevertheless, John Billington was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, which was ratified on November 11, 1620. It was the first governing document of the Plymouth Colony. Upon establishing camp, the pilgrims went on to face the harsh realities of a New England winter. Nearly half of them died during this time. The following year, those who survived held their first Thanksgiving after a plentiful harvest—and Billington surely had a seat at the table.
The Billington family continued to stir up trouble. Their sons would get lost in the woods for days, only to be returned to the colony by Native Americans. Elinor was found guilty of slander and sentenced to a whipping. In 1624, Billington was accused of supporting rogues who were trying to undermine the colony.
When the colonists received full ownership of the plantation in 1626, they divided the land among them. Billington received the short end of the stick—a modest house, 63 acres of land and future land rights. His lack of social status, loyalty to the English Church, and repeated run-ins with authorities made him a permanent outsider.
By 1630, things took a turn for the worse. Billington was caught in an argument with his neighbor John Newcomen. Records are unclear as to just what triggered the quarrel. When, days later, Billington came across Newcomen in an open field, he shot him dead with a blunderbuss.
The tight-knit colony was shocked by Newcomen’s death, but not necessarily surprised by the perpetrator’s identity. Governor William Bradford concluded that Billington should be sentenced to death. After a trial by jury, Billington was found guilty of the slaying. He was hanged not far from Plymouth Rock and buried in an unknown location—becoming the first recorded murderer in what would become the United States.
[Via History of Massachusetts]
Featured photo: "Embarkation of the Pilgrims" by Robert Walter Weir / Wikimedia Commons