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Was the first man hanged for murder in American from Cowbit? John Billington
John Billington (also spelled as Billinton) (c. 1580 – September 30, 1630) was an Englishman who came over on the Mayflower and was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. He was hanged in Plymouth Colony in 1630.
Nothing is known about John Billington’s life in England however his son Francis was named in a 1612 lease of property in Cowbit, Lincolnshire and either John or Elinor, or both, were associated with this area. Around Cowbit and Spaulding, in Lincolnshire, Francis Longland named young Francis Billington, son of John Billington, an heir. Rumor has it that John left England in 1620 to escape his creditors. That would not have been unusual in a time when debt was a crime.
John Billington, his wife, Elinore, and their two sons, John Jr. and Francis, arrived at Cape Cod on the Mayflower in September, 1620. The Mayflower, a ship 90 feet long and about 26 feet in width, sailed from Plymouth (after sailing from Southampton) England in August 1620; and after 66 days of sailing, she dropped her anchor inside the hook of Cape Cod on November 21, 1620.
At the time he was recruited by the promoters of the Mayflower venture, Billington, of uncertain occupation, was living in London; he and his family were not among the ranks of those emigrants who professed a separatist Puritanism (the so-called "Saints") but belonged instead to the majority group of at least nominally Anglican passengers (known to colonial history as the "Strangers").
In the course of the Mayflower's voyage to the New World, the unruliness of the Billingtons became plain to the Pilgrim Company. John Billington Sr. was, according to historian George F. Willison, "unquestionably one of those mixed up in the mutiny on the Mayflower," which was resolved on November 11, 1620 by the adoption of the Mayflower Compact, under which the settlers bound themselves to submit to a civil body politic to be governed by just and equal laws. Billington was one of the signatories and thereby forswore the aim of the mutineers to break free of the Puritan leadership.
His son Francis also left an indelible impression on his fellow-passengers, firing off a squib near a powder keg in the ship's crowded cabin on December 5, 1620, a rash act that threatened to send them to colonize the ocean floor.
During the first winter at Plymouth the terrible epidemic (perhaps of typhus) that halved the settlers' population to about 50 left only the Billington family intact, and the two boys were soon off on adventures of their own. Francis, hoping to discover a new ocean, found a small lake behind the town that was given the grand name Billington Sea, which survives to the present day. John Jr. became lost in the woods in 1621 and turned up on Cape Cod where he is credited by some with having established the first contact with the local tribes.
The adventures with which the head of the Billington household is associated are less heroic. In March 1621 Billington was condemned to be tied up by his neck and heels for making "opprobrious speeches" against Captain Myles Standish when called to perform military duty, but he supposedly escaped this penalty by smooth talking; Billington's insubordination was described as "the first offence since (the Pilgrims') arrival."
Billington was at the center of controversy in 1624 when John Oldham and John Lyford were banished from Plymouth for writing letters critical of affairs in the colony. Questioned before the Governor's Council, Lyford claimed that "Billington and some others had informed him of many things, which they now denied." After the furor over the two exiles died down, Billington's anti-government agitation continued unabated; on June 9, 1625 Plymouth Governor William Bradford, in a letter to Deacon Robert Cushman in England, 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."
Governor Bradford's prophesy was to be realized within five years. In 1630, John Billington entered his name on the first page of American murder annals by shooting John Newcomin, who, true to his name, was a later arrival at Plymouth. Bradford includes a terse account of the case in The History of Plymouth Colony.
"This year John Billington the elder, one of those who came over first, 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. Winthrop, 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. The charge against him was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel, and shot him with a gun, whereof he died."
A feud between John Billington and John Newcomen arose over hunting rights. Newcomen hunted several times on the Billington property. Billington complained to the colony elders (covenant) in 1625 to no avail. In 1630 Newcomen again hunted on the Billington property. Billington chased Newcomen behind a tree and Billington shot at him. The wound to Newcomen after several days proved fatal.
But one of the few surviving documents casts Billington in a different light. In 1637, the English trader Thomas Morton wrote in "The New English Canaan" that Billington "was beloved of many." He also implies Billing took aim against Newcomen with regret, and that perhaps Newcomen may bear a little more of the blame for the run-in.
A petit jury of the covenant convicted Billington of murder. He was hanged in September. Governor Bradford, might not have been reluctant to hang John Billington given his past activity as a leading dissident among the "Strangers" in Plymouth. There was a substantial legal question as to whether the local authorities governing the Plymouth colony possessed criminal jurisdiction sufficient to impose capital punishment but Bradford was able to persuade John Winthrop, newly-appointed Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to concur in the death sentence.
On September 30, 1630, fifty year old John Billington was hanged according to the methods of the day. He climbed a ladder. The rope was placed around his neck and the noose pulled tight. The ladder was kicked away. And slowly the life was strangled out of him as he danced at the end of the rope. The drop that quickly broke the neck would not become standard in hanging for another two hundred years. Plymouth Colony was thus finally rid of its most troublesome "Stranger" in a congregation of "Saints". The only even mildly generous epitaph written for John Billington came from the poison pen of Thomas Morton, another man who irritated "The Saints" who surrounded him. Morton wrote, “John Billington, that was chocked at Plymouth after he had played the unhappy marksman...was loved by many.” And that is a piece of information not even hinted at in the history written by "The Saints" - that John had been loved by many.
John Billington’s wife, Elinore, held the farm until 1638 when she turned it over to her second son, Francis. John Jr. died in 1627. She later married Gregory Armstrong. Francis married Christian Penn, widow of Francis Eaton, in 1634. They had eight children. In his later life, he participated in various committees, boards of reference, and other bodies, which suggested he was in good standing in the community. Francis Billington died at Middleborough, December 13, 1684. He had many descendants. Many of them changed their names to Billing or Billings.
Mrs. Billington married Gregory Armstrong, and their antenuptial agreement is the first of record known in America. John Billington, Jr., is always first named of his father's two sons, and hence the impression prevails that he was the elder, and Bradford so designates him. The affidavit of Francis Billington, dated 1674, in which he declares himself sixty-eight years old, would indicate that he was born in 1606, and hence must have been about fourteen years of age when he came on the MAY-FLOWER to New Plymouth.
If John, his brother, was older than he, he must have been born about 1604, and so was about sixteen when, he came to New England. The indications are that it was Francis, the younger son, who got hold of the gunpowder in his father's cabin in Cape Cod harbour, and narrowly missed blowing up the ship. John died before 1630. Francis lived, as appears, to good age, and had a family.
Even after the hanging of John Billington, his family continued to get in trouble with the authorities. In June 1636, Eleanor Billington was locked in the stocks and whipped. She also had to pay five pounds sterling after she was found guilty of slandering one of her neighbours. John's granddaughter Dorcas was sentenced to whipping after being found guilty of fornication when she was about 22.
These events seem incriminating, but many of the details are missing. The record for Eleanor's slander case doesn't contain what was actually said or why. And while the charges against Dorcas Billington are especially tantalizing, the crime wasn't uncommon. Many other offenders were charged and sentenced for fornication, some of whom were later married. And the Plymouth court records are rife with other sexual charges, including bestiality, rape and sodomy. These crimes seem unusually rampant considering they took place in a town with a population that reached just 775 people by 1690.