"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 23, 2023

The First American Murder

When you are among a large group of people, it always seems to include one of “those” families:  the parents are sullen troublemakers, the kids out-of-control brats.  The family everyone else avoids as much as possible.

As unpleasant as it can be to have such people around at a ball game or while dining in a restaurant, it is at least a temporary annoyance.  Imagine being stuck with them for weeks on a crowded ship where the conditions are already harsh and unsanitary.  Imagine having to be in close proximity to them for the rest of your life, as they are part of your small group of would-be colonists traveling to a far-away land.

Imagine the reaction of the passengers of the “Mayflower” when they realized they had signed up for this.

It is unclear why John and Ellen Billington, along with their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis, wished to leave the Old World in favor of the New.  They were not Puritans, rather, they belonged to that group of Anglicans who became known in colonial history as “The Strangers.”  John’s profession back in London is unknown, but judging from his life in the colonies, it has been theorized that England simply became too hot for him.

The Billingtons quickly made a name for themselves aboard the Mayflower.  Unfortunately, it was one of those names unsuitable to repeat on a family blog.  John was one of the ringleaders of the mutiny against the Puritan leadership, which ended on November 11, 1620 with the adoption of the Mayflower Compact, which bound the signatories to obey the government and legal system which would be adopted in Plymouth Colony.  Several weeks later, Francis Billington distinguished himself by setting off a firework in the ship’s cabin.  As he was near a powder keg at the time, he very nearly managed to bring the voyage to a sudden and highly disagreeable end.

During the first winter at Plymouth, an epidemic reduced the settlers’ population to only about 50.  Remarkably, the Billingtons were the only family to not suffer any deaths.  Soon afterwards, the two Billington boys, apparently bored with colonial routine, set off on their own in search of adventure.  Francis discovered a small lake which is still known today as “Billington Sea.”  John Jr. made his way to Cape Cod, where he may have become the first colonist to make contact with the local tribes.

Meanwhile, their parents were having adventures of their own.  In March 1621, John was sentenced to be tied up by his neck and heels for making “opprobrious speeches” against Captain Myles Standish--the first recorded example of insubordination in Plymouth.  (It is believed that John managed to talk his way out of this penalty.)  When four houses were destroyed by arson in 1622, John was believed to be the culprit, but nothing could ever be proven.  On one occasion, Ellen Billington was sentenced to be put in the stocks and whipped for slandering a church deacon named John Doane.

In 1624, two settlers, John Oldham and John Lyford, were banished from Plymouth for writing letters back home which were highly critical about how the colony was being run.  Lyford claimed that Billington had been among his informants, “which they now denied.”  Billington’s unhappiness with Plymouth’s leaders continued.  In 1625, Governor William Bradford wrote a letter to Deacon Robert Cushman that commented, “Billington still rails against you and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore.  He is a knave, and so will live and die.”

Cushman’s prediction proved to be all too accurate.  In 1630, Billington had the distinction of becoming America’s first murderer, when he shot another colonist named John Newcomen.  In Bradford’s “The History of Plymouth Colony,” he included a brief summary of the crime:

This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed.

This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood.

He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them.  They came from London, and I know not by what influence they were shuffled into the first body of settlers.  His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.

It must be said that descendants of Billington’s question his guilt.  They note that his conviction was based solely on two pieces of circumstantial evidence:  He was known to be on bad terms with Newcomen, and had no alibi for the time the victim was shot.  It is not inconceivable that the authorities did not really care about Billington’s guilt or innocence, and they merely seized upon the murder as the chance to rid themselves of a man who had been a thorn in their side for years.

In other words, John Newcomen’s death may not have been just America’s first murder.  It may have been America’s first unsolved murder.


  1. Very interesting. I wonder if there is any recorded info on the two sons and what they found/became.

    1. John Jr. predeceased his father. Francis married, had nine children, and died in 1684. (A fun fact: among Francis' descendants were Richard Gere and President James Garfield.)

  2. I think it was in "High Wind In Jamaica" that pirates are hanged for something they hadn't done, but one says to another, "You must've done something in your life to deserve hanging..."

  3. Perhaps the Billingtons were hated just for being free spirits, which was frowned upon at the time, and for having a critical sense, rebelling against the colony's leaders...

  4. In 1630 the population of Plymouth Colony was about 300– so few that guilt might have been reliably established through a process of elimination.


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