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  • Writer's pictureA.F. Linley

Oddments: John Billington and the Murder of John Newcomen

Penny for the guy?

This post has actually nothing to do with V For Vendetta, it just happens to have been scheduled to fall on November 5th and I really love this movie. 

But it does have a tangential relationship to Guy Fawkes, the man whose effigy gets burned in Great Britain every year! Very tangential. Ideologically. 

Look, John Billington was apparently just a horrible person. By all accounts (which, okay, we have all of one personal account of him), the name 'Billington' was synonymous in Plymouth with 'troublemaker'. This went for the two Billington boys, Francis and John Jr., as well. Once, the kids nearly blew up the Mayflower while it was anchored in Plymouth Harbor. Another time, John Jr. wandered off and got lost in the woods and ended up on Cape Cod, thirty miles away, and had to be brought back by some friendly Nausets.

The elder John seems to have been the sort of person who'd fight anyone, given the chance. He got in trouble several times for publicly arguing with - and cussing out - the captain of the small group of soldiers in Plymouth, Myles Standish, for which he was punished, repeatedly. In 1624, he was implicated in what's known as the 'Oldham-Lyford Scandal', which was an attempted revolt against the rule of the Plymouth church, but he was never officially charged.

According to Governor William Bradford's later history, Of Plymouth Plantation

"He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them."

He was also the first white man hanged for murder in Massachusetts and possibly all of North America, and I'm lucky enough to be descended from him! 

Gif: A very done Tom Hiddleston
Behold my excitement.

He's something like my 16th-great-grandfather on my dad's side. It's a distantly uncomfortable but also weird feeling, knowing that. Like, I am in no way proud of the connection, but it's also a good little anecdote to trot out at parties. 

The thumbnail version of the story goes something like this:

In the summer of 1630, John Billington, original Plymoth settler, signer of the Mayflower Compact and notoriously unpopular personage, got into an argument with John Newcomen, a recent arrival from England. A few days later, while out hunting, he happened upon Newcomen in the woods and shot him. Just up and shot him with a blunderbuss (an early and fantastically clumsy firearm). 

Oh, and he didn't even just shoot this poor bastard Newcomen front and center, like an honest scoundrel:

"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 them, and struck him on the shoulder."  (William Hubbard, A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX )

Only the shoulder, but in those pre-medical hygiene days, it was a wound which proved fatal. 

Billington was duly tried and found guilty, but he reportedly believed either that governor of the colony William Bradford lacked the authority to execute criminals for capital offenses, or else that he would be spared because the colony needed all the manpower it could get. 

He was wrong on both counts. 

Bradford decided that the land needed "to be purged from blood", and John Billington was executed in September 1630. He was was counted a wretch and a bad man and considered no great loss to the colony.

It's all straightforward enough. But here's the bizarre thing that caught my attention: no one knows anything about the victim, John Newcomen. 

No one. Nothing. 

My ancestor got into a fight with - and murdered - a man so recently arrived in Plymouth that we don't even know if 'Newcomen' was the victim's real name or if that's just how records referred to him because no one knew who the fuck this new meat fresh from the boat was.

And in the back of my mind, where the plot bunnies live, I can't stop wondering if Billington was hanged for killing a man who really didn't exist. I hasten to say, I have no evidence to base this on; it's a supposition for fictional purposes, not for ones of historical scholarship. 

But given the religious scruples and strictures of the time, it's an interesting idea to ponder. Particularly since in the years 1620-1630, an influx of wealthy and deeply religious Puritans arrived in the colony (as opposed to the not so well-to-do and slightly more moderate original Pilgrim settlers). It's the sort of thing that at the time, if it had been mooted about that Newcomen wasn't a real person, would have been called an instance of the devil's interference, and in modern times, one of mass hysteria. 

Very interesting thing to think about. Thanks, Horrible Many Times Great-Granddad!

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