I suppose someone had to be first, and John Billington was as likely a choice as any other man. 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. Still, if he was a Catholic, as others rumors indicate, that would also have been enough to drive John Billington to abandon the world he knew in England, for the dangers of a distant, unsettled shore, seeking religious freedom. He did not find it, even on board the ship he took to America. Sixty-one of the passengers were either Anglicans or, like John, Catholics. But still they were despised by their shipmates, on board the "Mayflower", who were themselves the despised "Pilgrims Fathers".
John Billington was also middle aged, about 40 years old, rather ancient for an adventurer. He was accompanied by his wife, Eleanor, and their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis. And together their family was beginning a great adventure they were not welcomed upon.
The voyage had been organized by a group who called (and saw) themselves as “The Saints”. And they were not pleased to find the financial investors in their dream had betrayed them. Not enough "Saints" had been willing to buy passage to America. so the investors had sold the majority of berths to what the Saints called "The Strangers".
The 102 "Saints" and "Strangers" found themselves stuffed aboard a leaky ship, just 90 feet long by barely 24 feet wide, giving them 2,160 square feet of living space (a moderate sized two bedroom house). Add a 20 man crew and "The Saints", seeking to escape the horrors of a multi-faith nation, found themselves imprisoned with and dragging it along with them. And they found the burden oppressive. They couldn't wait to get off this damn boat, and start oppressing "The Strangers".
After two and a half months of living hell on storm tossed seas the Mayflower anchored at the edge of the New World, sheltered by a sandy cape. And it was here that "The Saints" faced what they called a “mutiny”. Through the myopia of history, we choose to describe it as "the birth of democracy in the new world". The problem was "The Strangers" were not being landed where they had been promised, in the established colony of Virginia, but on unexplored and unprepared ground far to the north. And "The Strangers" were suspicious that this had been the intention of "The Saints" all along. And indeed that seems to have been the truth. Just to get "The Strangers" to disembark "The Saints" were forced to compromise their faith, right on the edge of their religious paradise, and to sign the Mayflower Compact with "The Strangers", pledging to “…combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic…”
"The Saints" were thus forced to create a civil government in this new land, and not the mono-religious domain they had intended. And one of the signatures bought by that accursed compromise had been that of John Billington.
As if in punishment for this compromise of their religious purity, only fifty-three souls survived that first winter. Amazingly, John Billington’s family of "Strangers" survived intact – including Eleanor, who became one of only five adult women who lived to see the spring. Both of John's sons also survived, another insult to the devotion of "The Saints", many of whom had buried children and wives over the bitter winter. The Billington clan had become a daily reminder that God’s Chosen had not been chosen. It must be they were being punished for the "Mayflower Compact". More evidence was to follow.
In the spring of 1623, the second full year the colonists were ashore, pressure from the "Strangers" forced the Governor, William Bradford (a "Saint", of course) to divide all property equally among the survivors, one acre per family member, no matter their religious affiliation. And thus the Billington clan received four acres of the best land, “…on the South side of the brook to the Bay wards”. It was yet another reminder of the success of "The Strangers". These insults to the faith of "The Saints" would not be forgotten.
Meanwhile, "The Saints" back in England had begun spreading rumors about the failure of the Plymouth Bay Colony, hoping to drive down the price of the stock, making it easier for "Saints" to buy a controlling interest in the company. And with each year they sent more "Saints" across the Atlantic, meaning to overwhelm "The Strangers" in Massachusetts Bay. By 1624, the colony had grown to over 180 people. But two of the new arrivals, meant to build a Saint's majority, had in fact fed the growing tensions.
The Reverend John Lyford and Mr. John Oldham were both nominally "Saints". In fact Lyford had been sent out as the official priest for "The Saints" in the colony.
But Lyford's willingness to conduct an Anglican baptism for the new child of "Stranger" William Hilton offended "The Saints". These chosen by God saw no reason to tolerate religious tolerance for anyone but themselves. And Governor Bradford became convinced that Lyford and Oldham were both secretly corresponding with the stockholders back in England, contradicting the false rumors the English Saints had been spreading.
Bradford was able to intercept some of those letters, and confront the traitorous "Saints" with telling the truth, catching them unprepared at a public hearing. Both Lyford and Oldman were banished from the colony that very night. At the same meeting there was also an attempt to charge John Billington with being a member of the same "conspiracy", but there was little evidence against Billington, and he was popular, (although it seems unclear how he could have been so, given the negative descriptions of him that survive) "The Saints" were forced to retreat and bide their time, yet again.
The following year, 1626, James I of England died, and Charles I (above), a militantly devout Catholic, took the throne. The trickle of "Saints", escaping now from actual religious oppression in England, became a steady flow. John Billington still had allies in Plymouth Colony, such as John Cannon and William Tench, but the pressures created by the influx of new "Saints" drove both those men to leave the colony by 1627.
And in 1629 John Billington's eldest son died of illness. With his death, some of the flame went out of the old man. He was fifty now, and weary of the constant fighting for his families' rightful place in the colony. By January of 1630 there were almost 300 citizens in Plymouth colony, the vast majority of whom were now, finally, "Saints". John Billington had become isolated.
In the late summer of 1630 a man’s body was found in the woods near John Billington’s property. The body was identified in Governor Bradford’s correspondence only as "John New-come-er”. No rational for Billington to have murdered this mysterious man was offered on the record. Instead surviving documents allege that the motive was the result of “an old argument between the two men”. But this would seem unlikely, given that the dead man was, by every account, a literal “New-come-er”".
Despite this glaring omission of motive, a Grand Jury was quickly convened and John Billington was charged with shooting the man in the shoulder with a blunderbuss, thus causing his death.
But by this time there was little patience left in the colony for reason where the Billingtons were concerned. A trial jury wasted little time in finding John guilty of murder. And yet despite the singularity of this crime and possible punishment - Billington was the first Englishman in the colony charged with murder, and would be the first colonist to be executed - there is no record of any defense offered on his behalf. "The Saints" had won their war against John Billington, and they would write his history. And yet because there was a lack of any apparent motivation for the crime, Governor Bradford sought the approval for the execution of this "Stranger" from his own fellow "Saints" in the younger, larger and more purely Saintly Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered on Boston. Such approval was instantly supplied.
On 30 September, 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.
Sixty years later the "Saints" would have to clean house again, this time in the village of Salem, and this time against their fellow "Saints" who were not saintly enough. Fourteen women and five men were hanged this time. Five others died in prison. All had been charged with being witches. What this re-occurrence of justice from "The Saints" showed, was that even before there was religious freedom in America, there was religious hypocrisy.
- 30 -