Day 121: The First American Murder

originally published April 30, 2012

It is a source of great pride to many Americans that they can trace their ancestry back to the historic voyage by the Mayflower, the ship that first brought white settlers to the shores of America in hopes of establishing a bold new nation, and scout out the best locations for future mini-malls and outlet stores.

The esteemed Billingtons may wish to curtail their boasts, however. Ol’ great-great-great-great-great-grand-pappy John Billington is our introduction to today’s flick of Miss Wiki’s random quill: the first murder of a white person by another white person in American history.

John made the famous voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to Plymouth Rock with his wife, Elinor (her parents weren’t great at spelling), and their two kids, John Jr. and Francis. He signed the Mayflower Compact, which was kind of like a constitution for the new nation, proclaiming equal rights for all (“all” meaning white males, of course).

John and his family came to be known as the shit-disturbers of the new colony. Shortly after docking in Cape Cod Harbor, young Francis Billington fired his father’s musket in the Mayflower’s cabin, sending sparks everywhere, which was a problem given that there were several barrels of gunpowder around. Think of it – one wayward spark could have transformed the triumphant souls of the historic Mayflower into New England chum.

A few months later, John was in trouble for making “opprobrious speeches” which ticked off the ship’s captain. If Plymouth Rock were Gilligan’s Island, John would have been Gilligan, except an asshole Gilligan that nobody really liked.

John was to have his neck and heels tied together as punishment for those speeches, but I guess he groveled and pleaded (the record states he “humbled himself” and “craved pardon”, but we all know there was probably some whining and tears mixed in), and they let him off the hook.

In 1624 John was implicated in the Oldham-Lyford scandal. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what that means.

It was a revolt against the Plymouth church. Within four years of setting out together, there appears to have been a lot of dissent and concern among this merry band of colonizers. And John Billington looks like he was at the heart of most of it. He pleaded complete innocence in this scandal, and since there was no real evidence to the contrary, he was free once again.

Then, one day in September 1630, John lost his shit on his declared nemesis, the Luther to his Kal-El, the Newman to his Jerry… some guy named John Newcomen.

I know nothing about Newcomen. His Wikipedia page only describes the one event that seems to have defined his life: the day that John Billington shot him. doesn’t feature him as a passenger on the Mayflower, which suggests that he found some other means to truck over the Atlantic in the decade since the Billingtons’ arrival.

I found an entry for Newcomen at an ancestry page, though that’s a bit contradictory since the page indicates that he had no wife or children, and therefore isn’t likely to be anyone’s ancestor. No one knows how he got to America, and no one seems to be really certain where he’s from exactly. In fact, this page suggests that his name might not have been Newcomen at all – he may have been handed that moniker because he was the new guy, and nobody had bothered to learn his last name.

So why did John Billington shoot him? What was the justification for this John-on-John act of willful violence?

Fortunately, doing research on the internet – even after three fingers of Crown Royal and a scintillating episode of Mad Men – can still happen with a modicum of merry magic. Here’s how it went down:

Newcomen was a deer hunter. He was a kid, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. Since the concept of private property was still under construction in New England at the time, Newcomen had no problem hunting wherever he felt he should, including on property which John Billington dutifully felt was his.

John Billington was a follower of the Church of England. Yes, this is one of those rare and obscure historical incidents in which organized religion is at the heart of a dispute. I know, it didn’t happen often.

Anyway, Newcomen belonged to the Separatist church, which was all about breaking ties with the Church of England, presumably to follow some lifestyle that embraced concepts like keggers and spring break and so on. It’s not important – just know that this, along with Billington’s repeated warnings to Newcomen to stay the hell off his property, was at the heart of their mutual loathing.

On that fateful afternoon, Billington was out to do some hunting, and he noticed Newcomen roaming around on his property. Newcomen was trying to be crafty and hide behind trees, but Billington was a good shot. He took a chunk out of Newcomen’s shoulder, which after a few days led to gangrene and an infection which killed him.

Now the powers at Plymouth had to figure out what to do with John Billington. This was new territory – previous bloodshed had been confined to wild animals and the local indigenous population (who, let’s face it, were looked upon as wild animals by most of the pilgrim crew). What do you do with a  white guy who shot and killed another white guy?

Billington’s friends came to his defense.

They claimed that Newcomen had been messing around with Billington’s traps, screwing with the guy’s livelihood. One guy even suggested that it was Newcomen who was playing Hunt-the-Cracker with Billington’s life.

Still, justice had to be served. And while it pained the Mayflower folks to do it – even though Billington was the dinkus in the crowd – he was put to death, hanged for his crime.

And life went on in the new colony. Billington’s wife, Elinor, mouthed off some guy named John Doane six years later and was sentenced to sit in the stocks and get whipped. The look must have worked for her, because she was remarried to Gregory Armstrong in 1638. It doesn’t say whether it was John Jr. or Francis, but one of the kids begat a line of descendants which include President James Garfield. So it worked out for the rest of the Billingtons.

As for Newcomen, he may have been a teenage dickhead, or maybe he just liked to mess around with the local nimrod whose kid nearly blew up America before it had stepped ashore. Either way, he has his weird little corner of American history, and that’s still something.

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