The first execution

President Garfield’s assassination

While William Bradford himself never delved into the life of my ancestor (and Mayflower passenger) Francis Billington, the same is not true for Francis’s father John Billington. He appears in several items in his ten years in Plymouth, nearly all in a negative light. He was brought before the Plymouth Company in March 1621 and charged with “contempt of the Captain [Myles Standish]’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches: for which he was adjudged to have his Neck and Heels tied together: but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first Offence, He is forgiven.” In 1624, he was an outspoken supporter for Rev. John Lyford and John Oldham in their revolt against William Bradford and the rest of the Leiden contingent and the authority of the Plymouth church, but denied any involvement when brought up on examination.[1]

Bradford wrote to Robert Cushman on 9 June 1625 that “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 died before this letter arrived.)

Of course, what Billington is most known for is killing his neighbor John Newcomen in 1630 and being the first English person executed for murder in New England.[2] Bradford wrote to John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, for advice on the matter (see below). Billington was executed to set an example.

Years ago I met a fellow descendant of John Billington, who told me, facetiously, that John Billington’s death was really the fault of Dr. Samuel Fuller, since, as the doctor, he should have been able to save John Newcomen from the gunshot wound, and thus Billington would not have been executed. Interesting ….

Of the 24 Mayflower families that left American descendants,  the Billington family is one of twelve in the ancestry of American presidents.[3] In a touch of irony, John Billington, himself executed for murder with a gun, is the ancestor of President James Abram Garfield, who was assassinated with a gun in 1881. Of all the presidents descended from Mayflower passengers, Garfield is the only one who had a violent death by gunshot.

Notes

[1] Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 … with complete text, with notes and an introduction by Samuel Eliot Morison (1952), 156-57.

[2] An execution of an unnamed English person had occurred earlier in 1623 in the English settlement of Wessagusset (Weymouth), after an English settler was caught stealing corn from local Native Americans. The unnamed man was purportedly offered to the Native Americans, who “declined to receive him, upon which his [English] companions hung him themselves in their sights.” Charles Francis Adams, Wessagusset and Weymouth (1904), 17, and Legal Executions in New England: a comprehensive reference, 1623-1960 (1999), 5.

[3] John Alden and William Mullins are behind the two Adamses and Calvin Coolidge; Allerton behind Zachary Taylor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; William Brewster behind Zachary Taylor; Richard Warren behind Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Edward Doty behind Calvin Coolidge; John Howland, John Tilley, and Francis Cooke  behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the two Bushes; Degory Priest behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and Henry Samson behind George Walker Bush. See Gary Boyd Roberts, Ancestors of American Presidents, 603-12.

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About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

12 thoughts on “The first execution

  1. Why is it still common to leave out the female Mayflower passengers when listing ancestors of descendants of Mayflower passengers? Why not say, for example, that FDR and the two Bushes are descendants of Mayflower passengers John Tilley, Joan Hurst, Elizabeth Tilley, John Howland, and Francis Cooke? Or one could say, FDR and the Bushes are descendants of Mayflower passengers John and Joan (Hurst) Tilley and their daughter Elizabeth, John Howland, and Francis Cooke. It is disturbing that even today people leave out Elizabeth Tilley and her mother Joan in such lists.

    1. I did this to simplify a relatively complicated footnote. For example I could not simply state Allerton as ancestral to FDR and Taylor if attempting to state all passengers in their ancestry, as FDR descends from 3 passengers of the family: Isaac Allerton, Mary (Norris) Allerton, and their daughter Mary Allerton, later the wife of Thomas Cushman; while Taylor only descends from one passenger of the Allerton family: Isaac himself through his second wife Fear Brewster (not a passenger herself, but the child of two passengers William and Mary Brewster). If you do go to my citation of Ancestors of American Presidents, you’ll see that Gary Boyd Roberts outlines the Mayflower descents of all these Presidents with each individual Mayflower passenger in bold. The condensed footnote was also not specifically omitting female passengers only, as Garfield descends from Francis Billington and FDR descends from John Cooke, who were both passengers as well. While the Mayflower Silver books are titled with the name of the “senior male patriarch” of each of the 22 families leaving American descendants (Tilley gets included with Howland, and Mullins with Alden, since all known American descendants of these senior families only go through one daughter and the Mayflower passenger son-in-law), no married women were on the ship without their husbands, and no widowed women were passengers either. For the families that left descendants in the U.S., there are not any examples of a female passenger leaving descendants where either her father or her husband (that was also the parent of children leaving descendants) was also not a passenger. There are two interesting cases where there might be Mayflower descendants (in England), where the passenger would be the “senior female matriarch,” of children of female passengers and their first husbands. One is Joan (Hurst) (Rogers) Tilley, if living descendants can be found of her eldest daughter, Joan (Rogers) Hawkins of Bedford, England, who had seven children (one died young). My colleague Julie Helen Otto has identified a few children born in Bedford in the mid 17th century. The other is Mary (______) (Prower) Martin who was a passenger with her second husband Christopher Martin. She had five children by her first husband Edward Prower (including passenger Solomon Prower). Caleb Johnson’s article in Mayflower Quarterly, 76:244-46, shows Mary’s son Edward Prower had two children baptized in the 1620s at Great Burstead, co. Essex, England (that did not have recorded burials), that could have left descendants (as well as son Nathaniel Prower by her her second husband that could have also left descendants. In either case, if Rogers or Prower descendants could be found, their only Mayflower ancestor would be a woman.

    2. Absolutely! The only reason William Mullins is “behind the two Adamses and Calvin Coolidge” with John Alden is because John Alden married Priscilla Mullins, William’s daughter. There is no way around that women share 50% of the responsibility of offspring — unless a man is explaining it.

  2. The 1623 hanging of an English colonist in Weymouth for stealing Native American corn seems very harsh. Certainly something should have been done such as making the thief work and harvest and give back double the corn he stole, or whatever. Was it common for such a theft to be punished so severely?

    1. Only by white settlers. Note that the Indians refused to take him. They likely did not regard hunger as a punishable offense. The whites probably thought they were showing respect for the Natives by hanging them in their view. My bet is that the Natives thought the whites were barbarians. They were right.

  3. I am confused. You speak of “your ancestor Francis Billington”, then mention his father John. It sounds to me as though John is not your ancestor. May I ask why? Of note, my sons, through their father, are also Billington descendants.

    1. Hi Kathy, yes John Billington (and his wife Elinor) are my ancestors as well since they are Francis’s parents. This is a part of a three part series of blogposts on the Billington family, and the two earlier posts focused on Francis Billington (you can follow the links above to see the earlier posts). Thanks!

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