John Billington in the Family Tree by
(25 Stories)

Prompted By Jury Duty

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John Billington is in the crowd somewhere

If you are able to go back far enough in your ancestry, you might find interesting – and indeed notorious – progenitors. It helps, as my cousin once said, if, “rather than spending our summers at the shore … we spent them in New England cemeteries.”

This week’s prompt credits John Billington with the dubious historical honor of being the defendant in the first jury trial held in the American colonies. It didn’t end well for him

This week’s prompt credits John Billington with the dubious historical honor of being the defendant in the first jury trial held in the American colonies. It didn’t end well for him. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Not just by hanging, but he was hanged, drawn and quartered as the Mayflower jury of his peers found appropriate.

It seems Mr. Billington had a nasty temper, and blew his neighbor away with a blunderbuss (think 17th Century weapon akin to a sawed-off shotgun) over a land dispute that didn’t go well. He had two children before his execution – otherwise I would not be here retelling his demise four centuries later.

I first learned of this bit of history at a holiday dinner attended by my brothers and the aforementioned (second) cousin. My mother’s cousin (nicknamed Mickey) (we were schooled to identify her as a “second cousin, once removed), was then over 70 years old, and her mother, over 90, were also there. In addition to spending her productive efforts promoting world peace, Mickey had indeed spent a great deal of time researching the ancestors which we all shared. But in discussing whether she’d unearthed any famous people, she mentioned, among others, John Locke. But he couldn’t hold a candle to the interest generated by revelation of the Billington family secret. The cousin from our generation asked, “What about John Billington?”

Neither Mickey nor her mother (called Grandma by some, and “Aunt” by me and my brothers) had a lot to say. They seemed reluctant to say anything, as if embarrassed by the story. Yes, they must have been thinking, we are descended from the Mayflower, but do you really want to know more? Do tell, we urged, and the felonious branch of the family tree was disclosed. The cousins of my generation regaled us with what they knew of this piece of history. Of interest to me, learning about this for the first time, was the amusement with which our generation took this story, an amusement which was completely lacking in the generation one rung closer to this tragic affair.

Over the years, I’ve learned that Billington has become more than a dry historical footnote. There’s a house at Plimouth Plantation, the Massachusetts state park where actors in period costume portray characters from the 1620’s, and say such things as “Ah yes, the Island of California” when visitors, like us, state where we’re from. But when we asked a costumed character we later learned was playing Miles Standish, standing in front of what was identified as the Billington House, “Are you John Billington?”, his three word reply said it all: “No, thank God!”

Profile photo of Mister Ed Mister Ed

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Thanx Mr Ed for the peek at your fascinating family tree! I’d never heard of John Billington until I researched the history of jury service as I was writing the blurb for this prompt!

    And now your mention of the costumed re-enactor at Plymouth Plantation who acknowledged that you were from “the island of California” reminded me of our visit to Plymouth Plantation when our son was very young.

    When we tourists were being asked where we were from and the guide got to our family, our kid, with no prompting from us, got into the swing.

    “We’re Hebrews from New Amsterdam.” he proudly said.

    • Mister Ed says:

      What a great anecdote about the Hebrews from New Amsterdam! I’ll bet the actors will remember that one. It is now attached to my memory about the Plantation.

      And thanks for your research on jury service. It had never occurred to me that the first to be executed by European settlers was also part of the first trial as well. No surprise, of course, but interesting to think about. I remember my first jury trial as a public defender. The consequences facing my client, although serious, weren’t nearly so dire.

      • Dana Admin says:

        Thanx Ed, who knew joining Retro would be so educational as well as such fun! (And who knew I’d meet a talking horse with a murderous ancestor!)

        Stay safe out there on the “island of California”, here in the northeast we’re floating away!

  2. That’s quite a branch of the family tree! When I first read of “spending our time in New England cemeteries,” I took it that we were speaking of the dead ancestors. It was a revelation to realize that your living ancestors were the ones spending time in those cemeteries, and unearthing–so to speak–the remains of some important stories of the past.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    More fascination family history, Mr. Ed. I loved to take my kids to Plimouth Plantation (I’ve always loved history -living or otherwise, but they are working hard to show it more from an indigenous perspective these days). Thank you for sharing your own family’s links to our country’s origin story.

    • Mister Ed says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I agree with your comments on the indigenous perspective. We don’t have much on interaction with and feelings about indigenous people near the Plimouth plantation, aside from the saccharine stories we learned in elementary school.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    Now I’m wondering if my former coworker with the Billington last name was any relation. You do have a bit of historical notoriety—first jury trial! Relative of the convicted! Gruesome too! Fortunately, the further we get from these stories, the less they seem scandalous—or maybe attitudes have changed. Our family has a few skeletons in the closet that now seem more a curiosity than a fright.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Fascinating story, Mr. Ed. Maybe I should be grateful tat I could not trace my ancestry too far back. You should end up on Finding Your Roots.

    • Mister Ed says:

      You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. After all, there’s not a guarantee of a true genetic link. And ten or twenty generations, the amount of genetic material would be minuscule. And perhaps one ancestor had a daliance with someone other than their spouse. So . . . nature/nurture considerations could come into play.

  6. Suzy says:

    I love Miles Standish’s response: “No, thank God!” I can just hear him saying it too!

  7. pattyv says:

    Mr. Ed, what does the horse think? Mr.Billington was a brutal man, yet his punishment was equally grotesque. So, do you think we’ve come a long way? Or we’re cursed to follow this violent passageway to our demise? With all our everyday shootouts and serial killers, can’t say we made much progress. Sorry I was captivated by the violence. Loved all the rest of your story though, from Aunt Mickey to grandma, the Plymouth actors and the island of California.

    • Mister Ed says:

      The horse thinks equines are more civilized than humans. He’s not sure about what direction we’re headed in. Whatever is occurring, it always seems that times are dire, and perhaps never have been worse. The rise of right wing politics does not augur well, and climate change is a new(er) threat than seems to have no answer. I’m glad you liked my story. I had fun writing it.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Offspring of old Colonial families often have a wealth of history. In grad school I shared an apartment with a guy whose claim to fame was being descended from a governer-type in colonial Massachusetts who was best known for solving the local Indian problem with a gift of blankets used by people who had had smallpox.

    • Mister Ed says:

      Is the history any less dark than with non-colonial families —— or is there just more of this type of recorded history in this trove of stories? Your story about your apartment mate is particularly chilling. My Billing was a disagreeable man who may have lost his temper, and not much more. Delivering infected blankets strikes me differently.

      The University of California’s Hastings College of the Law (In San Francisco) is currently considering whether to keep the Hastings name attached to it. Although Hastings was a successful governor, his history of leading calculated genocidal attacks against native tribes in Northern California may lead to the removal of his name from the law school.

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