With no witnesses to the alleged crime and Plymouth Governor William Bradford being the only person to oversee Billington’s trial, there is enough doubt to leave this mystery wide open, centuries later. And that’s where Billington’s descendants come in, with an initiative to help secure a lesser charge for the infamous Pilgrim.*
We spoke with historian Captain Phil Johnson, who is a descendant of both Billington and Bradford.
Q: How did you find out about your Mayflower ancestry?
A: I located my first Mayflower ancestor in 2008. I was told that when you are descended from one Mayflower family, you are usually linked to more. I branched off my Isaac Allerton lineage and in 2009 discovered my descendancy from the Billingtons, William Bradford, Richard Warren, Stephen Hopkins and Edward Doty. I added my connections to John Howland and the Tilleys in 2010 and John Alden, the Mullins and John Rogers in 2016.
Q: You have been trying to secure a lesser charge for John Billington. What steps have you taken so far? Has it been a difficult process?
A: I initially wrote a letter to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker on behalf of the many descendants of John Billington. I presented six arguments asking for a posthumous pardon. I received a response stating [that] John Billington would have to fill out the pardon request paperwork, which seems like a stock answer to any pardon request.
I then took up the issue in a meeting with my state representative and received a much more favorable response. He completely understood my intent and agreed that my endeavor would fit right in with the upcoming quadricentennial celebrations. I expect to receive more information within the year.
Q: Is there a good amount of evidence to suggest he was innocent of the murder charge?
A: The only direct evidence is based on the writings of William Bradford in History of the Plymouth Settlement, 1609–1650. A few other references were based on information provided by Bradford.
The subject of the severity of John Billington’s crime has been discussed in several publications, including John Billington – The Plymouth Martyr, edited by George Prince in 1902, who provides many positive arguments supporting John’s innocence.
There was not any evidence that there were witnesses to the crime, so testimony would have only been from Newcomen and Billington. Why did Bradford only accept the word of Newcomen? It is my belief that Bradford imposed the harsher penalty as an example to other members of the colony.
Q: Do you think William Bradford was biased toward John Billington?
A: Personally, yes, as have others for over three centuries. Essentially, William Bradford was the prosecutor, judge, and imposer of the death sentence. Bradford wrote the only firsthand account of the crime and trial many years after John’s execution.
Bradford wrote how he detested the Billingtons. It is important to remember that the Billingtons were not of the Leiden group; they were added to the passenger list at Plymouth. The result was a small mix of supporters of the Church of England and the Separatists. John and the other recruits, who were referred to as the “Strangers,” most assuredly were a cause of the friction with Bradford. There is no denying that John was a very outspoken man and a critic of Bradford’s rule of the colony.
Q: Do you feel the Billingtons’ station in life has affected how they have been perceived over time?
A: The Billingtons suffered years in poverty, as did many others in England at that time. In 1620, passage to the Virginia Colony was offered to several families with the promise of a better life.
[For a better understanding of the conflicts facing the Billingtons, there is a well written article in The Human Tradition of the Atlantic World, 1500–1850, Racine and Mamigonian, titled John Billington and His Family (1582–1630) – Doomed “Knave” of Plymouth Plantation by John Navin.]
Q: What are you hoping to find in your research?
A: My research will not produce any new evidence. I am trying to continue the evaluation of the facts that was presented that resulted in John Billington’s conviction. It is my opinion that enough circumstantial evidence provides some doubt regarding the murder conviction for John’s crime.
Q: Why do you feel that lessening John Billington’s charges is important?
A: The descendants of John Billington have endured the stigma of his alleged crime for 389 years. The mere mention of being a descendant usually results in the comment, “Oh, you’re descended from a murderer.” In 2001, the Massachusetts Legislature exonerated the last of the Salem witches. I am fighting for similiar justice for John Billington.
I am optimistic that my efforts will be successful. It is long overdue to remove the black mark on the Billington name and it is a fitting endeavor in the upcoming 400th anniversary celebration of the Pilgrim’s settlement in Plymouth.
Captain Phil Johnson is an airline pilot (retired) and flight training instructor, author, and historian. He is the 10th great-grandson of William Bradford and John Billington.
*Please note: the views expressed in this blog post do not necesssarily reflect those of the Billington Family Society or GSMD.