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The Life and Times of America's First Murderer

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John Billington isn’t a household name today, but when Englishmen started settling in the New World, he became infamous as the colonies’ first convicted killer.

In 1620, the Mayflower left England and sailed across the Atlantic to New England. Many of the ship’s passengers were Puritan dissenters who had separated from the  Church of England -- the so-called “Saints,” or what we now call the Pilgrims -- and were seeking religious freedom.

Also on board were a group known as the “Strangers.” These other settlers didn’t necessarily share the Saints’ ideals and piety, and went to the New World for a variety of non-religious reasons. Among the group were John Billington, his wife Elinor, and his teenage sons John, Jr. and Francis, who are thought to have fled England to escape John’s debts.

Rocking the Boat

Before the Mayflower even landed in North America, the family caused trouble. One of the Billington boys -- it’s not clear which -- almost blew the ship apart as it sat anchored offshore. He’d been playing with his father’s gun and firing it off in one of the below-deck cabins. Never mind that the cabin was full of people -- the real problem was that he was shooting just a few feet from an open barrel half-filled with gunpowder. Had the muzzle flash of one of the shots ignited the powder, the Pilgrims would have settled their colony on the ocean floor.

Things didn’t improve much once the settlers got on dry land, and Billington scoffed at taking part in the military service required of the able-bodied men. He was to be punished by being hogtied, but the colonial leaders chose not to carry out the sentence after Billington pleaded with them and pointed out that it was his first offense.

It wouldn’t be his last. Billington disliked the governing style of Plymouth’s Puritan leaders and was implicated in a plot to overthrow them. Settlers John Oldham and John Lyford had been banished from the colony for writing letters critical of its government, and Oldham had fingered Billington as part of their group of dissenters before he left. When questioned by the governor’s council, Billington denied any involvement and was never charged.

Billington's anti-government rhetoric didn’t die down after the near-miss, and he continued to rail against Governor William Bradford, the rest of the colony’s leadership, and church and government officials in England. In a letter to Deacon Robert Cushman in England, Bradford wrote, “Billington still rails against you and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore. He is a knave, and so will live and die."

Breaking Bad

After ten years in Plymouth, Billington got caught up in trouble he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of. In early 1630, Billington and John Newcomen, a recent arrival in Plymouth, got into an argument, the subject of which isn’t clear. According to an early chronicle of the colonies, A General History of New England (which contains some details not found in the colonial records and can’t be corroborated), Billington waylaid Newcomen in the woods soon after their quarrel and attacked him with a musket. “The poor fellow, perceiving the intent of this Billington, his mortal enemy, sheltered himself behind trees as well as he could for a while; but the other, not being so ill a marksman as to miss his aim, made a shot at him, and struck him on the shoulder….”

The wound was survivable, but after Newcomen returned to the village, he fell ill with a cold. An infection developed and then gangrene. Several days later, Newcomen died, and Governor Bradford had Billington arrested and tried for the first recorded homicide committed by a settler in the New World -- America’s first murder.

On the last day of that September, Billington was hanged until he died.

Bradford gives a succinct account of the incident in The History of Plymouth Colony:

"This year John Billington the elder…was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of willful murder by plain and notorious evidence, and was accordingly executed. This, the first execution among them was a great sadness to them. They took all possible pains in the trial, and consulted Mr. [John] Winthrop [governor of the  Massachusetts Bay Colony], and the other leading men at the Bay of Massachusetts recently arrived, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged of blood. He and some of his relatives had often been punished for misconduct before, being one of the profanest families among them. They came from London, and I know not by what influence they were shuffled into the first body of settlers."

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Courtesy of Freeman's
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History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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