Note from Author: This piece was written 15 years ago when I was deep in the battle with symptoms of Morgellons Disease. It was never publish. In celebrating the day with soup and salad, I am reflective of the harsh truths of colonialism. Billington is considered the first case of corporal punishment in the United States, and shows a darker side to the settling of Plymouth. And a “shout out” to a supposed ancestor, William Latham; he was a true bad boy as he stowaway-ed on the Mayflower at the age of 14. Whatever your truth may be, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!
I step alongside the prisoner and, although it is only September, my breath billows out like steam off a boiling pot. Because of my apprenticing at London Tower, I was appointed to the Plymouth jail upon the day of my arrival three short weeks ago. Most of my work is simple; I care for the lags or carry out the court appointed sentence. Delivering the punishment can be difficult.
John Billington killed a man and soon he will hang from the gallows. He treads in puddles along the way feeling, I think, great regret. Justice will prevail. In this walk, I am silent.
There is another guard, William, on the other side; we stride in step keeping the same steady pace while the prisoner walks between us. Directly behind the minister reads from Proverbs.
“Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me…”
We climb the hill into the shadow of the gibbet as the murderer’s wife lets out a loud sob. The procession stops as the prisoner steps gentlemanly up onto the platform with his hands tied in back. William steps up next to him, looping the rope around and tightening to achieve its purpose, then steps down and nods to the minister.
The minister looks up to Billington, “Have thee any words? Does thou fear eternal damnation? Thou has sinned against the commandment of God and to him you must answer. Sayeth you any parting?”
The prisoner looks down at the small group. I cannot help but see the shining pools of tears in the low of his eyes; they do not look towards me, but focus on his wife of many years and his son, a grown man. It is to them that he speaks.
“I go now. Forgive me.” He steps off with a sudden snap and soft flapping swinging sound mixed with caw, caw, caws as a crow takes off in flight. I breathe relief, the snap lets me know the rope served well; his neck is broken. The woman, held close by her son, begins the slow walk down to the gates of Plymouth town.
The body continues to swing as the feet twitch and fingers on one of his hands curls out and in. His neck has become quite long and his face is an odd mix of pale white and deep purple. His tongue looks long and liquid drips off its end, down his chin and the full length of the neck. William is looking back to the town gates.
“They’re closed now. Get ready to catch,” says William as I grab around the dead man’s ankles. He is merciless not lowering the body slowly as I’m used to, but with one slice cuts the rope. The body falls flat on top of me. It is heavier than I anticipate and both the body and I roll part way down the hill.
“E- Gad!” I yell.
William is sitting on the platform laughing and lighting his pipe. “Breaking his fall now isn’t going to save him! Ha! Why he’s dancing with the devil already! I never did like that Billington.”
I push the body up and to the side. The body fluids have transferred from his neck to my collar and shirt. I pick up some leaves to wipe clean and my partner laughs again. I grab my hat from the ground and join William in sitting on the platform. “Was he such a bad man?” I ask.
“Ta! He’s among the worst. Mind you, you being new here you’re not likely to know of the ruffians,” he looks to me, “Plymouth has its lot! There’s no lack of lawlessness here and I’ve seen it all!”
“Tell me then,” I plead.
“Well, since you’re likely to deal with a few of ‘em, I suppose it can’t hurt to tell you.” He blows some smoke from his long pipe. “But let’s not waste any more time. If we each grab a leg, we can drag him the full way without too much strife. And, as we bury, I can speak.”
I pull up the dead man’s pants and grab the flesh of his ankle. He’s still warm. William does the same and we begin the long drag along to Burial Hill.
“His hole is already dug and two spades set there for us. So, the worst is already done,” William says pointing to the body with the mouth of his pipe. “He did kill, but there’s other stories. Most of them relate to rebelling against Governor Bradford. He was always a rebel. Let’s get ‘im up the hill and laid to rest.”
We pulled along, struggling over rock and brush, the head bouncing along the rough way. I have both legs as William hands his off. He gets the arms and we swing the body with a “One, two, three!” and then the body falls down the hole and landed with an “umph!”
William wipes the sweat from his smiling face and simultaneously tosses a spade to me. “I think that was his final word,” he says. The shadow of gulls flying over-head glides across the grave. For some time, in rhythm we alternate dropping the dirt down to cover the body.
“There are some others you’ll want to keep your eyes on. Some share a love of mine,” he says as he pulls a flask from his hip, takes a swig, and offers it to me.
“No, thank you.”
“I’ll give him yours then,” he pours a few drops down the hole. “He did love the drink…as does young William Latham. Oh, and Stephen Hopkins who even makes a business of selling. But watch him; he’s been know to cheat on the prices. And you may find yourself having to go his way late at night to break up the scruffle board. Aye, and there’s talk of him not being good to his servant lady,” he says with a wink.
“Edward Doty is one to watch too. He’s a sly one – cheated one out of six pigs, he did. He has a temper also; we’ve had him taken for slander, assault, stealing, oh, even destroying others property when he let his cows wander. Once, he was sentenced for dueling and I had to tie his heels to his neck for that one. Oh, he was sore!”
William drops another shovel full of dirt down the hole. “And there’s one we men only whisper about, Richard More,” he looks around making certain we are alone. “You may have noticed a scarcity of womenfolk.”
“Aye,” I say.
“Well, More has his share. There’s a pretty wife on both sides of the Ocean. Neither knows about the other.”
I laugh and scrape the last of my dirt from the pile.
“So, them’s the ones that come to mind. Sure there’s more, but those are the worst of them,” says William as he hops up and down on the mound. “let’s flatten this and be done. He’ll not murder again.”
“Aye,” I say, as I join the stomp.