R is for Rogues and Ne’er-Do Wells

There were some early colonists who were just plain old evil and corrupt people. Living amongst the generally law-abiding Puritans were some vile folk unwilling to demonstrate even basic moral principles. Some of them were indentured servants, free men and women who somehow found their way to America, and a few pirates who infiltrated the towns and villages.

Thomas Billington as portrayed at Plimoth Plantation

The first recorded murder in the colonies was by the infamous Thomas Billington, a rogue who managed to board the Mayflower with his family in 1620. He was considered “a stranger” indicating he was not a pilgrim. His sons who are referred to as “the Billington boys” are well known in Pilgrim history for almost setting a fire to a barrel of gunpowder onboard the Mayflower. For the killing of John New-Comin, Billington was hanged and “so the land was purged from blood.”

But murders and other mayhem continued. In 1638, Dorothy Talby was hanged for the “unnatural and untimely death of her daughter Difficult Talby.  One must wonder if Dorothy had a premonition about her poor daughter’s fate when she named her.

Robert Hunt’s crime story resembles those we hear today on the news. Hunt, a lime seller in Boston, was differing with a man, drew a sword and made two or three swipes at him. The victim managed to wrangle the sword from Hunt and went to the authorities so they could issue a warrant for Hunt’s arrest.

Locked in his house, Hunt was determined to defend himself. He found a loaded gun and two pistols and began to fire when the constables appeared. Two boys were injured in the standoff. Finally apprehended, Hunt was taken to prison where he committed suicide by hanging “with an old single garter.” After a stake had been driven through his body, Hunt was buried near the gallows. A fitting end for a scoundrel.

Walter Bagnall was known as a “wicked fellow” and for his dishonest trading practices, especially with the Natives. Although it was against the colonies’ laws, Bagnall sold liquor and English guns to the local tribes. On one fatal occasion, the natives came to seek revenge because they felt they were cheated. Bagnall was killed and his trading post was set on fire. Centuries later, 52 gold and silver coins and a gold signet ring were found buried in a jar on land that he inhabited.

The much-maligned Lydia Ballat Gilbert (my 9th great grandmother)  was one victim of a scurrilous rogue named Thomas Allyn who accused her of witchcraft. Her story illustrates how the phrase “follow the money” was played out in a despicable way. This scenario happened all too often when people were accused of witchcraft: there was a financial motive or revenge behind the charge.

 The origins of the tragedy began when Thomas and Lydia Gilbert innocently became involved with Henry Stiles.  He had been a boarder in the Gilberts’ home, and there appeared to be some animosity between Stiles and the Gilberts.  The lands the Gilberts lived on once belonged to Francis Stiles, Henry’s father.

  In the autumn of 1651 in Windsor, Connecticut, an unfortunate accident took place during training exercises by a group of local militiamen. Thomas Allyn of Windsor was carrying his musket in a cocked position and inadvertently hit it against a tree causing it to fire. It struck Henry Stiles and mortally wounded him. Thomas Allyn was taken before the court and indicted for this accident. He confessed and was found guilty of “homicide by misadventure.”  He was ordered to pay a substantial fine and was “bound to good behavior” for a period of one year and was not allowed to bear arms for that period of time. We might think that would mark the end of the story.

  Apparently, the tale of Henry’s death continued for about three years. Stories and accusations against Lydia Gilbert emerged in an attempt to fasten the blame for the accident on witchcraft. Lydia was accused by her neighbors of the charge that her demonic abilities had enabled her to cause the musket of Thomas Allyn to discharge.  A special session of the court was held starting on November 28, 1654, to try the case of witchcraft against her.

  Lydia’s verdict was announced: “ ye Party aboue mentioned found guilty of witchcraft by ye Jury[.] Thou deservest to dye…” (Records of the Particular Court of Connecticut, 1639– [Hartford 1928] p. 131).


Not all the rogues were men. Mary Oliver enjoyed provoking authorities and was twice ordered out of the colony. Over twenty years time and dozens of  court appearances, Mary accused the governor of being “unjust, corrupt and a wretch.” She challenged the church authorities about membership and accused them as “bloodthirsty and ‘contemning’ the ordinance of God.” (Puritans often made up the spelling of a word or invented new ones.)

Mary came to the home of Robert Gutch in a strange mood, bordering on delusional. Mary threatened him by saying “she did hope to live to tear my flesh in pieces and all such as I were.”

Mary Oliver’s numerous run-ins with the law resulted in whippings, fines and finally banishment from the colony when she was told to go back to England on the next ship. Mary reappeared a year later in court accused of stealing goats. Banished once again, Mary found herself in front of the court thirteen years later for fighting with her husband. Mary Oliver obviously loved the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Grave of Sagamore of Agawam

Robert Crose Junior earns the title a “rogue of the first degree” from his horrible and disgusting stunt that could have caused the deaths of many in the colony. Crose exhumed the body of the Sagamore of Agawam and hoisted his skull upon a pole. He then carried it into Ipswich to display to the villagers and intended to gift it to his wife to use as a cooking vessel. His actions were considered highly offensive, and he was put in the stocks, imprisoned and then fined. Crose also had to rebury the body and place a two-foot high pile of stones over the grave.