Ah, the Billington boys, John and Francis. Much maligned by a number of authors of popular fictions, these two are often the subject of conversation in our 1627 English Village. In that I played their father, John Billington this year, I have been involved in many of these conversations.
I say much maligned because one author in Mourt’s Relation saw fit to mention them by saying, “The fifth day [of December, 1620] we, through God’s mercy, escaped a great danger by the foolishness of a boy, one of Francis Billington’s sons, who, in his father’s absence, had got gunpowder, and had shot off a piece or two, and made squibs; but there being a fowling-piece charged in his father’s cabin, shot her off in the cabin; there being a little barrel of [gun] powder half full, scattered in and about the cabin, the fire being within four foot of the bed between the decks, and many flints and iron things about the cabin, and many people about the fire; and yet, by God’s mercy, no harm done.”
Skipping over the fact that the author seems to have confused the elder Billington with his son, clearly this is a mischievous act but why didn’t all these people around the fire seem to be in any great panic about this event? Could it be that the author thought the deed more dire than the rest of the company? After all, boys will be boys. It just goes to show that the act of boys playing with firecrackers is hardly a new idea.
Elsewhere the lads have been accused of everything from “trying to blow up the Mayflower” (the above event) to torturing cats. The problem with these stories is that there aren’t any facts to back them up. While it might be fun for children to read these fictional adventures, it can become problematic for us playing their neighbors and loved ones. Children believe these stories and it becomes yet one more popular myth we have to explain away. But not to complain, that’s part of our job.
A side note to this: Above I made reference to people sitting around a fire. The problem with me saying that is I am making an assumption. Are there passengers sitting around an open flame on an old wooden ship with an open cask of gunpowder nearby? It seems like this might present a dangerous situation. Or did the boy start the fire that people were around. I simply don’t know with any certainty. I can’t completely discern the author’s intent of meaning here. It’s things like this that keep my work interesting. This, for me, is one of the reasons we are called Colonial Interpreters. I have to interpret what I think the writer is trying to say and give that spin to our visitors. But what I don’t do is make up out of whole cloth stories that might amuse children simply for entertainment value. John Billington and his family were real people. I owe it to them to portray them as honestly as I can. They deserve it.