Meet our 10x great grandmother. In 1648, Alice Martin Bishop of Plymouth Colony was hanged for the murder of her 4-year-old daughter, Martha Clarke. Join us as we reconstruct Alice’s world. Here, we learn more about her origins, her husbands, her surviving children, and her Puritan community — all in an attempt to make sense of a crime so unnatural, it continues to fascinate, nearly 400 years later.
Erin Taylor, August 2014
Identifying the origins and family of our George Clarke has been frustrating, often more a matter of eliminating who he is not. George Clarke does us no research favors by having a prevalent first and last name; Clarke (with the “e” at the end) was a common English surname associated with the profession of being a clerk for bureaucratic functions. We certainly know nothing of the education of our George Clarke, but such literacy skills had limited use in early Plymouth Colony. Men were needed to build, farm, manage livestock, and stave off Native Americans.
We are left with very few direct primary sources that identify our Clarke. Later in this post, we will provide sources of Clarkes that should not be confused with the George Clarke who was Alice Martin’s first husband. The earliest mention for this George Clarke is in the Plymouth Court Records (PCR) for 1637 (vol. 8, March 1637), where he enters into a series of disputes with Edward Dotey, a servant who came over on the Mayflower and then, once he completed his term, clearly had issues with Clarke and other Plymouth men. The records indicate that the two were likely farming neighbors as Clarke drags Dotey into court claiming the latter is denying him access to his lands (vol 8., October 1637). In June of 1638, Dotey is fined for physically assaulting Clarke (vol. 1), and the bad blood continues for another four years, when Clarke is ordered to pay Dotey four bushels of corn for some infraction (vol. 2, February 1642).
These court matters provide some clues about George’s age and position in Plymouth. For instance, we can assume he was over the age of 21 and no longer (if he ever was) a servant by 1637 because he is mentioned as owning land. That means his date of birth would have to be well before 1620, possibly before 1616. The disputes with Dotey indicate he had landholdings — not just in Plymouth Colony, but also in the actual town of Plymouth — and are re-evidenced by George Clarke’s landholdings in 1641 (vol. 2, December 1641). We do not know if George Clarke was a Freedman by his death in 1642, and Stratton reminds researchers that one did not need such status to own land in Plymouth (Plymouth Colony, 145).
George Clarke is not on the Plymouth Colony Tax Lists for 1633 or 1634 (the only dates available for this decade), and so we can presume he had not yet arrived from England or, a lesser possibility, resided in another American colony. We know Clarke marries “Allis Martin” January of 1639 (vol. 1, 1638 using the older, Julian calendar system) in the midst of his turf war with Dotey. He is also on the 1643 List of Men Able to Bear Arms (ages 16 to 60) for the town of Plymouth. However, his name is crossed out, probably because he is dead within a year.
Kristin Luce, August 2014
Beyond the questions of Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) parentage and origins (and that of her husbands), one question that haunts AMB researchers is what happened to Abigail Clarke — Alice’s oldest daughter — after her mother’s execution. Through all of our research, we haven’t found anyone who has been able to place Abigail after 1649, when the PCR notes that John Churchill was appointed to sell her father George Clarke’s house for her “use and good” (vol. 2).
This order, in fact, is the only reason we even know there was an Abigail. The only mother-child relationship for Alice that we have direct evidence for is that of Alice and Martha, which is specified in the PCR’s account of Martha’s murder and Alice’s conviction. As we’ve discussed before, no mention is made of Abigail or Damaris (Alice’s youngest daughter) by Rachel Ramsden during her two visits to the house that day, or by the coroners, who arrived later.
But Abigail is mentioned in the PCR the following year, in May 1649, as the daughter of George Clarke. John Churchill, of Plymouth, is ordered to dispose of “the house and land [that heretofore] was George Clarke’s for the use and good of Abigaell Clarke, daughter unto the said Gorg Clarke.” If we assume this is our George Clarke — and we haven’t yet found any other George Clarkes in Plymouth at that time — then we can confidently assume that this Abigail, who several months after Alice’s execution needs someone to provide for her, was a daughter from his marriage to Alice.
Someone, at some point, guessed Abigail’s birth date to be about 1641/1642, and that is the date used in all accounts of Abigail and AMB that we’ve found so far. It’s an interesting calculation, as it comes two years after George and Alice were married, a length of time longer than the average wait for a first child, but maybe there was an infant who died before Abigail was born.
Pilgrims and Puritans are not interchangeable terms, nor is one a subset of another. They shared a common faith, the Anglican Church (aka Church of England) and, as colonial neighbors, often collaborated. Both believed in purifying and simplifying Anglican practices and that Scripture was the guiding source for a community’s moral codes. Both groups also advocated literacy, so that each person could read the Bible.
Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony beginning in 1620 with the arrival of the Mayflower.
Puritans were the founding families of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630, Boston and region).
Pilgrims insisted state and church should be separate, and were known as Separatists. At this point, we can’t go much further without clarifying a few things. Not all passengers on the Mayflower were religious dissidents. The passengers who left England to separate from the Church of England referred to themselves as Saints. The Saints referred to the other passengers as Strangers. For our purposes here, we’re referring to both groups as Pilgrims.
Erin Taylor, August 2014
We are always trying to make puritans of the Puritans.
Plymouth Colony, Eugene Stratton, 191.
Here is your spouse’s bed; creep into it, and in your arms of faith embrace him, bewail your weakness, your unworthiness, your diffidence, etc. and you shall see he will turn to you.
Governor Bradford’s undated letter to “a faithful woman in her heaviness and trouble.”
Erin Taylor & Kristin Luce, August 2014
Aside from the obvious mystery as to why Alice murdered her child, the questions that keep us up at night are who were Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) parents and from where and when did she emigrate? Unfortunately, we simply don’t know. Not until 1646 were Plymouth towns ordered to record every birth, death, and marriage (Davis, 83), and so we’re fortunate to have a record of Alice’s marriage to George Clarke in 1639 and to Richard Bishop in 1644. But where was she in the years before her first marriage? Considering the vast scouring done, across multiple centuries, to locate Plymouth records, we must concede we’ll likely never know the parentage, birth date, and birth location for AMB. This is the part of her story where we have to make our best educated guesses. I already issued a mea culpa for positing that AMB was the daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, who came over on the Mayflower and died that first winter. And while AMB-as-Mayflower-orphan can’t be definitively disproved, there are other, more likely scenarios for AMB’s existence in late 1630s Plymouth Colony.
Before we explore those scenarios, let’s step back and look at some numbers. According to Martin E. Hollick on the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) website, between the years 1620 and 1640, about 20,000 English men, women, and children crossed the Atlantic to settle New England. Of those crossings, we have exactly zero official passenger lists. “What lists we do have were reconstructed by careful analysis of other sources, such as letters, diaries, court records, port books, licenses to travel overseas, admiralty records, and other state papers. However, as a rule, finding the specific ship for any emigrant to New England in the seventeenth century is the exception and not the rule” (AmericanAncestors.org).
Not satisfied with those odds, we continue to look for anyone named Alice Martin (or even something similar), but as of August 2014, we are still batting .000. We have a couple of potential George Clarkes, although they aren’t perfect fits, and a Salem-residing Richard Bishop who reminds us that, unless your ancestor had a really unique name, you often need more verifiable evidence. That’s why we’re thankful for ancestors named Sally Sixkiller and Dorcas Buckminster — they make our work much easier!
Most emigrants came over as part of a family. We assume AMB didn’t have any family in Plymouth because we haven’t found anything in the Plymouth Court Records or other primary sources that link her (or the orphaned Abigail Clarke) to other Martins. But it is very unlikely that a young, single woman, using her own financial resources, could have set off for the New World on her own. So how DID she get here?
Kristin Luce, July 2014
Is this a likeness of Alice Martin Bishop? Many of our Martin cousins on Ancestry.com think so. And though some of those researchers obviously believe the curls, velvet choker, lace collar, and earrings all scream 1630s Puritan New England, I’m thinking, um, no.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Ancestry members who include Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) on their trees, and some of this information is legitimate — for example, many people include scans from the Plymouth Court Records (PCR) that document the investigation into her daughter Martha’s death and AMB’s subsequent conviction. Other documents that appear frequently are relevant pages from The Sutton Family website, the memorial found on Findagrave.com, and some of Erin’s earlier posts from this blog. But I’m struggling to figure out which Ancestry sources I can trust — many contradict each other — as I look for clues to Alice Martin Bishop.
One representative tree I looked at included a number of potential eureka items. Besides the photo above, this specific researcher (let’s call him Bradford101) included the photo below, and I wondered how he figured out that Alice Martin’s family came from the town of Billericay. So I looked at his other sources, to see if those offered any clues.
Erin Taylor, July 2014
The persistent efforts of judges and ministers to obtain and publish confessions and repentances of the guilty as they stood upon the gallows grew in part from the belief that crimes must not be hidden, even by those about to die.
Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, 50
Plymouth’s first murder trial was held in 1630 with John Billington accused of murdering John Newcomen. Billington was executed the same year (Philbrick, 157). Similar to Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) trial, there was no lengthy investigation-trial-appeal-retrial. Cases were quickly delivered to juries, adjudicated, and if death were called for, there was no need to tarry. However, executions were hardly regular events, for just ten people were executed in the seven decades of Plymouth Colony’s independent existence (Maddox, 252).
Erin Taylor, July 2014
Who tended to Martha’s body? Was seven-year-old Abigail given this traumatic task? Did neighbors step in, moving the tiny corpse from the upper chamber to be washed and shrouded on the Bishops’ only table? Was Alice allowed to do this? Was she forced to?
It is likely that every Plymouth adult woman had participated in at least one burial preparation. People died of the typical causes — old age and illnesses — but accidental and infant deaths were also common. Tending to the dead was a colony task shared by women and men: the former preparing the body and the latter digging the grave, building the coffin, and often, designing a memorial marker. There were costs and craftsmen associated with burials (Deetz, 168) and we assume, certainly hope, that Richard covered these expenses for his stepdaughter. The standard for a “decent” burial included washing and shrouding the body in cloth, likely linen, and a simple coffin. Grave diggers were often hired, but perhaps Richard did this task himself.
Burial Hill, near Leyden Street, was the colony’s first graveyard and several notable settlers are buried there. Maybe, Martha rests there. However, since seventeenth-century grave markers were made of wood and not stone, none survive for descendants to visit. The same is true for Alice, although she may not have been admitted into this esteemed cemetery after her execution.
It is also possible that Martha’s body traveled back to Barnstable to be buried alongside her father, George Clarke. Again, no gravestones from that period survive and a search of all pre-Independence gravesites for that area did not generate any George or Martha Clarkes.
Erin Taylor, July 2014
We mean not to offend. But we’re going to talk about the manner of Martha’s death and the coroners’ investigation. Be warned, there’s going to be some gore.
In the 2011 blog comments and on genealogy sites discussing Alice Martin Bishop (AMB), there are numerous questions about the investigation into Martha’s death. From the outset, two things must be remembered:
- Alice confessed immediately in the presence of all five coroners.
- The coroners had seventeenth-century investigation skills and tools. None of them were, even by that century’s standards, “men of science.”
AMB researchers have asked why there was no crime scene investigation report. There was one: