Martha’s Murder: 22 July 1648

Timeline to Martha’s murder: In 1639 Alice marries George Clarke and has a daughter, Abigail.  In 1644, Martha is born, George Clarke dies and Alice remarries Richard Bishop in December of that year.  In 1645, Damaris Bishop is born.  On Wednesday, July 22, 1648, Alice murders her four year-old daughter, Martha Clarke.

At the end of this post are the original Plymouth Colony court records pertaining to the Clarke murder inquest and Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) trial.  But, first, it might be helpful to understand the likely layout of the Bishop home.  Their land lot was in the vicinity of 50×40 feet based on the number of persons living in the home and typical allotments for this period. The main floor was simply a large room with a hearth on one side.  Cooking and dining took place here as well as this being the space in which Alice and Richard would have slept.

A steeply pitched, thatch roof permitted for one loft bedroom and this is where Abigail, Martha and Damaris shared a bed (As a toddler, it is possible Damaris would have been co-sleeping with her parents especially if she was still nursing). A small nook off of the main floor may have been an addition in the Bishop home for food and tool storage. Small windows provided some light but most came from the fireplace where cooking took place.  On a July morning, it’s questionable that a large fire, giving off significant light, would have been burning.  There would be no direct light in the loft.

Below is a reconstruction of the day’s events.

According to Ramsden’s testimony, she was sent to the Bishop home on an errand. This connotes the women were friendly enough with one another to have such an interaction. No time of day is given, however, we believe this would have been before noon given the fact that Martha was still in bed and Alice requested buttermilk. 

AMB asks Rachel to go to the Winslow home for some buttermilk.  This also establishes that AMB had decent relationships with neighbors. Before living the Bishop home, Rachel takes note that Martha is in the loft and appears to be sleeping.  She also testified that she noticed nothing abnormal in AMB’s demeanor.

Upon Rachel’s return from the Winslow’s, she found Alice “sad and dumpish” and finds blood at the foot of the loft ladder.  She asks AMB about it and AMB points to the upper chamber and “bid [Rachel to] look.”

This part of the testimony raises some questions: Rachel, out of fear, did not go up the ladder.  Nor did she see Martha’s body. Rachel “perceived [AMB] had killed her child.” However, in the same testimony transcipt, Rachel is recorded explaining, “Moreover, she said the reason that moved her to think [AMB] had killed her child was that when [Rachel] saw the blood she looked on the bed, and the child was not there.” Either Rachel was tall enough to see into this sleeping space without ascending the ladder and Martha was missing by her estimation or Rachel didn’t see anything but the bloodied bottom of the ladder and drew her own conclusions.

Rachel runs to her parents’ house to tell them what she witnessed.  This apparently instigated the arrival of the Plymouth coroners. They enter the Bishop home and see “much blood” at the foot of ladder.  The coroners ascend the ladder and find a four year-old female in her shift (underclothes and/or sleeping gown). Martha was either laying on her left side or her head was turned to the left.  According to their report, there are two forms of injuries to Martha: One, numerous cuts across her throat and, two, a piercing wound into her windpipe. A bloody knife is found beside Martha.

Alice confesses to all five coroners on that day that she killed Martha with this knife.

At the August 1, 1648 Court of Assistants, AMB is again interrogated, this time in the presence of Governor Bradford. She, again, confesses to murdering Martha and “was sorry for it.”

AMB’s criminal trial began October 4, 1648 with Bradford in attendance along with all General Assistant and a jury of twelve colony men.  She was convicted of felonious murder (comparable to a modern murder with intent charge) and ordered to be hanged.

Throughout the inquest, trial as well as Rachel’s testimony, there are no recorded statements as to the whereabouts of Richard, Abigail or Damaris.  There is also no mention if other adults reside in the home. We have no records as to whether AMB ever explained why she killed Martha.

As horrific as the events seem now, there is no evidence that July 22, 1648 did not begin like any other summer day in the colony.  The Bishop household was up early – at least Alice, Richard and Abigail who had chores.  Perhaps Alice let Damaris and Martha sleep in.  Maybe older Abigail was sent to fetch water and Richard had left for his day’s work.  Alice would prepare a morning meal like cornmeal porridge.

We feel it’s reasonable to conclude the murder happened in the mid to late morning hours. Again, we considered the buttermilk being something a mother would need earlier in the day while preparing meals. Furthermore, the presumed absence of Abigail and Richard connotes being outside of the home to attend to tasks before the worst of the day’s heath set in. Finally, Martha was still in bed in her shift (although she may have been laying down for a summer day nap).

We are left with a lot of questions and no recorded actual eyewitnesses – save for AMB.  Rachel and the coroners only witnessed the aftermath of Martha’s murder.

The questions are endless:

  1. Where were Abigail and Damaris and why were they not attacked by their mother?  Remember there is nothing “unique” about Martha from what we know: She shared a common father with her elder sister, Abigail. Martha was not the only female child nor was she the youngest or oldest.
  2. There are no discovered records of Alice or Richard involved in previous criminal behavior including domestic violence/child endangerment.
  3. Turns out, Rachel Ramsden is an interesting character without a pristine Plymouth reputation.  She was a Mayflower daughter of Francis Eaton and Christian Penn and married Joseph Ramsden (aka Ramsdell) and was approximately twenty-three at the time of Martha’s murder. A post on her life is included in this blog.
  4. New England women were often in their neighbor’s home to borrow items and visit (Berkin, 33).  Surely, Alice knew someone could walk in while she was murdering Martha or that she’d have a great deal of explaining to do once Rachel returned.  For what reasons did Alice make no effort to place blame elsewhere or hide evidence?
  5. Are there any other potential killers and why would Alice cover for them?

Here are the relevant text excerpts from which we have reconstructed the murder and trail.

[Plymouth Court Records, vol. 2, p 132 for 1 August 1648 (some adjustments to language by Erin Taylor into contemporary English)]

These show, that on July the 22nd, 1648, we, whose names are underwritten, were sworn by Mr. Bradford, Governor, to make inquiry of the death of the child of Alice Bishop, the wife of Richard Bishop. 

We declare, that coming into the house of the said Richard Bishop, we saw at the foot of a ladder which lead into an upper chamber, much blood; and going up all of us into the chamber, we found a woman child, of about four years of age, lying in her shift upon her left cheek, with her throat cut with [numerous] gashes cross ways, the wind pipe cut and stuck into the throat downward, and a bloody knife lying by the side of the child, with which knife all of us judged, and the said Allis hath confessed to five of us at one time, that she murdered the child with the said knife.

JOHN HOWLAND, JAMES COLE, JAMES HURST, GYELLS RICKARD, ROBERT LEE, RICHARD SPARROW, JOHN SHAWE, THOMAS POPE, FRANCIS COOKE, FRANCIS BILLINGTON, JOHN COOKE, WILLIAM NELSON (petty jury names)

Rachel, the wife of Joseph Ramsden, aged about 23 years, being examined, said that coming to the house of Richard Bishop upon an errand, the wife of the said Richard Bishop requested her to go fetch her some buttermilk at Goodwife Winslows, and gave her a kettle for that purpose, and she went and did it; and before she went, she saw the child lying abed asleep, to her best discerning, and the woman was as well as she hath known her at any time; but when she came she found her sad and dumpish; she asked her what blood was that she saw at the ladder’s foot; she pointed unto the chamber, and bid her look, but she perceived she had killed her child, and being afraid, she refused, and ran and told her father and mother.

Moreover, she said the reason that moved her to think she had killed her child was that when she saw the blood she looked on the bed, and the child was not there.

Taken upon oath by me, WILLIAM BRADFORD, the day and year above written.

At a Court of Assistant held at New Plymouth, the first of August, 1648, before Mr. Bradford, Governor, Mr. Coliar, Captain Miles Standish, and Mr. William Thomas, gentlemen, Assistants, the said Alice, being examined, confessed she did commit the aforesaid murder, and is sorry for it.

[Plymouth Court Records, vol 2, p 134 for 4 October 1648]: The General Court convened where Alice “was indicted for felonious murder by her committed upon Martha Clark, her own child, the fruit of her own body.”  Governor Bradford and his General Assistants were present and her jurors were: Josias Winslow, Sr., Thomas Shillingsworth. Anthony Snowe, Richard Sparrow, Gabriell Fallowell, Joshua Prat, Gyells Rickard, John Shaw, Sr., Steven Wood, William Mericke, William Brete and John Willis.

These found the said Alice Bishop guilty of the said felonious murdering of Martha Clarke aforesaid; and so she had the sentence of death pronounced against her [and therefore] to be taken from the place where she was to the place from whence she came, and thence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until her body is dead which accordingly was executed.

Nobody’s Daughter

Erin Taylor, June 2014

 

Fear not the things thou suffer most.  Governor William Bradford

History isn’t brain surgery. Even when it’s done poorly, it’s not fatal.

Jill Lepore

 

In the 2011 edition of this blog, I worked from the presumption that Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) was the daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, and that colored all of the contextual sources I brought to telling her story. Notably, I started with the assumption that she was a four-year-old Mayflower orphan, the only surviving child of the despised Christopher Martin, forgotten in the records but somehow folded into another Plymouth Colony family. I needed to make meaning out of her life beyond the brief, documented months between the murder of Martha and the resulting trek to the hanging tree.

Eager, amateur genealogists make mistakes and I made a big one. First, I need to apologize to anyone I led astray. Secondly, I want to deconstruct how I made that mistake.

There are no Plymouth Colony Martins connected to AMB for the appropriate time frame (1639-1648). Therefore, I looked to other “armchair genealogists” to see whom they considered AMB’s parents to be. There, I found debate brewing: Christopher Martin/Marie Prower versus Francis Martin/Prudence Deacon.

The Martin/Prower story is well known. Christopher Martin was the Mayflower‘s treasurer, tasked with gathering and managing funds and supplies for the voyage and initial settlement—a job he did poorly and in ill-tempered fashion according to Governor William Bradford. Martin, his wife, Marie Prower, and stepson, Solomon Prower, all died aboard the Mayflower that first winter. So says the Mayflower Society, and I have zero credentials or basis to question them. There has never been one primary source found that states Martin and Prower had a daughter and that she traveled with them to Plymouth Colony or came alone at a later date.

The argument that Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon produced AMB is easily dismissed. The only Francis Martin I can find on any passenger lists is an 18-year-old who sailed on the 1635 Falcon to Barbados—ironically, the same ship that AMB’s first husband, George Clarke, may have crossed the Atlantic aboard. At that age and date, this Francis Martin would be too young to be the father of AMB. Similarly, two 19-year-old Deacons sailed to Virginia colonies in 1635 (Thomas on the Assurance and Avis on the Alice). Again, this makes them too young to be a parent of AMB. Nor do I find a mention of a Prudence Deacon anywhere. (If one wanted to go far, far out on a limb and with no evidence to back it up, the 18-year-old Francis Martin sailing with George Clarke may have been Alice Martin, disguised as a male and taking the name Francis because it sounded similar to Alice. But I think I’ve learned my lesson from making assumptions.)

Granted, Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon could have emigrated in the early 1620s without being recorded on any passenger lists–as well as any children who came with them. But, let’s do the Plymouth math: if the Martin/Deacon union produced a daughter circa 1624, Alice would have been 14 years old—at the oldest—when she married. This age doesn’t meet English or colonial standards where women typically married after their nineteenth birthday. I’d be happy to see more primary source evidence on Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon, but I have not been able to locate any.

My mistake (the premise that AMB was a forgotten Mayflower daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower) was both indicative of my amateur and wishful research. I assumed she had to be someone’s daughter and that there were surely records about her life. When neither could be found, I picked the parents who worked the best.

More than two years later, I think I am much closer to the truth. I will write more in depth on this in other sections, but for now let me share where the primary source evidence and respected Mayflower-Plymouth Colony historians have taken me. There is ample evidence to indicate that AMB could have come over as someone’s servant, not worthy of being named on a ship passenger list. These lists of the three dozen-plus ships that came to New England (prior to 1635) are incomplete but tantalizing. One Higginson fleet of 1629 brings to the colony 350 men, women, and children—many of whose names are not recorded. This is much more likely indicative of AMB’s immigration. In this scenario, she would have come to New England, likely in adolescence, as someone’s servant and married George Clarke once her service term ended in 1639.

This storyline makes the lack of evidence about AMB elsewhere much more palatable. If she had been a Mayflower orphan, someone, surely, would have taken note that this murderess was no less than the daughter of Christopher Martin who had so poorly mismanaged their divine voyage. If her eyewitness neighbor, Rachel Eaton Ramsden, was mentioned in the 1627 Cattle List when we know Rachel was but a young child, then would not her peer, Alice Martin, have been included as well?

There is simply zero evidence that Alice Martin lived in Plymouth Colony (or Massachusetts Bay Colony) before 1638. I give her this one year before 1639 simply because we know she married George Clarke in January of 1639. Perhaps she had lived in Plymouth Colony for a full seven years (the typical contract time for an indentured servant) but that still means she would have arrived circa 1631.

But back to the 2011 blog…Much of the research I did then has been incorporated with new resources I’ve since pored over. I did not remove any data that I felt was still relevant to the immediacy of AMB’s life. Most significantly, a collaborator has guided the relaunch of this blog – another 10X AMB great granddaughter and my cousin, unknown degrees apart, Kristin Luce.  Kristin read the original blog in 2014 and her questions and encouragement were the impetus I needed.  With her keen research and editing skills, the second iteration of AliceMartinBishop.com arrived.

AMB is not a Mayflower child. She came to America by passage unknown, was married, became a mother, widowed. Married and mothered again. The three decades of her life before she killed Martha in July 1648 must be reconstructed. I am reminded that the right questions are paramount to finding right answers. What can we infer, making the best use of primary sources and scholarly history? More importantly, what are the assumptions we cannot make?

For me, alongside all of the questions, there remains something sorrowful—probably because I am a mother and daughter myself. Was Alice loved as a child, as a wife? Often, I have to remind myself, don’t forget she murdered her girl.

The Knife

Aside

Look at these two images of seventeenth century kitchen instruments:

Jamestown kitchen instrumentsJamestown kitchen instruments

Granted, these images come from Jamestown, VA excavations.  However, if we can assume Plymouth Colony had carving and piercing tools similar to these, we have a grim look into how much it took to kill Martha Clarke.  These tools do not appear razor sharp nor very large.  While the diameter of Martha’s neck was, likely, no more than five inches, knives like these would have required focused hacking to get the job done.

Research into Plymouth Colony tools reveals the presences of axes, daggers, a few swords and shears. But AMB likely used what she had in her kitchen — a smaller knife forged of iron.  All metal ware was costly and difficult to procure in early Plymouth.  Indeed, the 1681 will of wealthy Plymouth colonist Nicholas Nickerson reveals he owned only three knives. As noted in the court records, Martha was found with multiple cuts across her windpipe.