It’s easy to make Alice Martin Bishop mentally ill. To insist she had post-partum depression, to assume she had to be psychotic. To make her a seventeenth century Andrea Yates. Because the alternative is to imagine she is a cold-hearted, murdering mother. And for those of us who claim AMB in our family tree, that’s a real downer.
While we have zero evidence that AMB was perceived as mentally/emotionally unbalanced, we need to conjure up some sort of explanation for July 22, 1648. This blog entry is replete with uncertainties and “what-ifs?” That being said, I wish some researchers and genealogists would stop making presumptions about who Alice was and what her motives were. Randolph Roth, as an example, makes claims that I fail to see have the evidence to back them up: “[e]very child…murdered by a relative in the frontier period from the 1630s through the 1650s was killed by a deranged or depressed parent.” Does Alice seem deranged to us because she nearly decapitated her sleeping child? Of course. Would she meet today’s clinical standard for any form of mental illness? We are in no position to answer that. Roth attributes filicides in this period not only to mental illness but also the stressors of mid-seventeenth century colonial America where “social, economic, and political stability” were lacking.
We can imagine what happened and why; we can point to patterns and possible causations — but that’s the extent of it. Alice, Martha and the rest of the Bishop-Clark-Martin clan deserve the best of our research efforts.
Seventeenth century colonists used terms such as “mad,” “idiots” and “deluded” to describe people who we would probably consider mentally ill or with an intellectual disability (Eldridge, 362). I have yet to find any primary source document that describes AMB that way. The trial records make no mention of her emotional/mental state (save one comment by Ramsden) but why would they? The jurors believed Alice had knowingly, with intent, murdered Martha (the defense strategy of not guilty by reason of insanity was two centuries away). However and significant to note, Eldridge contends that early colonial law, following English common law, protected mentally ill persons from being convicted of crimes for which they could not reasonably be expected to understand they were committing (379). This was apparently not the opinion of the court with AMB’s case as it was with Mercy Brown who, in 1690, murdered her son with an axe in Connecticut. While the court noted she was in a “distracted state,” Brown was, nonetheless, hanged (Eldridge p. 380. 380-381 cites additional cases of child murders where the accused — known to be mentally ill – were put on trial with original sources coming from Winthrop’s Journal).
Alice’s confession contains no reference to voices in her head, believing Martha would be better off dead or believing her daughter somehow consumed by demonic forces. AMB merely admitted to the murder and gave no reasons as to why. To me this connotes either an inability to recognize one’s own thought processes or a sociopathic lack of concern. Since there is no evidence Alice mistreated her other children, the latter scenario does not seem plausible. Perhaps, at some point between Martha’s murder and Alice’s execution, Alice attempted to explain the reasons why but we do not have any of those records.
We must carefully note that the Pilgrims did not uniformly use supernatural evil to explain unusual and even dangerous behavior (Eldridge, 370). Indeed, “colonists did sometimes ascribe mental illness to immediate, physical causes” (Eldridge, 371). Although there is no recorded physical ailment in AMB we can, at least, “diagnose” her with exhaustion. Alice (along with other Plymouth mothers who did not murder) was on a non-stop cycle of getting pregnant, giving birth and nursing…all the while raising other children…all the while running a home in a primitive community…all the while suffering from disease and chronic malnutrition.
Seventeenth century settlers also recognized that psychological trauma could feed a mental illness. Gov. John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony commented on a family that decided to move away writing, [they] “had a daughter that presently went mad, and two other of his daughters, being under ten years of age, were discovered to have been often abused by diverse lewd persons, and filthiness in his family.” (Winthrop’s Journal: 83, concerning year 1642). I discuss numerous times in this blog periods when AMB could have been victimized/traumatized but we can only consider the possibility of these.
Depression, although not named as such, was a recognizable symptom in colonial America and was often described with terms such as “dropsy,” “lethargy” and “languishing.” Eldridge notes it was more commonly cited among women and for prolonged periods (p.367). Even if AMB had a visible signs of melancholy or a mental illness, her family and community would have been expected to care for her, regardless of her age or social status (Eldridge, 374 and Rothman, 14). Again, it is important for us to imagine AMB’s formative experiences. They may explain, partly, why she murdered her child but it is equally important to note that many of her experiences were common to all early Plymouth Colony residents:
- The Mayflower voyage was arduous –physically, mentally and emotionally – and culminated with AMB’s family dying on board in quick succession leaving her an orphan at four. As Bradford remembered, “Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.”
- AMB’s new home must have seemed like a different planet entirely – food was seriously lacking, people were dying, there were no proper homes and frightening sounds and sights surely marked a young mind: “The Indians’ war cries were a particularly potent psychological weapon that the Pilgrims would never forget” (Philbrick, 71) and that “the cry of a cougar has been compared to the scream of a woman being murdered” (Philbrick, 83).
- “Unresolved mourning” is a common immigrant phenomena involving “catastrophic change, exposing the individual who experiences it to disorganization, pain and frustration accompanied by anxiety” (Kogan, 1206). Intriguing to the AMB case: “for many immigrants, this mourning is delayed in the first years…to allow integration onto the new culture; others are stuck in a kind of pathological mourning” (Kogan, 1206-07). And finally, “It is possible for parts of the self to be left behind, lost in transit. The migratory process is thus conceived as a catalyst of potentially profound shifts” (Harlem, 461).
- We do not know the conditions in which Alice lived once she was taken in by another family. Was she loved? Was she a sibling or servant? Was she abused?
Regardless of whether AMB had memories from her English home, one of her first memories would have been the domino deaths of her family and the terrifying and unfamiliar circumstances of the new place she was to call home. To use Harlem’s terminology, Alice had, within days, lost her “postmigratory attachment” (her family) and whatever utopian vision her young mind had conjured up of the New World. Both had been dashed against the rocks leaving the orphan with a drastically diminished sense of security and stability. As Philbrick reminds us, “We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile” (p. 76). The Pilgrims assumed they were on a divinely- designed settlement plan but AMB could have well thought she had been utterly forsaken by God.
Countless AMB researchers insist she had post-partum depression. Again, a claim based on zero medical evidence. First, there is a profound difference between post-partum depression and the much less common post-partum psychosis (Manchester, 720) which would lead to a delusional thinking and then, in rare cases, to homicidal tendencies. To be clear, post-partum psychosis is marked by unrelenting and crippling depression, hallucinations, delusions and disordered thought processes (Manchester, 720). Certainly, a post-partum depression could be exacerbated by overwhelming household and child care responsibilities (Manchester, 721) but they do not cause post-partum psychosis which is a severe, diagnosable, often chemically-based mental disorder.