The Plymouth Court Records for the AMB case read:
II:132 Court session held at New Plymouth on 1 August 1648 (SATURDAY). On 22 July 1648 a committee was sworn by Governor William Bradford “to make inquiry of the death of the child of Allis Bishop, the wife of Richard Bishope.” Their report stated that they had found blood on the floor at the foot of the ladder what lead to the upper chamber in the Bishop house, and that in the upper chamber they found the body of a female child, about four years of age, with her throat cut several times. In addition they found the knife, and reported that Mrs. Bishop confessed to five members (all at the same time) of the twelve-man jury that she had killed her child. The child’s body had originally been discovered by one Rachel Ramsden, the twenty-three year old wife of Joseph Ramsden. Mrs. Ramsden had told her parents of her discovery and very shortly the law was after Mrs. Bishop.
II:134 Two months later, at the Court held at Plymouth on 4 October 1648, Alice Bishop was indicted “for felonius murder by her comited upon Martha Clark, her owne child, the frute of her own body.” The Grand Jury of seventeen men found a true bill, and immediately following the petit jury of twelve men found her guilty of the murder. She then “had the sentence of death pronounced against her, viz., to bee taken from the place where shee was to the place from whence shee came, and thence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged by the necke vntell her body is dead, which acordingly was executed.” Very likely she was executed almost immediately. There is no mention in the records that the execution took place in Daxbury, but even so the delay would not have been very long.
At a Court of Assistants held at New Plymouth, the first of August, 1648, before Mr. Bradford, Governor, Mr. Coliar, Captain Miles Standish, and Mr. William Thomas, Gent, Assistants, the said Allice, being examined, confessed she did commit the aforesaid murder, and is sorry for it.
1648 “At the General Court of our Sovereign Lord the King, held at Plymouth aforesaid, the 4th of October, 1648
4 October before Mr. Bradford, Governor, Mr. Thomas Prence, Captain Miles Standish, Mr. Timothy Hatherle and Mr. William Thomas,
At this Court, Allice Bishope, the wife of Richard Bishope, of New Plymouth, was indited for felonious murder by her committed, upon Martha Clark, her own child, the fruit of her own body.
The names of the grand inquest that went on trial of the aforesaid bill of indictment, were these:-
John Dunham, Sen. John Barker, Isaske Weels Josepth Colman, Mr. Thomas Burne, John Allis, Robert Finny, Thomas Bordman, Henery Wood, James Bursell, Ephrain Hickes , Josepth Tory, James Walker Micsell Backwell, James Wyat, Daniell Cole, Loue Brewster
These found the said Allice Bishope guilty of the said felonious murder of Martha Clarke aforesaid; and so she had the sentence of death pronounced against her, viz., 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. (Source: The “Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England” edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff , Boston 1855, volume two of Court Orders 1641-1651).
In the first days of October 1648, 32 year old Alice Martin Bishop was hanged in Plymouth Colony for stabbing to death her four year-old daughter, Martha, an event of which she said she had no recollection. Although she was put on trial, there was little to consider. AMB had admitted her guilt October 1, 1648 (but not the first time she admitted she had killed Martha) and her trial ended on October 4 – on which the same day she was hanged. Naturally, this testimony is confusing. AMB says she does not remember killing Martha and yet, repeatedly, admits to her guilt and regret.
There are several observations, necessary clarifications and questions resulting from the trial documents:
Trial Preparation and Prejudices: As gory as this murder must have appeared, it does seem the inquest was completed by objective coroners and that AMB was given every benefit of a transparent trial by jury. I have never questioned whether AMB was intentionally falsely accused and I think the evidence makes her the most likely suspect as Martha’s killer. Certainly, we could look at other potential suspects – Richard, Abigail, Rachel, a stranger and so forth – but it is extremely unlikely that additional evidence will appear to take us off AMB’s trail.
I find no evidence that AMB’s rights were not protected during her arrest, inquest and trial. That is not to say her trial was not sensational in this small community: the trial was a “major communal drama…[where] magistrates provided elaborately for an inquest and trial” (Hoffer, 42). It is my belief that the investigation was handled with the upmost care because the community was horrified by what Alice had done: the Governor and Assistants wanted irrefutable proof (which was not hard to come by) and for justice to be swift and appropriate.
AMB did not have a defense lawyer but nor would anyone criminally charged in 1648 Plymouth Colony. She may have had people who testifed on her behalf as to her moral character and mental state – but again, we have no documentation of such.
Thompson explains the investigative work that went into criminal trials:
Much ground work would have been done before the trial; the accused would have been examined by a magistrate [and] depositions from witnesses would have been collected in writing. Since magistrates combined this inquisitorial role with the judicial, the examination might often act as the real trial when the examining magistrate decided in his own mind on the guilt or innocence of the accused. This is the explanation for the high conviction rate, around 90 percent…and for the rarity of appeals (p 7).
Admitting Guilt: Alice admits her guilt and apologizes on July 22, 1648 – the day the inquest was held. A grand jury of 17 found a true bill to move to trial and a jury of 12 men convicted her (Hoffer, 42). We know the names of the grand jury and trial jurors – all male and perhaps no surprise. However, women occasionally sat on Plymouth juries as in the 1678 inquest into the death of Anne Baston’s child (Deetz). Is there any reason to believe the outcome for AMB would have been different if women were impaneled to hear the case? It seems doubtful – the evidence was overwhelming and they had AMB’s confessions before them (Chapin, 113).
Why did Alice never attempt to place the blame elsewhere? The most obvious answer is that she knew she had murdered her daughter and was so shocked by her actions that she could do nothing but confess. It is a remarkable example of the Pilgrim mindset that is rarely seen amongst contemporary murdering mothers. Murrin writes, “The proper response to sin in New England was confession and repentance, not denial of guilt.” And goes on to explain that, “If through misguided sentimentality or a misplaced concern for harmony the community failed to punish sins, it would break its covenant with God, and He would devastate the land with some appropriate catastrophe” (188). Alice had to claim her crime and the community had to take her life for their own well-being. Alice was forsaken – clearly – but the community could not put themselves in the crosshairs of a God intent on retribution. Living in Plymouth Colony was dangerous enough.
Governor Bradford: Bradford was 58 years old when he presided over this trial as a court official (not a member of the jury). This was a time of great social flux in the colony in which such a sensational crime surely left Bradford pensive of his mission. Within ten years, he threatened to resign because: “as Governor Bradford had complained, the spiritual life of Plymouth…had declined to the point that God must one day show his displeasure. For children of the Saints, it would be impossible not to see the calamities ahead as the judgment of the Lord” (Philbrick, 177 as well as 166). In other words, perhaps the unimaginable crime that had happened in their midst was but just one portent of the decay in which the colony was sliding.
Crimes Punishable by Death and Premeditated Murder:
In 1636, the Plymouth Colony codified crimes that were punishable by death: willful murder, “forming a solemn compact with the devil by way of witchcraft,” arson of homes or ships, sodomy, rape, buggery and adultery (see also Baker).
“The fact that the word ‘Willful’ is alongside ‘Murder’ is of great importance upon the analysis of murder cases. More than once, the fact that the word ‘Willful’ is used prevents the death sentence from being carried out” (Jordan). Willful murder would be intentional, premeditated and seemingly how AMB was judged. Even if she did not have a murder plan in place, the court ruled she knew what she was doing when she killed Martha.
Bradley Chapin & Criminal Trials in the Colonies:
Chapin (1983) provides excellent analyses of American colonial legal systems and practices relevant to this case. I am sharing several of his observations because they add context to the AMB case:
“Because Plymouth lacked formal authorization to create a government, William Bradford showed concern from the beginning as to whether it had the right to punish criminals” (6). AMB’s case certainly rocked the Plymouth community – only in its’ second decade of true existence – to its’ core. How this trial was handled and the lessons the community would take from it must have been of paramount importance to the governor.
“[T]he governor and assistants in Plymouth…administered the criminal justice system at their discretion for an extended period of time” and “by regularly reelecting the governors and assistants the settlers implicitly approved magisterial justice” (18). “Both the Bible and Calvin said they could, indeed ought, to leave the disciplinary function to the magistrates” (20). I find this an exceptional perspective on the Plymouth Colony mindset: these were a people of a distinct religiously-based worldview who had packed up their lives just a generation ago to incubate a utopia in a vast, unknown wilderness. Community obedience was the foundation by which their Puritan visions of grandeur were built. Certainly, Strangers and ne’er-do-wells had moved to the Plymouth Colony but everyone was expected to obey all laws. As Chapin notes, “[The Plymouth settlers] aimed at establishing spiritual communities in which the administration of justice would be a means of maintaining the integrity of their experiments” (20).
Plymouth law did guarantee trial by jury (23). “One of the first laws passed in America was the Plymouth order requiring that the trail of ‘all Criminall facts” would be by jury (40). As the Salem Witch Trials would indicate at the end of the seventeenth century, “trial by jury” could be bastardized to “trial by rumor, suspicion and retribution.” But I remain convinced that the trial of AMB exemplifies the intent of Plymouth colonial law at its’ earliest evolution.