As I prepare to conclude AMB’s story, I ran across several research pieces that I had not yet incorporated into the blog and are intriguing to consider.
Hoffer writes about the AMB case:
The trouble the colony took to try her even after Bishop confessed to the crime, the indifference to what must have been her mental distress at its commission, and the great attention given to the details of the crime in the records, suggest that everyone in the government, from Governor Bradford to the court clerk, viewed Bishop’s act with foreboding. The grisly facts of the infant’s murder contributed to the solemnity of the trial, and the disruptive effects of Bishop’s violence went far beyond her own domestic circle (42).
I never picked up on the sense of foreboding that Hoffer says must have been present. What evidence brought him to that conclusion? I have found absolutely no mention that Alice was mentally unstable or violent before July 22, 1648. For all the records I have searched, she is only mentioned before as the wife of George Clark and then Richard Bishop. Yet again, I am discouraged to see scholar and family historians make presumptions about her life that are not in the historical record. Hoffer cites his source as the Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, II (132-135).
Just to clarify…when Hoffer says “infant” to describe Martha, he is using the English legal definition where a murdered child under the age of eight is classified as an “infant” (xiii).
Of the filicidal motivations Hoffer considers for all infanticides in his study (see 148-151), none seem to seamlessly fit with the AMB case. We have no evidence that Martha or her siblings were abused by their parents, notably Alice. Nor does this seem to be a case where mother kills child and then herself (altruistic suicides, see 149). Alice did not murder her other children and did not appear to be ending her own life when Rachel Ramsden arrived.
Unlike neonaticides, Alice did not need to murder her four year-old child out of the shame of being found pregnant with a bastard child. Martha was conceived within the span of the Clark-Bishop marriage. In some filicides, mothers murder children because they see the child as a “rival” for their spouse’s affection. This makes little sense in the AMB case. Richard had two stepdaughters and one biological daughter – it would, perversely, make more sense for Alice to be deluded about Richard’s “attraction” to the older Abigail or his own flesh and blood, Damaris.
All too often, Alice’s story is tied up in the witch craze of 1690’s Salem. Historians have long since settled the question over Plymouth Colony and the witch crazes. These were confined to specific towns, Salem being the most obvious, and were certainly not a factor in 1648. There is no mention of Alice stating she was influenced by the devil or a belief by her jurors that she was in such a state.
There are, however, intriguing contextual discussions about the spiritual lives of Puritan children that makes one wonder. Puritans did not baptize young ones until they had reached the age of reason and, as such, believed these souls were damned without such salvation (Moran, 25). Pertaining to AMB’s case, “In theory, all infants and children who died unconverted suffered the eternal torments of hell.” and this hell was “a place of unremitting and unmitigated torture.” (25). While Moran contends that most Puritans did not fixate on this prospect for their young brood(25), we are left to imagine how the fiery bowels of hell played out in Alice’s imagination. Perhaps it speaks more to her frame of mind after she had killed Martha.
However, Moran stresses that Puritans were capable of compassionate reason (or reasonable compassion). Some parents had a measure of gratitude when their young one passed “It was a great temptation to consider a dead infant among the few God had selected for salvation. In such cases, the character of the dead child was idealized and the meaning of his death rationalized. His demise was considered a welcome departure from the cares and sorrows of the world” (25). Perhaps, Alice thought she was saving one daughter for the hardships of colonial life. But then why not her other daughters?
Minister John Robinson preached in 1625 “there is in all children, though not alike, a stubbornness, and a stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down” (Moran 26). This was a more stern Puritanism than most parents adhered to (26). More fitting were the words of Reverend Samuel Willard who described children as “innocent vipers” – incapable of being culpable because they had yet to reach the age of reason (28). Perhaps Alice thought her child was damned on earth, perhaps she thought she could secure Martha’s passage to heaven – perhaps she had such a jumble of thoughts that none of her peers could determine why she had committed murder.
Chapin is another historian who makes assumptions about Alice’s mental state. By looking at the case of Dorothy Talbie who was known to be insane before she snapped the neck of her child, Chapin concludes, Alice was “a woman apparently plagued by depression” (114). Based on what? What if Alice was just irate with her daughter, her own life and chose to manifest her rage with a kitchen knife? What if Alice was a happy-go-lucky gal who just snapped that July day?
Finally, one blog reader has questioned whether AMB suffered from ergot poisoning – a fungus found amongst stored grains that can, in some instances, cause hallucinations. Historians have questioned the prevalence of ergot poisoning during the 1690’s witch trials. Is it possible AMB ingested contaminated grain and suffered a chemical reaction? There is no way of knowing. I do not recall reading about poisoned grain in 1640’s Plymouth Colony but then, honestly, I would not have been paying attention to those passages. I do question if the community even had enough stores of grain to become contaminated. We must remember that the first generations of Pilgrims were in near starvation mode and had to master cultivating local foods of which rye and such would not have been one. Later Puritans had both the benefit of more English ships carrying supplies and mastering agriculture.