I have spent a year – 365 days – researching Alice Martin Bishop. 363 years ago, she murdered Martha. This span of time has not made it any clearer why she killed. There are no “right” answers. We do not know if Alice had a psychotic break or if she was just a hateful, terrorizing, completely sane mother (or any point in between).
But perhaps this time served me in figuring out the right questions to ask. I will never have all the answers and evidence I want, but I owe it to my Bishop-Martin great x10 grandparents (and my Great Aunt x9 Martha), to recreate their lives objectively which includes moments of empathy, doubt, pride and shame.
I have tried to remain mindful of my own historical myopia, to not blur facts with impressions. But Alice’s story leaves an impression, to say the least. So I am concluding this story (for now) with these thoughts and questions. I hope readers will provide their own impressions as well as resources I have missed. I may add to this blog at a later point but thank you for being engaged thus far and especially to my thousands of distant Martin-Bishop cousins with whom I share this lineage.
- Post partum depression and the much more severe and rare post partum psychosis are diagnosable mental illnesses with biochemical origins. No one in seventeenth century Plymouth would have classified AMB as such. Alice may have been seen by her contemporaries as melancholy, odd, hot-tempered, reclusive or dozens of other ways we classify people who are different than us. But to assume she had post partum depression is ultimately not fair to the victim, Martha. Alice Martin Bishop cannot be re-tried in a 21st century court of law with the benefit of a psychiatric evaluation.
- We have no idea what the religious and other supernatural beliefs and fears were of Alice, her family of origin or her spouses. Certainly, she was heavily influenced by the Pilgrim community in which she lived.
- Hoffer contends that a married woman’s economic and social status might influence trial outcomes (47). What would AMB have going for her as she faced a jury? Once orphaned (and from a family with not the greatest of Mayflower reputations), of limited relative wealth, twice married to men who were newcomers to the community.
- What do we know about Rachel Ramsden? Her historical record is potentially blemished: In 1651 a “Goodwife Ramsden” was cleared of charges she had been cavorting with numerous men (Stratton, 203). This is not to accuse Ramsden of false testimony but to consider the impact Martha’s murder had on her own young adulthood.
- Alice Martin Bishop had to be one exhausted mother. She had three small children to tend to in a very small home (if one does not count the dubious birth of the fourth child, a son) where food was in scarce supply. The family was at the mercy of the seasons, epidemics, bloody skirmishes with neighboring natives (whom the English settlers were quickly taking over their homelands) and Colony expectations of devout servitude and obedience. In addition to this we should consider the several months of confinement (entirely house bound) mothers of newborns endured (Berkin, 34) and the cycle of pregnancy, birth and nursing. This in no way justifies murdering one’s child. But I want us to remember who Alice was: An orphan in a strange land, who lost her first husband to unknown circumstances. Left with two girls and then a new husband and another baby on the way. Perhaps AMB doesn’t serve historical mercy but she has earned my respect as a woman who endured incredible hardship.
- I have never forgotten the fact that Alice witnessed her parents die when she was four years old and murdered her child at the same age. Maybe a psychologist would insinuate she was stymied in the tragic events of her fourth year.
- Where was Alice kept between confession and trial? Was she allowed to return home? (see Chapin, 31 and 52). If she was imprisoned, what building would it have been? Plymouth Colony went decades without a formal prison building and6” jail” often constituted no more than a cage in publicly viewed space. Was this how Alice spent her last days, asking whatever had possessed her to murder her daughter?