A Difficult Consideration

Erin Taylor, July 2014

My hands may tremble, my heart does not.

Stephen Hopkins, 1776 signer of the Declaration of Independence who had cerebral palsy.

 

Readers of the 2011 blog suggested that Alice Martin Bishop (AMB)Newborn in mother's hands may have killed her daughter Martha because there was something wrong with the child. We’re all participating in questioning AMB’s motives and doing so without any evidence: ergot poisoning made AMB insane, she’s not the real killer, postpartum psychosis, plain evil.  We don’t know why and, as long as we don’t make unfounded possibilities our truths, there’s not a lot of harm done.

But I’m stuck on “something wrong with the child” and to understand why, you have to know a little about my story. In 2002, my fifth child, Henry was born with a condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS). A not entirely uncommon congenital defect, it is nonetheless life limiting. Without surgical interventions or a heart transplant, these children most often die.

Henry’s story has a happy ending with a lot of landmines. He underwent several cardio-thoracic surgeries; we’ve seen specialists in four states and; at five years old, Henry underwent a heart transplant. Because of the nature of his heart defect and the necessary surgical interventions, Henry incurred brain injuries. Today, Henry is a wildly popular sixth grader with a significant intellectual disability.

And if he had been born 300, or even just 30 years ago, he’d be dead.

Colonial babies born with this and similar conditions would have struggled to survive and feed. A chronic lack of oxygenated blood (the real culprit behind HLHS) would have eventually led to multiple organ failure and an exhausting death. And these babies’ mothers would have had no reason as to why. Their babies would be blue, fussy and lethargic. I imagine myself having Henry in the 1640s, sensing soon after his delivery that he wasn’t long for this world.

So what if Alice perceived there was something abnormal about her daughter, mentally or physically? Maybe Martha had unrelenting seizures, hydrocephaly, cystic fibrosis, or a neurological condition that today we would name as autism? The latter two were only recognized as medical conditions in the twentieth century (and many living with autism claim it as neurodiversity and not a medical matter). I don’t want to consider that Martha had what, today, we would call a developmental disability and that Alice justified murdering her for that. It’s too close to my own heart to imagine killing a child because s/he was born not as their mother expected.

I didn’t consider ending Henry’s suffering — forgoing the next surgery, not being listed for a donor heart. Henry’s crapped out heart was making that decision for me. Because I live in the twenty-first century and have access to premier pediatric care, our family was delivered a miracle. But we came very close to another outcome and on more than one occasion.

So I have to take a step back as a mother and think instead like a historian. In doing so, I still hold to my conviction that killing a person because of their disability is murder, not mercy. This is not to open a can of worms and arrows about euthanasia but to simply say I value the personhood of those with disabilities including their right to choice and to thrive.

For colonists, “the primary definition of disability was an inability to perform labor” (Nielsen, 20). But if a person could perform valued work despite a physical disability, then it mattered little to the community. In a time where maiming injuries and diseases left bodies permanently altered, inclusion of any wealth contributing members won out over bigotry.

So, I turn back to Martha. On the day she was murdered, she was lying in bed with no mention of her sisters beside her. Because neighbor Rachel Ramsden came by and Alice requested that she fetch some buttermilk, I’ve presumed that this was likely late morning.  Is it possible (and without any evidence) that Martha had a condition that limited her independent movement? There is, yet again, no source material that provides any information on where other family members were (notably Richard and Abigail, the eldest) nor that Martha was known to be ill or have a disability.

Nielsen continues that colonists, however, paid “substantial attention to cognitive or mental disabilities” (20). Here, financial concerns also played a role. Not only could some children with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses earn income as they grew, they would also require care — which took from parents’ earnings (22). In other words, these disabilities subjected persons to a state of dependency but not necessarily shamefulness (26). But we must also consider how New England colonies conceptualized the cause of children born with intellectual disabilities. Our Pilgrim forefamilies believed their settlement was ordained by the Almighty. How could their savior place among them people who could not participate appropriately within their divine-driven norms?

This line of thought is, thankfully, problematic. Separatists and convicts lived among them, arriving to the New World solely for financial gain or to avoid the English penal system. A child born neurologically atypical was certainly not as troublesome as the men of Wessagusset (a failed English trading post thirty miles north of Plymouth), even more so the area tribes. There are a few notations of persons who clearly had cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses being well known in towns and not treated as abhorrent or exiles. Indeed, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay laws offered some protective provisions for these persons, as far as these conditions were recognized by the authorities. Interestingly, these persons were often lumped in with women and children in matters of abuse, guardianship and inheritance.

Just as likely (if not even more), is that Martha had a dreaded bout with smallpox, typhus, influenza, scarlet fever or diphtheria, to name but a few. These raged through homes and an experienced mother would soon realize that her child was dying. However, it seems an excessive act of “mercy” killing to nearly decapitate one’s daughter. Moreover, these diseases did not uniformly kill young ones. In the end, the Martha-was-atypical theory doesn’t hold a lot of merit.  If she were dying of a disease, then why wouldn’t AMB just let nature take its course? Children suffered and children died, this was a colonial fact of life. If she had a significant disability, we have no reason to presume Alice believed Martha better off dead. 

In the end, even if she had a disability, there was never anything “wrong” with Martha’s mind or body. Surely, the Pilgrims held fast to the notion that God doesn’t make mistakes. The assignment of nonconformity must go to Alice — cold-hearted killer? Out of her mind? Trying to protect Martha from evils only she could perceive? Again, questions cascade over one another in this story. But, as researchers of it, we cannot assign twenty-first century medical diagnoses on a family of which so little is actually known.

Martha’s Murder: 22 July 1648

Poem excerpt by FP MorrisTimeline to Martha’s murder: In 1639 Alice marries George Clarke. They have a daughter, Abigail, ca. 1641. 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 Rachel 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 leaving 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 lying on her left side or her head was turned to the left. According to their report, there are two forms of injuries to Martha: (1) numerous cuts across her throat and (2), 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 and trial as well as in 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 resided 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 heat set in. Finally, Martha was still in bed in her shift (although she may have been lying 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). She was approximately 23 years old at the time of Martha’s murder. A post on her life will be added to this blog.
  4. New England women were often in their neighbors’ homes 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. Why did Alice make no effort to place blame elsewhere or hide evidence?
  5. Are there any other potential killers and if so, why would Alice cover for them?

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

[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.

PCR = Plymouth Confusion Resulting

Depending on the researcher, PCR can mean two things: Plymouth Court Records or Plymouth Colony Records. The two are not the same document nor interchangeable.

Plymouth Court Records, in 12 volumes, was published between 1855 and 1861 (Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds.; Massachusetts General Court may be listed as the author). The actual title of this work is Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. They are available online at many locations, including MayflowerHistory.com and PlymouthColony.net. These records are the ones from which the entire AMB trial record is taken.

The following Plymouth Court Records citations include mention of Alice Martin Bishop. Make sure you refer to the actual page number printed at the top of the book page versus the pagination provided by the digital reader.

Vol 1: Page 108: Marriage to George Clarke

Vol 2: Page 79: Marriage to Richard Bishop

Vol 2: 132–134: Murder and trial

The Plymouth Colony Records Project is an archiving effort of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum and includes documents beyond those of the Plymouth courts, such as town records and personal letters and journals. Significantly, there remain unpublished Plymouth Colony records and we imagine there will be a push to get many of these accessible to the public before the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower (2020).  You can learn more about this project at ledienamericanpilgrimmuseum.org.

Confusion arises when researchers are unaware if they are citing actual court documents from the Plymouth Court Records or items from the general collection on Plymouth Colony records.  In this blog, PCR always refers to Plymouth Court Records edited by Shurtleff and Pulsifer.

Lessons from Eugene Stratton’s Applied Genealogy (1988)

Erin Taylor, May 2014

One

It doesn’t matter if Stratton’s book was published before the genealogy mother lode: Internet access. Genealogy is a honed craft requiring discipline and standards. Don’t call it genealogical research if you rely solely on Ancestry.com and the dream that you’re related to the Duck Dynasty Robertsons (no joke, my Louisiana Robertson family’s aspiration). That’s a  self-esteem-building hobby. Or, quoting Stratton, “I have come to believe that wishful thinking is one of the most deadly enemies of genealogists” (134, in footnotes).

Two

Until the Internet provides free and fully accessible access to all primary source documentation, we must continue to mine genealogical libraries, historical societies, and home town museums. The gasp-worthy story of your ancestor, General Beauregard Duponte, merits you move away from this screen and experience as much of a re-creation of his life as you can. Genealogy should be hard on your feet as well as your eyes.

Three

A person’s name, as listed in a genealogical record, may not settle who they are and from which parents they came. See Stratton, pages 101–103, where children of unmarried mothers are discussed (a great deal more common than many of us may think) as well as chapter 5 on onomastic evidence — the study of the origins of proper names. After studying Stratton, I had to rationally conclude what I didn’t want to admit: AMB was not likely the orphaned daughter of Mayflower treasurer Christopher Martin. Stratton set me straight.

Four

History and genealogy are symbiotic and their canoodling matters. I added context to AMB’s life by reading good Plymouth history such as Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War and Thompson’s Sex in Middlesex. Stratton refers to Thompson’s book and I have to believe the genea-jedi master would have respected Philbrick’s as well. We cannot study our ancestors in a vacuum.  Understanding their worldview; their notions of family, success, tragedy, and honor; the historical events taking place in their community — these are just as significant as birth certificates, censuses, and trial records.

Five

The Internet is rotten with genealogy tramps. I am one of them, perhaps more escort than hooker status. But I am not a board-certified genealogist. I have nowhere near the skill set these professionals earn and maintain. When we post family histories online that are not appropriately sourced, we are spreading gossip. It may be true, it may have origins in truth, it might be a low down, filthy lie. We should not call ourselves genealogists unless we are professionally trained and certified as such (the same reason I don’t call myself a sommelier just because I have a delightful wine habit).

Six

We surmise objectively, not wistfully. With our own eyes, we look at every primary source we can. When questions remain, we own that in our writing. I made a big ol’ assumption in the AMB story and the impact was two-fold. First, a whole pack of cousins celebrated their Mayflower ancestry based on my erroneous conclusions. Secondly, I used standards and drew conclusions any genealogists worth their DNA would have frowned upon. Read chapter 9 often in Applied Genealogy (“Forgivable Sins”) and be comfortable stating there are gaps in your research — often wonderful people come forward to help you out! (True story: This is how Kristin Luce came on board this blog.)

Seven

Make notes on the notes you make. Not all sources, even primary ones, are of the same caliber. Family historians should keep track of their sources as either eyewitness or hearsay. In other words, they were actually present when the event happened versus they heard about it from an eyewitness. Another consideration is whether the document is an original iteration or has been transcribed by clerks, priests, or historians. The Bill of Rights is an example of something available to us exactly the way it was in 1789. The Bible is not: it’s been edited, translated, and passed through many, many ink-stained hands. A vast majority of the materials we work with are transcribed to some degree even if we call them primary source documents. Notes in the margin have been removed; portions edited out as superfluous. 1787 becomes 1781, Frances becomes Francis.

 Eight

Indirect evidence, hints at what might be, are crucial to our research. Stratton provides a quote from Henry David Thoreau (107): “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” I cannot tell you if AMB was a happy, psychotic, morose, abused, or philandering wife and mother. The only reality I can build about her life is this: Plymouth was a challenging place to live. A litter of little ones is exhausting. AMB had no family of origin nearby that we know of. I can consider what my emotional landscape would have been if I had lived in that time and amongst those circumstances. Nonetheless, I cannot understand AMB’s choice to murder her child. The most subtle yet significant lesson of Stratton’s is this: Family history requires more empathy than glorification.

book cover

Applied Genealogy, 1988 ed.

Granddaughters

 Erin Taylor, July 2014

I came to genealogy at peace with familial delusion. My two grandmothers spent a great deal of time trying to convince me we came from families. Not the wealthiest, but rather the ones who gave to their communities. Not the generals but the soldiers. There are no presidents in our direct ancestry, but there are state representatives, county commissioners, and judges. My family crest should probably read “Progenitor of Civil Servants.”

But the stories I always wanted to hear were about the women. How my paternal drove the corpse of her newborn baby, tucked into a shoebox, through the night from San Antonio so she could be buried in the home plot in Monroe, Louisiana. How my maternal grandmother married a Cherokee orphan and somehow made a life for herself as a single mother in Enid, Oklahoma, after he abandoned her during World War II.

The men of my ancestry had accomplishments and failures. They uprooted families and left for wars. Some were church leaders and others scoundrels (and some were both). What strikes me about their female partners is that they endured. They made the most of the men’s best-laid as well as ill-conceived plans. Why sure, I’d love to participate in the Cherokee Strip Land Run! But of course — I’m happy to fend off debt collectors while you hide out it in Florida during the Civil War! Sadly, like many interested in women’s history, I found these great grandmothers often relegated solely to the status of wife of, daughter ofmother of. But, just as it was with my tenth great grandmother Alice Martin Bishop, I knew these women’s lives counted for more — we simply had to be intentional in our research, creating context from what remains.

When I came upon the genealogical evidence that connected me as a direct descendant of Alice Martin Bishop, I knew she was not the same kind of genealogy gem as, say, finding out you were related to Abigail Adams. Alice Martin Bishop is outstanding because she murdered her four-year-old daughter, Martha. She hanged for it.

Quickly, I found numerous sources that discussed the Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) case and theorized on why she had sliced through the windpipe of her second child. But, truth be told, most of this is gossip. It assumes we know her motives. It spews disparagement or tries to justify her behavior. I looked, endlessly, for a fully cited, academic piece that would add relevant context to AMB’s life. I couldn’t find one.

Perhaps, professional and amateur genealogists who are related to her are either not interested or too embarrassed to claim her in print. I have yet to find one article about AMB in any genealogy serial. Books specifically written with a sensationalist tone for the reading public, such as Robert Ellis Cahill’s New England’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments, nearly revel in spilling gruesome and salacious details on dozens of life-ending crimes, but there’s no mention of Alice. Even historians of colonial America relegate only a few sentences to her. I am university trained in both women’s studies and history, and so this fact baffles me. If there were ever a historical mystery that deserved thorough research and consideration, this seemed to be it.

In 2011, I decided to claim Alice Martin Bishop as my own. Certainly, I share her with thousands of descendants, and I felt compelled to present her story. I did not do a good job of it the first time. I made historical errors and convenient assumptions. Those writings were the original blog posts for AliceMartinBishop.com.. I have since taken those down. Now, in 2014, I am replacing that blog with what I hope is a more academically rigorous gaze upon my 10x great grandmother.

Alice Martin Bishop is tough to redeem, and I have not set out to do that here. I did make better use of source material and practiced a higher caliber of genealogical research after reading Eugene Stratton’s Applied Genealogy. I did not want to be another genealogy hobbyist spreading questionable “facts” across the Internet.

If there had not been my murdering foremother, I would not be here today. If she had chosen to kill her third daughter instead of her second, the same would be true. Some of us dabble in genealogy because we want to be descendants of Mayflower families, Pocahontas, President Lincoln. We seek prestige. I am a different genealogy girl — carrying on my grandmothers’ intentions and yet tracing back to family they may have preferred forgotten.

I belong to Alice Martin Bishop and this is her story.

Embracing Alice

Kristin Luce, June 2014

My brother once remarked that I preferred the dead members of the family tree to those still living, and at the time, he was correct. I was happier spending  time squinting at barely legible census records than visiting with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or even my brother.

But recently it dawned on me that I probably wouldn’t want to spend much time with my dead relatives, if they were alive. As much as I’m hoping to find free-thinking foremothers, fun-loving forefathers — or even just a Democrat — most of the relatives I’ve been researching were probably  boring. Farmers. Farmers’ wives. A spinster here, a tax collector there. They’re prohibitionists. They work hard, and most of their fun is centered around church socials. They’d make me feel guilty about not seeing them more, not calling them, not writing  them, just like the ones I already have.

And then I stumbled upon Alice Martin Bishop. To get to her, I had to climb up a third cousin’s tree, but I think her research and sources are sound, even though I have yet to do the legwork. I did some googling, and landed on this fascinating blog, researched and written by a much more distant cousin, Erin Taylor. I posted one innocent comment and the next thing I knew, I was wheedled into the launch of AliceMartinBishop 2.0, exchanging numerous texts, emails, and phone calls with the person who is now my favorite relative.

But I have a LOT of catching up to do. Like Miranda in The Tempest, who, upon spotting her first colonist (circa 1609) exclaims:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t! (Act V, Scene I)

I’ve found myself in an unrecognizable world, and I’m scrambling to do even the basic research about seventeenth-century New England and the people who lived there, in the hopes that I can add to this blog. I’m immersing myself in Plymouth Colony history, reconstructed passenger lists, the poems of Anne Bradstreet, and women’s history. Women are frustratingly silent in seventeenth-century New England, and that makes me want to try even harder to hear their stories. To hear Alice’s story.

The overwhelming question is simply, “Why?” And it is this question that is at the heart of this blog. Erin has circled around this question, providing thought-provoking and scintillating background information about life in Plymouth Colony, possibilities about where AMB came from and when, and what kinds of personal experiences could have informed her actions in 1648.

As most mothers of young children will tell you, we have two great fears. The first is that something will happen to our children. The second is that something will happen to us, leaving our children motherless. Both of these tragedies happened to Alice, and for whatever reason, she was responsible for both.

We can’t choose our ancestors any more than they can choose their descendants. When we’re lucky enough to find an ancestor — particularly a female ancestor — who hasn’t been completely silenced by history, we need to embrace her and reclaim her, no matter what her story.

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 Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, and that theory colored all of the contextual sources I brought to telling her story. Notably, I started with the assumption that she was a 4-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 her daughter Martha Clarke 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. Second, 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 her son, 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, although I’m not the only one to have toyed with that theory, as evidenced by the information posted on AMB’s Findagrave.com memorial and copied to many Ancestry.com trees.

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. At that age and date, this Francis Martin would have been too young to have been 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 have been a parent of AMB. Nor do I find a mention of a Prudence Deacon anywhere.

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 norms where women typically married after their 19th 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. This omission would also explain why I can’t find any other Martins to connect her to — because she came over alone. The passenger lists of the dozens of 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 10s AMB great granddaughter and my cousin, unknown degrees apart, Kristin Luce. Kristin read the original blog in early 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 the 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.