Distracted States: Mental Illness in Plymouth Colony

 Erin Taylor & Kristin Luce, November 2015

Both England and the colonies followed the rule that no one should be punished for something beyond his comprehension and control. Without moral culpability, there could be no criminal liability. (McManus 105)

It’s easy to make Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) mentally ill. To insist she had postpartum 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.

Records of mental illness among seventeenth-century colonists were not kept, but references to people who were perceived as mentally or emotionally unbalanced appear occasionally in colonial records and other contemporary papers. Terms such as “mad,” “idiot,” “deluded,” and “distracted” were used to describe people whom we would probably consider as having attributes of a mental illness or intellectual disability (Eldridge, 362).

In her book, A Disability History of the United States, Kim Nielsen suggests that, in colonial America, few adults would have been labeled with a disability or mentally ill as long as they could do the work they were tasked to do — cutting wood, churning butter, delivering sermons, and so on. So, when we’re looking for evidence that AMB may have been mentally ill, we’re not likely to find it because she still maintained her wifely and maternal roles. The trial records make no mention of her emotional or mental state (save the “sad and dumpish” comment by Rachel Ramsden), but why would they? The jurors believed Alice had knowingly, with intent, murdered Martha and, indeed, she admitted to doing so.

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Laid to Unrest

Erin Taylor, March 2015

There is no grave marker for Alice Martin Bishop, nor her three daughters. We can’t tell you where George Clarke or Richard Bishop is buried — not the town or cemetery. Matter of fact, given her crime, Alice may be buried in an unmarked grave far from her family and neighbors.

During our 2014 trip to Massachusetts, I think Kristin and I were moved most by the graveyards, knowing these spaces were the closest we would ever get to our ancestors. Together, we visited the Witch Trials Memorial and The Burying Point Cemetery in SalemCove Burying Ground at Eastham, Cobb’s Hill Cemetery in Barnstable (at the First Unitarian Church) and Burial Hill in Plymouth. Kristin also took the opportunity to visit the graves of Abigail Adams and John Winthrop while she was in Massachusetts. 

Legible headstones before 1700 are rare. The earliest grave markers were made of wood and have, naturally, not survived. As stone cutters came to the colonies, their work included memorials, but many of these have faded or crumbled thanks to erosion, lichen, vandals, and robbers. 

Yes, vandals and robbers. For decades now, some of our oldest cemeteries’ gravestones have been stolen, defaced, and used as lawn chairs and ashtrays.  Charming, America.

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Death Penalty, Plymouth Style

Erin Taylor, July 2014

The persistent efforts of judges and ministers to obtain and publish confessions and repentances of the guilty as they stood upon the gallows grew in part from the belief that crimes must not be hidden, even by those about to die.

 Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, 50


Plymouth’s first murder trial was held in 1630 with John Billington accused of murdering John Newcomen. Billington was executed the same year (Philbrick, 157). Similar to Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) trial, there was no lengthy investigation-trial-appeal-retrial. Cases were quickly delivered to juries, adjudicated, and if death were called for, there was no need to tarry. However, executions were hardly regular events, for just ten people were executed in the seven decades of Plymouth Colony’s independent existence (Maddox, 252).

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