Languishing in the New World: Depressed Pilgrims

Erin Taylor and Kristin Luce, December 2015

We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile.
(Philbrick, 76)

Depression, although not named as such, was a recognizable symptom in colonial America, described by terms such as “dropsy,” “lethargy,” and “languishing.” Most, if not all, first-generation Plymouth Colony residents no doubt suffered some feelings of despair and trauma simply by coming to New England. Transatlantic voyages were arduous — physically, mentally, and emotionally — with family members and friends dying on board, and others left behind, likely never to be seen again. As William Bradford recalled of the Mayflower,

Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.

In fact, Bradford’s first wife Dorothy fell off the Mayflower (when it was moored in Plymouth Harbor) and drowned, and many speculate that it was not an accident but a suicide, Dorothy’s grief at leaving their three-year-old son behind in Holland unbearable. 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A Clarke-Doty Family Connection?

Kristin Luce, February 2015

We are always on the lookout for the pre-Plymouth origins of our main characters, Alice Martin, George Clarke, and Richard Bishop. The more we research and learn, the more real these people become, and certain discoveries can be as titillating as any 21st century gossip. It was this kind of excitement that passed between Erin and me via text message, when I mentioned my latest find — that Edward Doty’s wife was named Faith Clarke. “GTHO” Erin texted back moments later, and after I figured out what “GTHO” meant (“Get the hell out!”), I realized that she was just as delighted as I was. 

If you look back at Erin’s piece on The Elusive George Clarke, you can read about Clarke’s disputes with Doty, and why Doty’s marriage into a Clarke family is potentially significant. 

The records indicate that the two were likely farming neighbors as Clarke drags Dotey into court claiming the latter is denying him access to his lands (PCR, vol 8., October 1637). In June of 1638, Dotey is fined for physically assaulting Clarke (vol. 1), and the bad blood continues for another four years, when Clarke is ordered to pay Dotey four bushels of corn for some infraction (vol. 2, February 1642).

If George and Faith were siblings, Doty’s and Clarke’s disputes over property lines could be explained as mundane in-law squabbles. Eugene Stratton, in Plymouth Colony: Its History & People, points out possible hostilities between Doty and his in-laws when, on “4 January 1641/42 the court settled differences between Doty and Thurston Clarke (father-in-law or brother-in-law?) by ordering Clarke to pay corn and money to Doty (PCR 2:30)” (Stratton, page 284). However, Doty had issues with many different people, most of whom were not named “Clarke.”

Continue reading

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 a form of 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.

Continue reading