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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Re-creating and Questioning How Martha Was Murdered

Erin Taylor, February 2015

This post shares discussions and insights Kristin and I had after visiting Plimoth Plantation’s 1627 town site (November 2014). The good people at Plimoth Plantation have re-created the first settlement in painstaking detail, and it turns out, a Plymouth home — our AMB crime scene — wasn’t exactly as I had imagined it. The homes were smaller and with lower ceilings than I had figured (of course, I’m nearly six feet tall, so I have a skewed perspective). Also, the houses sat closer together than I had mentally plotted.

Map of Pilmoth village

Map of Plimoth village

We spent two days at Plimoth Plantation, viewing the homes and speaking with reenactors. As we shared our thoughts about Martha’s murder based on what we saw there, it must be remembered this is a 1627 re-creation — in other words, twenty years before her death. By the 1640s, colonists had more tools and construction supplies, and homes were built under less dire circumstances. Within two decades of the Mayflower’s arrival, several towns were developing in the wider colony, but we assume the Bishops lived in Plymouth town proper because the Ramsdens and Winslows (Josiah, head) were their neighbors.

Plimoth village home ca. 1627

Plimoth village home ca. 1627

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CSI: Plymouth Colony

Erin Taylor, July 2014

We mean not to offend. But we’re going to talk about the manner of Martha’s death and the coroners’ investigation. Be warned, there’s going to be some gore.

In the 2011 blog comments and on genealogy sites discussing Alice Martin Bishop (AMB), there are numerous questions about the investigation into Martha’s death.  From the outset, two things must be remembered:

  1. Alice confessed immediately in the presence of all five coroners.
  2. The coroners had seventeenth-century investigation skills and tools. None of them were, even by that century’s standards, “men of science.”

AMB researchers have asked why there was no crime scene investigation report.  There was one:

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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.

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Martha’s Murder: 22 July 1648

Poem excerpt by FP Morris

Erin Taylor, July 2014

Timeline 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.

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