Rethinking the Knife

Kristin Luce, December 2014

Historians’ perceptions of the Pilgrims and life in Plymouth Colony evolve as discoveries are made — previously unpublished probate inventories shed light on what the colonists wore or owned, freshly unearthed archaeological finds provide insight into the buildings that housed those colonists, or the items they used to conduct the business of daily living.

Our recent trip to Plimoth Plantation allowed us to peek through a re-created window into Alice Martin Bishop’s world, and gave us a sharper focus on the tool that is at the heart of her crime – the knife.


What we previously assumed to be a crude and rare item turns out to have been a common household possession. All men would have had their own knife, and most goodwives would have owned one as well — or possibly shared one if more than one adult female lived in the household.

Women would have used their knives for all kinds of housewifery tasks, from preparing food to cooking to gardening. In fact, their knives were such an important part of their daily routine that goodwives actually attached them around their waist for easy access.

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The reenactors we spoke with tried not to show concern as we questioned them about the finer points of their knives. These kinds of tools would have been imported from England; the ones we saw were cased in a sheath, presumably to protect both the wearer and the blade.
IMG_3244IMG_3242One of the questions that continues to bother us is why Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) killed Martha with a knife, rather than drowning her, for example, or smothering her. Although obviously the messiest option, and one that couldn’t be made to appear accidental, murder by knife actually makes more sense now that we’ve seen a seventeenth-century reproduction – and remember, Plimoth Plantation is set in 1627, 21 years before Martha died, so AMB’s knife would have been more like the iKnife 6.

Tethered around her waist, almost the equivalent of an extra appendage, the knife would have been the quickest way for AMB to have killed Martha, and for Martha to have died. Death by drowning or asphyxiation takes four or more minutes before the brain finally dies, and both would have required more effort on AMB’s part if she had to physically restrain Martha during part of that time.

Martha would have bled out in under a minute if her jugular were cut (a likely scenario when we consider the coroners’ observations), and AMB, adept at fileting fish and, perhaps, slaughtering small barn animals, would have been able to strike swiftly and skillfully, maybe (hopefully) before she realized what she had done.

One thought on “Rethinking the Knife

  1. I am perplexed as to why Alice did not smother Martha. According to Rachel’s testimony, Martha was asleep before she left to fetch the buttermilk, so Alice could have likely smothered her without her putting up much of a fight. And why did Alice wait until she knew Rachel was returning to kill Martha? She could have more easily killed her in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping and she wasn’t expecting guests.
    What I am most confused about however is why there is no mention of blood on Alice’s clothing. According to the coroners report, Martha suffered numerous gashes and a severed windpipe, so this was a particularly brutal murder, rather than a skilled cutting of the jugular. Such a brutal attack had to have resulted in Alice being covered in blood, yet the only blood mentioned is in the loft, and at the foot of the ladder. Why was so much blood downstairs if Martha was killed in the loft? So many questions….

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