Erin Taylor and Kristin Luce, August 2015
The first time I read about Alice Martin Bishop (AMB), the account included the above phrase regarding her murder of Martha: an event of which she said she had no recollection. Almost more than the grisly details of the crime, that phrase stayed with me, offering reassurance that Alice was certainly not in her right mind when she murdered Martha. Her amnesia implied some kind of psychosis or delirium or trauma that would help explain why she committed such an unimaginable act.
Another variant of this phrase appears, positioned at the moment of Alice’s execution: “Before she was hanged, she said she had no recollection of what she had done.” When I eventually saw the original documents in the Plymouth Colony Records (PCR), neither phrase was there. When, and who, had added them, and why? Was it simply a case of sloppy transcribing? Was it another descendent, trying to give Alice an out, centuries later? Or was it someone trying to embellish the rather dry court records?
I found more colorful embellishments with additional Internet searches. For example, Alice was described as “hysterical.” Again, I reread the primary source, unclear of how I could have missed such a dramatic detail. I missed it because it isn’t there.
Erin tracked down the original appearance of “hysterical” in what is perhaps the most outlandish retelling of the AMB story, from Daniel Allen Hearn, in Legal Executions in New England. Hearn writes:
In the summer of 1648 there lived at Plymouth the bourgeoisie family Bishop. The patriarch was Goodman Richard Bishop and his wife was Goodwife Alice Bishop. The couple had a four year-old daughter named Martha Bishop. History has neglected to record what Goodman Bishop did for a living. He and his wife were of heavy stock, having endured all the hardships of life in early Plymouth. Industrious, religious and frugal, they persevered through the numbing winters, kept alert for hostile Indians and stayed on cordial terms with their neighbors.
Then, “On the above date Goodman Bishop was away on business.”
After retelling the events of the murder with more subtle literary license, Hearn writes, “A posse of 12 armed men was sent to the Bishop house. Alice Bishop was found disoriented and tearful…They soon found the dead child. By then Alice Bishop had become hysterical” (16).
Where had Hearn found all of this additional information on Alice’s personal situation and the particular details of her behavior at the time of the murder? Imagine Erin’s disappointment — and disapproval — when she discovered that Hearn’s only source is the original court records in the PCR. Erin assures us that the following items are not known about the Bishop family or Martha’s murder:
1. They were not “bourgeoisie,” or upper-middle class, in comparison to families such as the Standishes or Bradfords, or we would have more evidence of their landholdings and civic participation. Such subtle class distinctions had yet to develop in Plymouth Colony.
2. Alice had three daughters — which is significant in considering motive, Martha being a stepdaughter of Richard — and Martha was a Clarke, not a Bishop.
3. Assuming the Bishops were of heavy stock (a commentary on their physique or disposition?), hard-working, religious, and frugal are hardly distinguishing markers as these traits were critical for the livelihood and inclusion of all Plymouth families. It makes as much sense to say, “Eskimos are especially well suited to the snow.”
4. Were they on good terms with their neighbors? Who knows? However, Alice had previously been married to a man (George Clarke) who was constantly at odds with one neighbor (Edward Doty) and Richard, within one year of Martha’s murder, is brought up on charges of stealing a neighbor’s spade.
5. To state that Richard Bishop was “away on business” the day his stepdaughter was murdered only works if we believe chopping wood, harvesting crops, or tending cattle constitutes a seventeenth-century business trip.
6. We do not know that the coroners who came to the Bishop home were armed. Perhaps these men always carried firearms on their person, but that does not equate “a posse” descending on the home. From the PCR description, we have every evidence that their visit was peaceable, despite the gory scene.
7. No one ever described Alice as tearful, disoriented, or hysterical. We have exactly two adjectives that described her state that day: “sad and dumpish” by Rachel Ramsden.
Hearn’s work exemplifies how easily Martha’s murder and her mother’s motivation can be bastardized, in part, to sensationalize and, in equal measure, to justify. The fact that this kind of fiction can be so easily shared as fact makes it even more crucial that we redirect any serious researchers to the original court documents (and point them to other primary sources that may contain credible information that we haven’t yet discovered).
This is exactly why writers need to be specific in stating up-front whether they are providing history or historical fiction. Sheesh.
Thanks, we hope to keep on the right side!
I think someone else murdered Martha, and Abigail was covering up for them probably because she didn’t think anyone would believer her or she was so distraught she really didn’t remember what happened.
The other account of the events clearly contains writers embellishments.