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.

Alice’s confession contains no reference to voices in her head, or that she believed Martha would be better off dead, or the conviction that either was under demonic possession. AMB merely admitted to the murder and gave no reasons as to why. To us, this connotes either an inability to recognize and deconstruct one’s own thought processes or a sociopathic lack of concern and empathy (this expert behavioral analysis built upon years of watching Law & Order: SVU). And although she did apologize afterward, we can’t know if she did so out of genuine remorse or because she feared her punishment. 

While we have no evidence that AMB was perceived as mentally or emotionally unbalanced, dozens of AMB descendants have suggested such. That being said, we wish some researchers and armchair genealogists would stop making presumptions about Alice’s mental health and her motives without backing those up with sourced evidence. Respected homicide historian Randolph Roth, as an example, makes claims that include Alice, despite a lack of documentation: “Every child…murdered by a relative in the frontier period from the 1630s through the 1650s was killed by a deranged or depressed parent” (“Child Murder in America,” 114). Does Alice seem deranged because she nearly decapitated her child? Of course. Would she meet today’s clinical standard for any form of mental illness? We are in no position to answer that. Would she meet a legal standard of insanity? Who knows? We can imagine what happened and why; we can point to patterns and possible causations — but that’s the extent of it. Alice, Martha, and the rest of the Martin-Clarke-Bishop clan deserve the best of our research efforts. 

In England, prior to the eighteenth century, mothers were pardoned in court if they were known to be insane or having an intellectual disability. “Madness, not a medical term but a legal one, did not ‘excuse’ a homicide, but averted the death penalty” (Hoffer, 146). Therefore, insanity was not so much a successful defense strategy as it was a way to save a mother from execution during sentencing. Eldridge contends that early colonial law, following English common law, protected persons with mental illness from being convicted of crimes that they could not reasonably be expected to understand they were committing (379).

This does not seem to be true in the American colonies for all cases. In 1690, Mercy Brown murdered her son with an axe in Connecticut. While the court noted Brown was in a “distracted state,” she was, nonetheless, hanged (Eldridge p. 380). In 1639, Dorothy Talbye was hanged in Boston for the murder of her three-year-old child. Talbye’s crime sounds remarkably similar to AMB’s, except that Talbye had previously attempted to kill her children as well as her husband. Talbye had been exiled from the church and publicly whipped – each to no avail. As Governor John Winthrop of Massachussetts Bay Colony recalled her, “She was so possessed with Satan that he persuaded her by his delusions, which she listened to as revelations from God.” Note how the existence of a mental illness is not addressed. In the end, Talbye’s Satan defense could not justify her actions. Furthermore, even if the jurors believed Talbye was in the grips of Satan, there was no saving her – only saving the community’s exposure to one snatched by the Devil (Hoffer, 41).

If anyone noticed Alice being mentally unstable, it would not have helped her much either, because all of this, legally, is a moot point. Judges found all forms of filicide “threats to the entire community” (Hoffer, 40) and punished it severely. The M’Naghten rule, which would be the foundation piece of our modern insanity defense, was centuries away from American courtroom practice.

We can only remain aware of the context that shaped Alice’s beliefs and experiences. It is always unimaginable when a woman murders those to whom she gave birth. We presume every child is cherished and that every woman is hardwired to love childrearing above all other acts. Neither one is true. Filicide severs these quaint notions from us. 

One thought on “Distracted States: Mental Illness in Plymouth Colony

  1. This story is of great interest to me and my family. Our family has a strong tendency towards Bi-polar disorder- many of our relatives have been diagnosed with that and also with Depression. It seems obvious to me that there must be some sort of genetic component. AMB is my 10th great grandmother- our family goes quite far back in New Jersey, especially on my grandfather’s side. His mother was related to Benjamin Rush – there’s a lot of ancestry work that’s been done on his side ( which made things easy for me, when I started). We’re related to AMB through the Sutton side- a Sutton was my 7th great grandfather. I find her story quite compelling. I can imagine that coming to this country must have been traumatic to begin with and then to someone who carries a genetic tendency for depression- truly an horrific experience. I wish we could know more about what happened to her .

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