Erin Taylor, July 2014
My hands may tremble, my heart does not.
Stephen Hopkins, 1776 signer of the Declaration of Independence who had cerebral palsy.
Readers of the 2011 blog suggested that Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) 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.
But I’m stuck on “something wrong with the child” and to understand why, you have to know a little about my story. In 2002, my fifth child, Henry was born with a condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS). A not entirely uncommon congenital defect, it is nonetheless life limiting. Without surgical interventions or a heart transplant, these children most often die.
Henry’s story has a happy ending with a lot of landmines. He underwent several cardio-thoracic surgeries; we’ve seen specialists in four states and; at five years old, Henry underwent a heart transplant. Because of the nature of his heart defect and the necessary surgical interventions, Henry incurred brain injuries. Today, Henry is a wildly popular sixth grader with a significant intellectual disability.
And if he had been born 300, or even just 30 years ago, he’d be dead.
Colonial babies born with this and similar conditions would have struggled to survive and feed. A chronic lack of oxygenated blood (the real culprit behind HLHS) would have eventually led to multiple organ failure and an exhausting death. And these babies’ mothers would have had no reason as to why. Their babies would be blue, fussy and lethargic. I imagine myself having Henry in the 1640s, sensing soon after his delivery that he wasn’t long for this world.
So what if Alice perceived there was something abnormal about her daughter, mentally or physically? Maybe Martha had unrelenting seizures, hydrocephaly, cystic fibrosis, or a neurological condition that today we would name as autism? The latter two were only recognized as medical conditions in the twentieth century (and many living with autism claim it as neurodiversity and not a medical matter). I don’t want to consider that Martha had what, today, we would call a developmental disability and that Alice justified murdering her for that. It’s too close to my own heart to imagine killing a child because they were born not as their mother expected.
I didn’t consider ending Henry’s suffering — forgoing the next surgery, not being listed for a donor heart. Henry’s crapped out heart was making that decision for me. Because I live in the twenty-first century and have access to premier pediatric care, our family was delivered a miracle. But we came very close to another outcome and on more than one occasion.
So I have to take a step back as a mother and think instead like a historian. In doing so, I still hold to my conviction that killing a person because of their disability is murder, not mercy. This is not to open a can of worms and arrows about euthanasia but to simply say I value the personhood of those with disabilities including their right to choice and to thrive.
For colonists, “the primary definition of disability was an inability to perform labor” (Nielsen, 20). But if a person could perform valued work despite a physical disability, then it mattered little to the community. In a time where maiming injuries and diseases left bodies permanently altered, inclusion of any wealth contributing members won out over bigotry.
So, I turn back to Martha. On the day she was murdered, she was lying in bed with no mention of her sisters beside her. Because neighbor Rachel Ramsden came by and Alice requested that she fetch some buttermilk, I’ve presumed that this was likely late morning. Is it possible (and without any evidence) that Martha had a condition that limited her independent movement? There is, yet again, no source material that provides any information on where other family members were (notably Richard and Abigail, the eldest) nor that Martha was known to be ill or have a disability.
Nielsen continues that colonists, however, paid “substantial attention to cognitive or mental disabilities” (20). Here, financial concerns also played a role. Not only could some children with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses earn income as they grew, they would also require care — which took from parents’ earnings (22). In other words, these disabilities subjected persons to a state of dependency but not necessarily shamefulness (26). But we must also consider how New England colonies conceptualized the cause of children born with intellectual disabilities. Our Pilgrim forefamilies believed their settlement was ordained by the Almighty. How could their savior place among them people who could not participate appropriately within their divine-driven norms?
This line of thought is, thankfully, problematic. Separatists and convicts lived among them, arriving to the New World solely for financial gain or to avoid the English penal system. A child born neurologically atypical was certainly not as troublesome as the men of Wessagusset (a failed English trading post thirty miles north of Plymouth), even more so the area tribes. There are a few notations of persons who clearly had cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses being well known in towns and not treated as abhorrent or exiles. Indeed, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay laws offered some protective provisions for these persons, as far as these conditions were recognized by the authorities. Interestingly, these persons were often lumped in with women and children in matters of abuse, guardianship and inheritance.
Just as likely (if not even more), is that Martha had a dreaded bout with smallpox, typhus, influenza, scarlet fever or diphtheria, to name but a few. These raged through homes and an experienced mother would soon realize that her child was dying. However, it seems an excessive act of “mercy” killing to nearly decapitate one’s daughter. Moreover, these diseases did not uniformly kill young ones. In the end, the Martha-was-atypical theory doesn’t hold a lot of merit. If she were dying of a disease, then why wouldn’t AMB just let nature take its course? Children suffered and children died, this was a colonial fact of life. If she had a significant disability, we have no reason to presume Alice believed Martha better off dead.
In the end, even if she had a disability, there was never anything “wrong” with Martha’s mind or body. Surely, the Pilgrims held fast to the notion that God doesn’t make mistakes. The assignment of nonconformity must go to Alice — cold-hearted killer? Out of her mind? Trying to protect Martha from evils only she could perceive? Again, questions cascade over one another in this story. But, as researchers of it, we cannot assign twenty-first century medical diagnoses on a family of which so little is actually known.