Timeline to Martha’s murder: In 1639 Alice marries George Clark and has a daughter, Abigail. In 1644, Martha is born, George Clark 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 Clark.
At the end of this blog are the original Plymouth Colony court records pertaining to the Clark murder inquest and AMB trial. But I wanted to deconstruct the day’s events into individual pieces for examination. Here goes:
- The Plymouth Coroners are called to the Bishop home after Rachel Ramsden runs to her parent’s home to tell them she believes four year-old Martha is dead.
- Coroners enter the Bishop home and see “much blood” at the foot of ladder (that leads to upstairs loft where Clark-Bishop girls presumably slept).
- Coroners go up ladder to “upper chamber” and find a four year-old female in her shift on her left side. Injury is several deep cuts across throat, severing windpipe.
- The knife is found beside the dead child.
- Alice immediately confesses to all five Coroners present that she killed Martha.
- Rachel Ramsden, the neighbor, testifies that she came to Bishop house on an errand and noticed Martha sleeping in loft with no apparent injury.
- Rachel testifies that AMB gave her a kettle and asked her to fetch buttermilk from the Winslow home.
- Rachel testifies that AMB appeared normal when she left for the buttermilk but “sad and dumpish” when she returned.
- When Rachel returned, she immediately asked Martha about the blood at the foot of the ladder.
- Alice points to the upper chamber and “bid [Rachel to] look.”
- Rachel is too afraid to look as she surmised that Martha was dead and instead ran to tell her parents.
- Rachel tells Coroners (where and when?) that the reason she thought Martha was dead was that when she returned and saw the blood, she looked up to the loft and “the child was not there.”
- On August 1, 1648 AMB again confesses to murdering Martha and “was sorry for it.”
As horrific as the events seem now, there is no evidence that July 22, 1648 did not begin like any other summer day in the colony. The Bishop household was up early – at least Alice, Richard and Abigail who had chores to tend to. Perhaps Alice let Damaris and Martha sleep in. Maybe older Abigail was sent to fetch water and Richard had left for firewood collecting or farm chores. Alice would prepare a morning meal like cornmeal porridge.
I have assumed Martha’s murder happened in the morning for the following reasons:
- Martha was still sleeping and in her shift (although she could have been taking an afternoon nap on a hot summer day).
- Rachel came over on an errand and then Martha sent her off to fetch some buttermilk for what I presume is meal preparation.
- There is no mention of Abigail or Richard in the home at the time of the murder and they were likely doing their outside chores in the cooler hours of the day.
Like most of us nosey genealogists, I am left with a lot of questions from the scant “eyewitness” testimony we have (of which, technically, Rachel and the Coroners do not count).
- Where were Abigail and Damaris and why were they not attacked by their mother? Remember there is nothing “unique” about Martha from what we know: she shared a common father with her sister, Abigail. Martha was not the only female child nor was she the youngest or oldest.
- Thinking back to the crime scene: How high from the floor was the loft whereby Rachel could see the sleeping Martha the first time but could not when she returned?
- What do we know about Rachel (Eaton) Ramsden? She is also a Mayflower daughter (of Francis Eaton and Christian Penn) and married to Joseph Ramsden (aka Ramsdell).
- Berkin (33) speaks of how New England women were often in their neighbor’s home to borrow items and visit. Surely, Alice knew there was a good chance that someone could walk in while she was murdering Martha or that she’d have a great deal of explaining to do once Rachel returned. For what reason did Alice make no effort to place blame elsewhere or hide evidence?
A great deal of this blog from here forward deals with the question of WHY. Why did Alice savagely murder her young daughter and can we imagine any factors that led to her decision to do so?
Shurtleff’s Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England (155-1861) have the following entry (vol. 2, p 132) for 1 August 1648 (which I have adjusted into contemporary English):
*These showeth, that on July the 22nd, 1648, we, whose names are underwritten, were sworn by Mr. Bradford, Governor, to make inquiry of the death of the child of Alice Bishop, the wife of Richard Bishop.
We declare, that coming into the house of the said Richard Bishop, we saw at the foot of a ladder which leadeth into an upper chamber, much blood; and going up all of us into the chamber, we found a woman child, of about four years of age, lying in her shift uon her left cheek, with her throat cut with [numerous] gashes cross ways, the wind pipe cut and stuck into the throat downward, and a bloody knife lying by the side of the child, with which knife all of us judged, and the said Allis hath confessed to five of us at one time, that she murdered the child with the said knife.
JOHN HOWLAND, JAMES COLE, JAMES HURST, GYELLS RICKARD, ROBERT LEE, RICHARD SPARROW, JOHN SHAWE, THOMAS POPE, FRANCIS COOKE, FRANCIS BILLINGTON, JOHN COOKE, WILLIAM NELSON (petty jury names)
Rachel, the wife of Joseph Ramsden, aged about 23 years, being examined, said that coming to the house of Richard Bishop upon an errand, the wife of the said Richard Bishop requested her to go fetch her some buttermilk at Goodwife Winslows, and gave her a kettle for that purpose, and she went and did it; and before she went, she saw the child lying abed asleep, to her best discerning, and the woman was as well as she hath known her at any time; but when she came she found her sad and dumpish; she asked her what blood was that she saw at the ladder’s foot; she pointed unto the chamber, and bid her look, but she perceived she had killed her child, and being afraid, she refused, and ran and told her father and mother.
Moreover, she said the reason that moved her to think she had killed her child was that when she saw the blood she looked on the bed, and the child was not there.
Taken upon oath by me, WILLIAM BRADFORD, the day and year above written.
At a Court of Assistant held at New Plymouth, the first of August, 1648, before Mr. Bradford, Governor, Mr. Coliar, Captain Miles Standish, and Mr. William Thomas, gentlemen, Assistants, the said Alice, being examined, confessed she did commit the aforesaid murder, and is sorry for it.
(From Shurtleff, vol 2, p 124): The General Court convened 4 October 1648 where Alice “was indicted for felonious murder by he committed upon Martha Clark, her own child, the fruit of her own body.” Governor Bradford and his General Assistants were all present and her jurors were: Josias Winslow, Sr., Thomas Shillingsworth. Anthony Snowe, Richard Sparrow, Gabriell Fallowell, Joshua Prat, Gyells Rickard, John Shaw, Sr., Steven Wood, William Mericke, William Brete and John Willis.
The Plymouth court records read:
These found the said Alice Bishop guilty of the said felonious murdering of Martha Clarke aforesaid; and so she had the sentence of death pronounced against her [and therefore] to be taken from the place where she was to the place from whence she came, and thence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until her body is dead which accordingly was executed.