Meet our 10x great grandmother. In 1648, Alice Martin Bishop of Plymouth Colony was hanged for the murder of her 4-year-old daughter, Martha Clarke. Join us as we reconstruct Alice’s world. Here, we learn more about her origins, her husbands, her surviving children, and her Puritan community — all in an attempt to make sense of a crime so unnatural, it continues to fascinate, nearly 400 years later.
Erin Taylor, December 2014
Ask Kristin. I am a curmudgeon of tourist. I sneer at the gift shops, recoil at the fellow visitors replete with whining teenagers and their fanny-packed parents. So, as we planned our trip to Plymouth, I dreaded the notion of visiting Plimoth Plantation on a Saturday in November. I’m all for historic preservation, but seriously questioned the quality of historic reenactments. For the record, “Plimoth” is the spelling Governor Bradford used in his history of the colony.
Attitude, camera, and notebook in hand, I headed down to the 1627 “authentic” Plimoth village and was immediately smitten. Kudos to the nonprofit Plimoth Plantation for an engaging and transformative experience. I was especially impressed with the reenactors and their training (a new source of fascination for Kristin and myself). If there is an international standard for reenacting history, I’d wager Plimoth is setting it. Do visit – with your children or students especially – and live some American history.
Certainly, the museum needs to fund itself so there is the usual array of retail – ye old tyme thermal mug, authentic colonial fudge (cocoa wouldn’t be seen in New England for at least another century). But these are kept at a tasteful distance from the reenactment sites. And, in full, ashamed disclosure, I skipped the Wampanoag village (Native American) as I was so intent on spending time in a home similar to Alice Martin Bishop’s.
Kristin Luce, January 2015
The Plymouth Town Records tell us that in 1653, “Abigaill Clarke” registered “a half moone on the right eare” as her unique branding mark, to identify her cow from other wandering Plymouth bovine (vol. 1, p. 2).
For some reason, I’m having trouble getting the image of Abigail and her cow out of my mind. It’s a poignant picture I’ve been creating, of the lonely 12-year-old orphan with no one to love — or to love her back — but her cow. (I don’t know if cows show affection, but if Abigail fed it, it was probably glad to see her. My Oklahoma cousin Erin, somewhat of an expert, tells me: “They will nuzzle you if you show up with oats, but they aren’t going to spoon you in bed or validate you.”)
Cattle were plentiful in New England in the 1640s, to the extent that their value had dropped significantly by the time the Great Migration began to peter out in the early years of that decade. But while their value as a trading commodity decreased, they still played an important part in the daily lives of Puritan families — cows for dairy and breeding, gelded males primarily for draft work (Chartier, see below).
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.
Erin Taylor, December 2014
I feel like a real Cotton Mather (a Puritan joke of pitiable proportions) to suggest this so close to Thanksgiving, but today, as I read the story of Hannah Duston, I wondered why we never considered another possible killer.
Goodwife Hannah Duston lived in the western, frontier town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, at the very end of the seventeenth century. Her home was overtaken by natives on a retaliatory warpath. The men took Hannah, her attending midwife (for Hannah had just delivered six days prior), and then “brained…against a nearby apple tree” her infant daughter who was…wait for it….named Martha (Davis, 45). Hannah eventually escaped – a gruesome tale that can he read here.
Obviously, Martha was a common name. As were Indian raids and hostage taking. Many hostage colonists were incorporated into native communities, often as servants. Others were ransomed off, back to their English communities or enemies such as the French. Alden Vaughan and Daniel Richter summed that more than 1600 regional colonists were kidnapped between 1675 and 1763. Bloody interactions with native peoples were certainly a more common colonial experience and expectation than any turkey-centered feasting. Indeed, Alice’s adulthood would have been marked by outright wars, raids, and murdering on both sides.
However, there is absolutely zero indication that an Indian came into the Bishop home and slaughtered Martha. Undoubtedly, the jurors and Governor Bradford would have made such a possibility public knowledge. For this scenario to be feasible, we have to imagine the Bishops not living in a town setting like Barnstable or Plymouth where houses sat very close together. As Plymouth Colony expanded and new lands were settled, this is, admittedly, a possibility. But it still doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Why would Alice confess to the crime rather than point the finger? What about the knife? Did the murdering native arrive empty handed and pick up the kitchen knife? Or was he (or, she?) in possession of English tableware and chose that over a tomahawk to kill Martha? Not likely. Why Martha and not Alice, Abigail, and Damaris as well? Why leave the weapon behind?
Kristin and I are heading to Plymouth in the coming week and we are beyond excited! We’ll share lots of pictures and insights from our trip. We have this pipe dream that we will come across Alice’s diary (which tells us who her parents are), her confession as to why she killed Martha (or who the real killer is), cause of death for George Clarke, and what happened to his daughter, Abigail. Perhaps, we have overly ambitious expectations….
On another note, I want to publicly thank my outstanding co-author, Kristin Luce. She is 100 percent the motivation for this blog overhaul. Many of the pieces on this blog reflect Kristin’s high-caliber work and discuss matters I had never considered. Kristin asks the best questions as a critical reader and keeps my punctuation from being another family crime.
Erin Taylor, August 2014
Identifying the origins and family of our George Clarke has been frustrating, often more a matter of eliminating who he is not. George Clarke does us no research favors by having a prevalent first and last name; Clarke (with the “e” at the end) was a common English surname associated with the profession of being a clerk for bureaucratic functions. We certainly know nothing of the education of our George Clarke, but such literacy skills had limited use in early Plymouth Colony. Men were needed to build, farm, manage livestock, and stave off Native Americans.
We are left with very few direct primary sources that identify our Clarke. Later in this post, we will provide sources of Clarkes that should not be confused with the George Clarke who was Alice Martin’s first husband. The earliest mention for this George Clarke is in the Plymouth Court Records (PCR) for 1637 (vol. 8, March 1637), where he enters into a series of disputes with Edward Dotey, a servant who came over on the Mayflower and then, once he completed his term, clearly had issues with Clarke and other Plymouth men. The records indicate that the two were likely farming neighbors as Clarke drags Dotey into court claiming the latter is denying him access to his lands (vol 8., October 1637). In June of 1638, Dotey is fined for physically assaulting Clarke (vol. 1), and the bad blood continues for another four years, when Clarke is ordered to pay Dotey four bushels of corn for some infraction (vol. 2, February 1642).
These court matters provide some clues about George’s age and position in Plymouth. For instance, we can assume he was over the age of 21 and no longer (if he ever was) a servant by 1637 because he is mentioned as owning land. That means his date of birth would have to be well before 1620, possibly before 1616. The disputes with Dotey indicate he had landholdings — not just in Plymouth Colony, but also in the actual town of Plymouth — and are re-evidenced by George Clarke’s landholdings in 1641 (vol. 2, December 1641). We do not know if George Clarke was a Freedman by his death in 1642, and Stratton reminds researchers that one did not need such status to own land in Plymouth (Plymouth Colony, 145).
George Clarke is not on the Plymouth Colony Tax Lists for 1633 or 1634 (the only dates available for this decade), and so we can presume he had not yet arrived from England or, a lesser possibility, resided in another American colony. We know Clarke marries “Allis Martin” January of 1639 (vol. 1, 1638 using the older, Julian calendar system) in the midst of his turf war with Dotey. He is also on the 1643 List of Men Able to Bear Arms (ages 16 to 60) for the town of Plymouth. However, his name is crossed out, probably because he is dead within a year.
Kristin Luce, August 2014
Beyond the questions of Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) parentage and origins (and that of her husbands), one question that haunts AMB researchers is what happened to Abigail Clarke — Alice’s oldest daughter — after her mother’s execution. Through all of our research, we haven’t found anyone who has been able to place Abigail after 1649, when the PCR notes that John Churchill was appointed to sell her father George Clarke’s house for her “use and good” (vol. 2).
This order, in fact, is the only reason we even know there was an Abigail. The only mother-child relationship for Alice that we have direct evidence for is that of Alice and Martha, which is specified in the PCR’s account of Martha’s murder and Alice’s conviction. As we’ve discussed before, no mention is made of Abigail or Damaris (Alice’s youngest daughter) by Rachel Ramsden during her two visits to the house that day, or by the coroners, who arrived later.
But Abigail is mentioned in the PCR the following year, in May 1649, as the daughter of George Clarke. John Churchill, of Plymouth, is ordered to dispose of “the house and land [that heretofore] was George Clarke’s for the use and good of Abigaell Clarke, daughter unto the said Gorg Clarke.” If we assume this is our George Clarke — and we haven’t yet found any other George Clarkes in Plymouth at that time — then we can confidently assume that this Abigail, who several months after Alice’s execution needs someone to provide for her, was a daughter from his marriage to Alice.
Someone, at some point, guessed Abigail’s birth date to be about 1641/1642, and that is the date used in all accounts of Abigail and AMB that we’ve found so far. It’s an interesting calculation, as it comes two years after George and Alice were married, a length of time longer than the average wait for a first child, but maybe there was an infant who died before Abigail was born.
Pilgrims and Puritans are not interchangeable terms, nor is one a subset of another. They shared a common faith, the Anglican Church (aka Church of England) and, as colonial neighbors, often collaborated. Both believed in purifying and simplifying Anglican practices and that Scripture was the guiding source for a community’s moral codes. Both groups also advocated literacy, so that each person could read the Bible.
Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony beginning in 1620 with the arrival of the Mayflower. They continued to settle Plymouth towns into the 1630s.
Puritans were the founding families of Massachusetts Bay Colony (Arriving 1630 onward, Boston, western Massachusetts and into Connecticut.).
Pilgrims insisted state and church should be separate, and were known as Separatists. To be clear, as an astute reader pointed out, the Pilgrims earned the name Separatists because they had dissociated with the church of England — not simply over their stance that church and state not bleed into one another’s activities. At this point, we can’t go much further without clarifying a few things. Not all passengers on the Mayflower were religious dissidents. The passengers who left England to separate from the Church of England referred to themselves as Saints. The Saints referred to the other passengers as Strangers. For our purposes here, we’re referring to both groups as Pilgrims.
Erin Taylor, August 2014
We are always trying to make puritans of the Puritans.
Plymouth Colony, Eugene Stratton, 191.
Here is your spouse’s bed; creep into it, and in your arms of faith embrace him, bewail your weakness, your unworthiness, your diffidence, etc. and you shall see he will turn to you.
Governor Bradford’s undated letter to “a faithful woman in her heaviness and trouble.”