(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1648, 32-year-old Alice Bishop was hanged on the gallows in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts for the murder of her young daughter — an apparently motiveless crime which must have shocked her fellow settlers.
Almost nothing is known about Alice’s early life. She probably, although not definitely, came over on the Mayflower. The prevailing theory is that her parents were Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower. They died within a week of each other in January 1621, before the actual settlement of Plymouth even began.
If that’s the case, Alice had been an orphan for the better part of a year by the time the first Thanksgiving rolled around. She was presumably raised by one of the other families. She would marry twice and have three daughters: Abigail, Martha and Damaris.
By 1648, Alice was living with her second husband, the Plymouth newcomer Richard Bishop, who was Damaris’s father. The family seems to have been unexceptional, just another household trying to eke out a living in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
Somewhere along the line, something went very wrong.
On July 22, 1648, while Richard Bishop was away from home, family friend Rachel Ramsden dropped by the Bishops’ residence and spent some time with Alice. Alice’s four-year-old middle child, Martha Clark, was asleep in bed in the loft, which was accessible by ladder. (Where the other two children were has not been recorded.)
At some point, Alice gave Rachel a kettle and asked her to go fetch some buttermilk from a neighbor’s house.
When Rachel returned, she noticed blood on the floor beneath the ladder. Alice was “sad and dumpish,” and when Rachel asked her what was going on, she wordlessly pointed up at the loft.
Rachel climbed up to have a look: there was blood everywhere; Martha’s mattress was drenched in it.
Rachel fled the house in a panic, found her parents and told them she thought Alice had murdered her daughter. Her father rushed to find the colonial governor. A posse of twelve armed men assembled and went to the Bishop house. By the time the men arrived, Alice was in hysterics.
Ascending to the loft, they found Martha’s body. The child was lying on her left side, “with her throat cut with divers gashes crose wayes, the wind pipe cut and stuke into the throat downward, and the bloody knife lying by the side.” Nothing could be done for her.
Alice freely admitted she had murdered her daughter and said she was sorry for it, but she claimed she had no recollection of the crime. When they asked her why she’d done it, she had no answer for them.
She was the fifth person hanged in the Plymouth Colony, and the first woman.
We will never know why Alice Bishop killed her daughter Martha, and why she did it in such a ferocious manner. One of her descendants has a website about her that attempts to answer that question.
Severe mental illness, perhaps post-partum psychosis, is an obvious answer, but not the only one. The site notes another potentially significant fact: both of Alice’s parents died when she was four years old, and she killed her daughter at the same age.
Richard Bishop survived his wife by nearly a quarter-century. As for the children: youngest child Damaris Bishop grew up, married and had three sons, but Abigail Clark, Alice’s oldest child, vanishes from history after her mother’s execution.