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.
On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.
The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.
After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.
Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.
Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.
The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.
But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.
Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.
With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.
In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**
The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.
After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.
Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.
* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.
** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.
On this date in 1622, or very close to it, the Patuxet Native American Tisquantum (better known as Squanto) was about to be yielded by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford to Wampanoag chief Massasoit for immediate execution … when the unannounced appearance of a strange ship fortuitously saved him.
Squanto is most famous as the Indian godsend who saved the Mayflower Pilgrims at the Plymouth Bay colony from starvation by teaching those pious wayfarers how to live off the land in the New World.
In that capacity, he made possible (and participated in) the “First Thanksgiving” harvest gorger in 1621 that figures as the antecedent of the modern American holiday. Our day’s principal has therefore been portrayed on the stage by generations of schoolchildren from Cape Cod Bay to California.
As a youth, Squanto was kidnapped from his native soil by English explorer George Weymouth, who sold him into slavery in Europe. Squanto wound up in London in some sort of forced-labor capacity, before hitching a ride back to the Americas with Captain John Smith — the Pocahontas guy.
It was thanks to this improbable abduction and return trip that Squanto was available to materialize out of the woods, speaking the Queen’s English on this alien continent, in the nick of time to save the Plymouth immigrants from disaster.**
Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him, than to Massasoit. Which procured him envy and had like to have cost him his life; for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.
Seeking Squanto’s life both privately and openly, Massasoit sent messengers to the Plymouth colony requesting the Machiavellian diplomat’s return in accordance with the colony’s treaty arrangements with the Wampanoag.
Bradford ducked and dilated, not wanting to give up this valuable asset, but the precarious colony also needed the amity of its Indian neighbors.
entreating [Bradford] to give way to the death of Tisquantum who had so much abused him … [Massasoit] sent his own knife and [two messengers] therewith to cut off his head and hands and bring them to him
Bradford was on the point of yielding to this demand when a strange boat appeared unannounced — and the guv hit the “pause” button on everything.
he would first know what boat that was ere he would deliver him into their custody (not knowing whether there was a combination of French and Indians). Mad with rage and impatient at delay the messengers departed in great heat.
The delay turned out to be permanent … which for Squanto was only a few more months before he caught ill† and died later in 1622.
The ship that quite unknowingly bought Squanto this extra purchase on life had nothing at all to do with the drama unfolding between Bradford and Massasoit: it was the Sparrow, the advance party of the coming Wessagusset (or Weymouth) colony which would plant itself adjacent to the Plymouth settlers and completely crash and burn.
* This site asserts May 31 was the date that the Sparrow came ashore at Plymouth. Most sites are slightly less specific, noting only that the ship arrived in very late May.
** Among Squanto’s good deeds for the fledgling colony was tracking down a boy who got lost in the wilderness. The boy was John Billington, the eponymous son of the first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony.
† Some suspect that Squanto’s “illness” wasn’t so accidental, and the frustrated Wampanoag chief simply dispensed with the diplomatic rigmarole and poisoned him off.
Billington’s son almost torched the Mayflower while the pilgrims were still living in it; the old man himself achieved the distinction of “the first offence since our arrival … for his contempt of the captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches, for which he is adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together; but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”
(It wasn’t all bad. Another Billington kid gave the family name to an inland pond. (pdf))
This year John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of wilful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them. They used all due means about his trial and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentlemen in Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood. He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them ; they came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company. His fact was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.
-Plymouth Gov. William Bradford (Source)
Billington is supposed to be a distant ancestor to American President James Garfield.
Ther was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger; he was servant to an honest man of Duxbery, being aboute 16 or 17 years of age. (His father and mother lived at the same time at Sityate.) He was this year detected of buggery (and indicted for the same) with a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2 calves, and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the historie requires it. He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practise towards the mare. (I forbear perticulers.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confest the fact with that beast at that time, but sundrie times before, and at severall times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictmente; and this his free-confession was not only in private to the magistrates, (though at first he strived to deney it,) but to sundrie, both ministers and others, and afterwards, upon his indictemente, to the whole court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be knowne by his description of them, others with them were brought before him, and he declared which were they, and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury, and condemned, and after executed about the 8 of Sept 1642. A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare, and then the cowe, and the rest of the lesser catle, were kild before his face, according to the law, Levit: 20.15 and then he him selfe was executed.* The catle were all cast into a great and large pitte that was digged of purposs for them, and no use made of any part of them.
Granger is the first juvenile known to be executed in the territory of the modern United States — if you like, you could read it as the start of a pattern, even though almost a century would pass before the next such execution. “Juvenile” is a relative term, of course, since we see our day’s victim across a historical redefinition (arguably, outright creation) of “childhood” in the centuries to come: Granger left a wife and daughter.
“Sodomy, rapes, buggery,” were one of the five classes of crimes punishable by death according to the Plymouth Colony’s 1636 statutes. Still, Granger’s is the only one of ten recorded Plymouth Colony executions not imposed for murder (Source, via.) — not that other hot-blooded Puritans, including later zoophiles, didn’t get themselves into hot water.
From the beginning, SIN
and the reason, note, known from the start
says Mr. Bradford: As it is with waters when
their streames are stopped or damed up, wickednes
(Morton, Morton, Morton)
here by strict laws as in no more,
or so much, that I have known or heard of,
and ye same nerly looked unto
so, as it cannot rune in a comone road of liberty
as it would, and is inclined,
it searches every wher (everywhere)
and breaks out wher it getts vente, says he
Rest, Tom, in your pit where they put you
a great & large pitte digged of purposs for them
of Duxbery, servant, being aboute 16. or 17. years of age
his father & mother living at the time at Sityate
espetially drunkennes & unclainnes
incontinencie betweene persons unmaried
but some maried persons allso
And that which is worse
(things fearfull to name)
HAVE BROAK FORTH OFTENER THAN ONCE
IN THIS LAND
indicated for ye same) with
a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2. calves
and a turkey (Plymouth Plantation)
Now follows ye ministers answers
Mr Charles Channcys a reverend, godly, very larned man
who shortly thereafter, due to a difference aboute baptising
he holding it ought only to be by diping
that sprinkling was unlawful, removed him selfe
to the same Sityate, a minister to ye church ther
in this case proved, by reference to ye judicials of Moyses
& see: Luther, Calvin, Hen: Bulin:. Theo: Beza. Zanch:
what greevous sin in ye sight of God,
by ye instigation of burning lusts, set on fire of hell,
to procede to contactum & fricationem ad emissionem seminis,
& yt contra naturam, or to attempt ye grosse acts of
Mr Bradford: I forbear perticulers.
And accordingly he was cast by ye jury,
It being demanded of him
the youth confessed he had it of another
who had long used it in old England,
and they kept cattle together.
And after executed about ye 8. Of Septr, 1642.
A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare,
and then ye cowe, and ye rest of ye lesser catle,
were kild before his face, according to ye law
and then he him selfe
and no use made of any part of them
* The hangman, John Holmes — no, not that one — claimed a fee “for x weeks dyett for Granger £1., and for executing Granger and viij beasts, £2.10.0.” His count of executed beasts falls short of the total (12) enumerated by Bradford, presumably accounted by the difficulty in identifying the sheep.
Four hundred years removed from the events surrounding the colonization of Massachusetts by English settlers through the 1620’s, it’s difficult to properly evaluate the mindsets of either colonist or colonizer in this time of violent encounters and expansive cultural shifts.
Peach, by all accounts, was not on track to be elected Plymouth Man of the Year. A servant of Edward Winslow, one of the Mayflower originals responsible for political gaming with the native leaders, Peach was dispatched to serve in the Pequot War in 1637. The war pitted English colonists and some of their tribal neighbors against the Pequots and resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Pequot in several attacks.
Peach went work-idle in the post-war years, enjoying his remaining youth: he frequently drank and spent evenings in merriment with his friends, accumulating a sizable debt in the process; said merriment also extended to impregnating Dorothy Temple, a servant of Stephen Hopkins (who was, in one of the less surprising twists, later charged with allowing drunken merriment of his servants in his house).
William Bradford speculates that it was to escape punishment for this latter social offense that Peach convinced three other indentured servants to break their bonds and follow him to the nearby Dutch plantations. No matter the motive, they were ill-advised to join him.
Along the way, the quartet came across a man of the Nipmuc tribe (allied with the English and Narragansett during the recent war) named Penowanyanquis. They convinced him to stay, smoked a pipe and talked trade, then stabbed and robbed him, leaving him for what they thought was dead; Penowanyanquis was found on the road and lived for several more days, plenty of time to describe his attackers to first his tribesmen, then the Englishman Roger Williams.
The Plymouth authorities accepted the case (in Plymouth, though the event occurred far from its apparent jurisdiction) in the interests of maintaining the tenuous peace with the New England natives — in Bradford’s words, “The Gov[ernment] in the Bay were aquented with it, but refferrd it hither, because it was done in this jurissdiction; but pressed by all means that justice might be done in it; or els the countrie must rise and see justice done, otherwise it would raise a warr.”
Peach, Jackson, and Stinnings were caught at Aquidneck Island, while Cross fled to Piscataqua (New Hampshire), where it was traditional for locals to refuse to help Plymouth colonials. The three detainees were tried, with much of the trial devoted to proving that Penowanyanquis was, in fact, dead. It took two Narragansett to affirm upon pain of their own heads that Penowanyanquis had succumbed to his injuries, but their testimony sent three whites to the gallows for killing an Indian; for the second time since the Plymouth colony was established 18 years prior, a murderer was hanged.*
The oddity of the affair is not that such a conviction occurred — it was a long-standing colonial tradition to uphold treaties with natives through civil law and break them in a variety of other ways — but the reaction of persons involved before and during the trial. To wit:
Ousamequin coming from Plymouth told me that the four men were all guilty. I answered but one; he replied true, one wounded him, but all lay in wait two days and assisted. Also that the principal must not die, for he was Mr. Winslow’s man; and also that the Indian was by birth a Nipmuck man, so not worthy that any other man should die for him.
Ousamequin, here making the case that Peach should be spared, was another name for Massasoit, the old chief of the Pokanoket whose special kinship with Peach’s indenturerer Winslow was cemented after the settler brought a severely ill Massasoit European remedies when the chief was struck with an unnamed ailment in 1623.
Nor, indeed, were the colonists uniformly positive about the event: Bradford reports that “[s]ome of the rude and ignorant sorte murmured that any English should be put to death for the Indean.”
Massasoit himself seems to have been the only thing holding the colonial relationship together: Metacomet (“King Philip”) took the title of Great Sachem shortly after Massasoit’s death, and his alliances with other tribes exacerbated the harsh feeling towards English attempts to Christianize their neighboring “heathens”. With the white population expanding swiftly beyond its early boundaries, a small event was bound to spell trouble, and when the Christian convert John Sassamon (an Indian) was found murdered and three Wampanoag were executed for the deed, Indian sovereignty was impugned.
King Philip’s War was on, and it did not end well for the native Americans.
To his credit, Peach still produced a son, and Temple’s pregnancy ended the public life of Hopkins. Hopkins was charged with mistreating Temple, who was his indentured servant, and ordered to pay for both her and her child through the two years remaining on her contract.
Hopkins dissented and was jailed, bailed out four days later by John Holmes, who purchased Temple’s servitude for a whopping three pounds (somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 the price of a cow). Her son remains unnamed in the record, but after giving birth, Temple was charged with producing a bastard child and whipped. Her fate thereafter is lost to the mists of history, as are the future exploits of Daniel Cross.
* The first was Mayflower original John Billington, who was executed in 1630 for shooting John Newcomen to resolve what was apparently a long-standing dispute.