The following book review was written by Bobbi King:
Governor William Bradford, Alice Bishop, and the Murder of Martha Clarke, Plymouth Colony 1648
By Donna A. Watkins. Published by American History Press. 2020. 353 pages.
The book opens on a bold note: the recitation of the rituals in early Plymouth Colony of the hangings of men and women convicted of such crimes that would cause the imposition of such ghastly punishment.
The descriptions of these particularly unfortunate and grim events, commonly held at fairs and as public displays of community justice, are presented in an unexpectedly straightforward and detailed manner, and set the tone of the book—the telling of the tale of the harsh environment and living conditions, and the strict governance, both legal and social, of the Pilgrim society that struggled to grow the Plymouth Colony amidst the fear of Indians, the burden of satisfying investors’ demands of a lucrative venture, and compliance with the Pilgrim code as interpreted and imposed by their governor and judge, William Bradford.
The “Diverse Gashes” were the cause of death of four-year old Martha Clarke, the daughter of Alice Bishop, a re-married mother of three young children and wife of a successful Plymouth farmer. Without apparent reason, Alice brutally took the life of her daughter, on an ordinary day, with no witnesses present, and with no pleas of innocence. Alice meekly submitted to the investigation led by William Bradford, offered no reasons for her impulsive act, and was subsequently convicted. She became the first and only woman in Plymouth Colony to be hanged.
Alice is the author’s ninth-great-grandmother.
The book especially considers the circumstances of women whose submission and compliance to the men, their lifelong heads of household, their fathers and husbands, was particularly onerous and stifling. It seems there was simply no room, in the Pilgrim sphere, for female opinion, wishes, words of wisdom, wants, or needs. Even from the age of a young girl, the Pilgrims mandated absolute female compliance to the male authority.
The murder of a child by her mother is the event from which the author tells the peripheral stories of Separatism, Puritanism, the settlement and divisiveness of Plymouth Colony, with a fresh look and attention to the many tasks, duties, and few pleasures of the colonists’ daily lives that draws in the reader with easy reading that is deceptively interesting, recounting the never-ending pursuits of daily cooking, family-raising, crop-producing, church-going, peace-keeping, and child-rearing.
Ms. Watkins introduces the Pilgrim practice of “watchfulness,” the Neighborhood Watch of its day. “Watchfulness” was the assumption of responsibility by the entire community for the welfare of the entire community. But the “watchfulness” principle may have felt like a habit of “spyfulness” to some inhabitants. Might this have contributed to the tragedy of Alice Bishop and her daughter Martha? The author discusses the question.
The final third of the book is devoted to Ms. Watkins’s analysis of the extant records and circumstances on the whole matter of Alice Bishop and her time. William Bradford, staunch protector of the Pilgrim code and belief system, and his male counterparts, governed the investigation and likely influenced the lack of historical mention in the Colony records of Alice’s case, not typical for a man who sought to document and preserve, in his many writings, the complete history of his Plymouth Colony.
An extensive bibliography offers numerous rich resources for additional research, and the source notes indicate the approach of a careful and thoughtful researcher.
Alice Bishop could never have imagined being remembered some eight generations and three hundred fifty years later, but she has been.
Ms. Watkins memorialized her ancestor in a compassionate and sympathetic fashion. And she set the scenes of colonial life with an unidealized eye that seems more believable than the Pilgrim story we re-enacted in second grade.
Diverse Gashes: Governor William Bradford, Alice Bishop, and the Murder of Martha Clarke, Plymouth Colony 1648 by Donna A. Watkins is available from the publisher, American History Press, at https://bit.ly/3jtmjvA as well as from Amazon at https://amzn.to/3cS1Fmo.