SaNiTy Tips

I am hosting a family researcher workshop at my Oklahoma City home next weekend.  This is a result of several of my friends having a misguided interest into my genealogy obsession.  They, too, think they might want to start poking around old records and see what manifests…

I am providing some hand-outs for our event and will be including these tips:

Start with ONE great grandparent and trace them back as far as you can go.  Then you can begin working on their spouse and other sides of the family.  Don’t be like I was, chasing down 100 leads from all 8 great grandparents.  It made me batty (battier).

Check your dates carefully — especially when using someone else’s genealogy work.  People make mistakes.  I had a male relative on my Ancestry for a long time with what I thought was his father – except his father was only three years older than him.  You can assume the following things are usually true: Women are often the same age or a few years younger than their husbands – unless it is a subsequent marriage and then the husband might be considerably older.  US women rarely married before the age of sixteen.

Siblings: Once you start getting out past your grandparents, you may want to limit how many of Great x3 Grandma’s Matilda’s seventeen children you include because your tree will get unwieldy.  Two exceptions to this are: One, start looking at the siblings of your relative if you need more information like where people lived or when parents died.  This is because someone else might be claiming that sibling in their lineage and have the info you need.  Secondly, chase down siblings if you are convinced your 23rd cousin is someone cool, like Bono.

Use local resources/Don’t pay for things that might be free:  One frustrating aspect about Ancestry is that the monthly subscription cost to explore international records is a steep jump. So figure out who, overseas, could have this information online for free.  I found out scads about my Mayflower family by searching online (FOR FREE) records for Essex County, England.  The same is true for the United States. For example, Oglethorpe County, GA has an amazingly rich website where I found out a lot about my family.  Many towns/counties have great searchable databases that are as easy to find as googling “Plymouth Colony” AND  genealogy.  You can also contact local historical societies.  If you know your entire family lived in Swamplandia, Louisiana for ten generations, then it’s time to pay dues to their local historical and genealogy societies.   

Connect with family: Every family has one cousin who has already done a LOT of this work.  Make it easy for them to share these records with you.  A word of warning: my Great Aunt Dott Zue (God bless her soul) had already done amazing genealogical research.  Except she left out anyone who she thought might have voted for a Democrat.  Or was Native American.  Or divorced. Or drank.  This meant that 15 generations of my family only had about 11 people in it.

Beware of historical myopia:  This is when people interpret information from scant evidence.  Most of you know my first female relative in the US was executed for murdering her daughter. And way too many people have written that “clearly” she had postpartum psychosis.  But this is a convenient explanation for a heinous murder and no way can this be determined about a woman who died in 1648.

Read primary sources when available: If you know your family lived in 1630’s Plymouth Colony, then go “the whole hog” and pour through sources written at that time in that place.  This is how I found the most relevant info about my great x10 murdering grandmother.  Don’t be scared.  Eventually, you will get used to reading “Ye freedman Bishyp doth flogged Goodwife Bishyp for amorous and immoral liaisons with Edward Frolicke.”  Good stuff!

When you really get into the thick of research, it might help to have a master list of all the last names in your lineage to keep things straight.  So my list has my four grandparents at the top in columns: Carrier…Tindle…Robertson…Reed.  Then under each column, I have all the last names that are part of that line.  Be a geek like me and alphabetize the names.

If you are on Ancestry, don’t rely on just the hints (green leaf icon by your family member’s name).  Also use the “search records” feature where you can look at other people’s family trees, military records, uploaded stories, newspaper articles and so forth.

 If you think your family arrived in the United States sometimes between 1602 and the end of the century,  you might be able to find their name on ship’s manifests at this site: http://www.packrat-pro.com/ships/shiplist.htm

Marvel at the horrific names your ancestors gave their children:  For instance, my family should not be allowed to name one another: Sally Sixkiller; Bat and Squirrel Adair; Hezekiah Bailey; Hazel Waunetta and Floyd Elwood Carrier; Azubah Hammond;  Ebenezer Kneeland; Zebulon Maxson;  Junaluskki Wasp;  Grissell Boughton; Dorcas Buckminster AND Dorcas Clapp (seriously…these last two sound like old-fashioned porn names).

Check out blogs:  You may even find blogs about your family lineage!  Some of my favorites are (and all on my blogroll to the right): Who Does She Think She Is? – from a blogger intent on rebuilding stories about the women in her family as well as other fascinating women.  I also enjoy All My Ancestors which has some great Oklahoma resources, Creative Gene and Free Genealogy  Resources.  I also check regularly English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy and Polly’s Granddaughter and Black & Red Journal – both great resources on Oklahoma African American and Cherokee heritage. 

Have fun.  Many of you, like me, are professional researchers in some capacity.  You will, like me, worry obsessively about your dates, names, dead ends and when, if ever, you will “complete” this project.  Genealogy should be something you enjoy like knitting or Jell-O shots.  Give it a break once in a while so your brain does not become a Jell-O shot.  And remember, your family history is not nearly as fascinating as you think it is to others. Except for my great uncle (see below) who nearly died in a bar fight with a monkey.

If you are working from Ancestry.com, when you view other people’s family trees,  see if they have a story attached.  These often include juicy biographical information!  You can also save family photos for a relative that is shared between that family tree and yours.

Scan any old family photos and make sure you have notes on where the photo was taken, what year and the full names of everyone in the photo.  You can choose to upload these onto Ancestry.com or your own blog and share your mortification at a global level:  Here is an example of the monkey-bitten great uncle Rex Reed Robertson.  He looks just like me but with an Adam’s apple.  Happy hunting!

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Not an endorsement…just searcher’s find.

As I continue to wade into family history (involving a damned search of Irish immigrants to South Carolina…not Martin/Bishop related), I did find this website where they inexpensively sell genealogy books pertaining to certain surnames.  I think they have 20,000+ in their collection.  Anyone used them? Ancestral Books at http://www.ancestralbooks.com/SurnamesB.html

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Footnote to the Story

Just when I thought I could put this blog to bed….Samuel Fuller is my 9th great grandfather and was born in Redenhall, Norfolk, England April 8, 1612. He came to Plymouth with his father, Edward Fuller and mother, name unknown, on the Mayflower.  Samuel’s parents died the first winter in Plymouth Bay.  Therefore, Samuel Fuller would have been an orphan like Alice Martin and just eight years old.

Samuel Fuller married Jane Lathrop who arrived in Boston in 1634 with her widowed father, Rev. John Lathrop.  I have some investigating to do because surely Samuel Fuller knew Alice Martin as only a few dozen people survive that first Plymouth winter.  Samuel Fuller died in Barnstable, MA on 31 October 1683.

The backstory for my lineage goes like this: Samuel Fuller is my 9th great grandfather on my maternal grandmother CARRIER’s side (also related to executed-for-witchcraft Martha Allen Carrier). Samuel had a son known as “Little John” Fuller (1656-1712). Little John’s daughter was Mehitable Fuller (1706-1738) who had a daughter, Phebe Kneeland (1730-1793).  Phebe Kneeland married Amos Carrier (1722-1793) and Amos is the grandson of Martha Allen Carrier (1650-1692).

Alice Martin Bishop is my 10th great grandmother on my paternal grandfather TAYLOR’s side.  Her daughter, Damaris had Joseph Sutton (1660-1753) and he had Joseph Sutton, Jr.  (1690-1769). Junior had William Sutton (1733-1770) who had Alice Sutton (1760-1830) who had Dorcas Cornell (1796-1890) who had Hannah Howell (1825-1895). Hannah Howell had Lucius Herbert Taylor (1847-1914), a Michigan Union soldier who injured a Confederate soldier in Vicksburg and escorted the young man home out of guilt.  LHT settled in Yazoo County, Mississippi married Nancy Ella Fears (very likely a cousin of the injured Confederate soldier LHT escorted) and that is how, via the Mayflower, I became a southern girl.  I wear the wedding ring that Lucius Taylor gave Nancy Ella Fears.

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From the Distance: April 2011

I have spent a year – 365 days – researching Alice Martin Bishop.  363 years ago, she murdered Martha.  This span of time has not made it any clearer why she killed.  There are no “right” answers. We do not know if Alice had a psychotic break or if she was just a hateful, terrorizing, completely sane mother (or any point in between). 

But perhaps this time served me in figuring out the right questions to ask.  I will never have all the answers and evidence I want, but I owe it to my Bishop-Martin great x10 grandparents (and my Great Aunt x9 Martha), to recreate their lives objectively which includes moments of empathy, doubt, pride and shame.

I have tried to remain mindful of my own historical myopia, to not blur facts with impressions.  But Alice’s story leaves an impression, to say the least.  So I am concluding this story (for now) with these thoughts and questions.  I hope readers will provide their own impressions as well as resources I have missed. I may add to this blog at a later point but thank you for being engaged thus far and especially to my thousands of distant Martin-Bishop cousins with whom I share this lineage.

  1. Post partum depression and the much more severe and rare post partum psychosis are diagnosable mental illnesses with biochemical origins.  No one in seventeenth century Plymouth would have classified AMB as such.  Alice may have been seen by her contemporaries as melancholy, odd, hot-tempered, reclusive or dozens of other ways we classify people who are different than us. But to assume she had post partum depression is ultimately not fair to the victim, Martha.  Alice Martin Bishop cannot be re-tried in a 21st century court of law with the benefit of a psychiatric evaluation.
  2. We have no idea what the religious and other supernatural beliefs and fears were of Alice, her family of origin or her spouses.  Certainly, she was heavily influenced by the Pilgrim community in which she lived.
  3. Hoffer contends that a married woman’s economic and social status might influence trial outcomes (47).  What would AMB have going for her as she faced a jury?  Once orphaned (and from a family with not the greatest of Mayflower reputations), of limited relative wealth, twice married to men who were newcomers to the community.
  4. What do we know about Rachel Ramsden?  Her historical record is potentially blemished:  In 1651 a “Goodwife Ramsden” was cleared of charges she had been cavorting with numerous men (Stratton, 203).  This is not to accuse Ramsden of false testimony but to consider the impact Martha’s murder had on her own young adulthood.
  5. Alice Martin Bishop had to be one exhausted mother.  She had three small children to tend to in a very small home (if one does not count the dubious birth of the fourth child, a son) where food was in scarce supply.  The family was at the mercy of the seasons, epidemics, bloody skirmishes with neighboring natives (whom the English settlers were quickly taking over their homelands) and Colony expectations of devout servitude and obedience.  In addition to this we should consider the several months of confinement (entirely house bound) mothers of newborns endured (Berkin, 34) and the cycle of pregnancy, birth and nursing.  This in no way justifies murdering one’s child.  But I want us to remember who Alice was:  An orphan in a strange land, who lost her first husband to unknown circumstances. Left with two girls and then a new husband and another baby on the way.  Perhaps AMB doesn’t serve historical mercy but she has earned my respect as a woman who endured incredible hardship. 
  6. I have never forgotten the fact that Alice witnessed her parents die when she was four years old and murdered her child at the same age.  Maybe a psychologist would insinuate she was stymied in the tragic events of her fourth year.
  7. Where was Alice kept between confession and trial? Was she allowed to return home? (see Chapin, 31 and 52). If she was imprisoned, what building would it have been?   Plymouth Colony went decades without a formal prison building and6” jail” often constituted no more than a cage in publicly viewed space.    Was this how Alice spent her last days, asking whatever had possessed her to murder her daughter?
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For Your Consideration: More Motivation Theories

As I prepare to conclude AMB’s story, I ran across several research pieces that I had not yet incorporated into the blog and are intriguing to consider.

Hoffer writes about the AMB case:

The trouble the colony took to try her even after Bishop confessed to the crime, the indifference to what must have been her mental distress at its commission, and the great attention given to the details of the crime in the records, suggest that everyone in the government, from Governor Bradford to the court clerk, viewed Bishop’s act with foreboding.  The grisly facts of the infant’s murder contributed to the solemnity of the trial, and the disruptive effects of Bishop’s violence went far beyond her own domestic circle (42).

I never picked up on the sense of foreboding that Hoffer says must have been present.  What evidence brought him to that conclusion?  I have found absolutely no mention that Alice was mentally unstable or violent before July 22, 1648. For all the records I have searched, she is only mentioned before as the wife of George Clark and then Richard Bishop.  Yet again, I am discouraged to see scholar and family historians make presumptions about her life that are not in the historical record.   Hoffer cites his source as the Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, II (132-135).

Just to clarify…when Hoffer says “infant” to describe Martha, he is using the English legal definition where a murdered child under the age of eight is classified as an “infant” (xiii).

Of the filicidal motivations Hoffer considers for all infanticides in his study (see 148-151), none seem to seamlessly fit with the AMB case.  We have no evidence that Martha or her siblings were abused by their parents, notably Alice.  Nor does this seem to be a case where mother kills child and then herself (altruistic suicides, see 149). Alice did not murder her other children and did not appear to be ending her own life when Rachel Ramsden arrived.   

Unlike neonaticides, Alice did not need to murder her four year-old child out of the shame of being found pregnant with a bastard child.  Martha was conceived within the span of the Clark-Bishop marriage.  In some filicides, mothers murder children because they see the child as a “rival” for their spouse’s affection.  This makes little sense in the AMB case.  Richard had two stepdaughters and one biological daughter – it would, perversely, make more sense for Alice to be deluded about Richard’s “attraction” to the older Abigail or his own flesh and blood, Damaris.

All too often, Alice’s story is tied up in the witch craze of 1690’s Salem. Historians have long since settled the question over Plymouth Colony and the witch crazes.  These were confined to specific towns, Salem being the most obvious, and were certainly not a factor in 1648.   There is no mention of Alice stating she was influenced by the devil or a belief by her jurors that she was in such a state. 

There are, however, intriguing contextual discussions about the spiritual lives of Puritan children that makes one wonder.  Puritans did not baptize young ones until they had reached the age of reason and, as such, believed these souls were damned without such salvation (Moran, 25).  Pertaining to AMB’s case, “In theory, all infants and children who died unconverted suffered the eternal torments of hell.” and this hell was “a place of unremitting and unmitigated torture.” (25). While Moran contends that most Puritans did not fixate on this prospect for their young brood(25), we are left to imagine how the fiery bowels of hell played out in Alice’s imagination.  Perhaps it speaks more to her frame of mind after she had killed Martha. 

However, Moran stresses that Puritans were capable of compassionate reason (or reasonable compassion).  Some parents had a measure of gratitude when their young one passed “It was a great temptation to consider a dead infant among the few God had selected for salvation.  In such cases, the character of the dead child was idealized and the meaning of his death rationalized.  His demise was considered a welcome departure from the cares and sorrows of the world” (25). Perhaps, Alice thought she was saving one daughter for the hardships of colonial life.  But then why not her other daughters?

Minister John Robinson preached in 1625 “there is in all children, though not alike, a stubbornness, and a stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down” (Moran 26). This was a more stern Puritanism than most parents adhered to (26). More fitting were the words of Reverend Samuel Willard who described children as “innocent vipers” – incapable of being culpable because they had yet to reach the age of reason (28).  Perhaps Alice thought her child was damned on earth, perhaps she thought she could secure Martha’s passage to heaven – perhaps she had such a jumble of thoughts that none of her peers could determine why she had committed murder. 

Chapin is another historian who makes assumptions about Alice’s mental state.  By looking at the case of Dorothy Talbie who was known to be insane before she snapped the neck of her child, Chapin concludes, Alice was “a woman apparently plagued by depression” (114).  Based on what?  What if Alice was just irate with her daughter, her own life and chose to manifest her rage with a kitchen knife?  What if Alice was a happy-go-lucky gal who just snapped that July day?

Finally, one blog reader has questioned whether AMB suffered from ergot poisoning – a fungus found amongst stored grains that can, in some instances, cause hallucinations.  Historians have questioned the prevalence of ergot poisoning during the 1690’s witch trials.  Is it possible AMB ingested contaminated grain and suffered a chemical reaction?  There is no way of knowing.  I do not recall reading about poisoned grain in 1640’s Plymouth Colony but then, honestly, I would not have been paying attention to those passages.   I do question if the community even had enough stores of grain to become contaminated. We must remember that the first generations of Pilgrims were in near starvation mode and had to master cultivating local foods of which rye and such would not have been one.  Later Puritans had both the benefit of more English ships carrying supplies and mastering agriculture.

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Alice’s Heirs

35 million Americans claim descent from Mayflower Pilgrims

even though just 51 survived that first year.

On July 11, 1666, Alice’s youngest daughter, Damaris Bishop, married William Sutton (born 1641 in Scituate, Plymouth).   Their children were Alice (born May 13, 1668), Thomas (born Nov 11, 1669) and Marah (October 4, 1671).

I cannot find out what happened to Abigail.  It’s a little heartbreaking that a young girl who watched both of her parents die (just as her mother had) simply disappears from the historical record.  Abigail would have been the one child old enough to remember her mother fully, perhaps in even happier times.  But there is no mention of Abigail Clark past the events surrounding AMB’s execution.  One genealogist claims she died at five years old (before Martha’s murder) with no proof to back it up . Another claims she lived until 1687…again with no records.

We do know that Abigail’s stepfather, Richard Bishop, chose not to take care of her past 1648.  Perhaps, she had already been placed in a home as a servant.  The Plymouth courts did authorize one John Churchill to dispose of the Clark-Martin home and land and for the benefits to be given to Abigail and this is the last reliable record I believe we have of her (PCR II). But I often wonder about the stigma Abigail faced (as well as compassion received) as the daughter of the infamous murderess.

Richard Bishop does not fare well historically and maybe he was of questionable character before his wife became homicidal.  We do know that just six months after his wife’s execution, Bishop pled guilty to stealing the spade of Andrew Ring, sat in the stocks for it and ordered to replace his neighbor’s tool (PCR II: 137).  He would go on to have further theft charges against him until he finally settled with his daughter, Damaris Bishop Sutton, in New Jersey.

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Help a Genealogist: Unresolved Issues from the AMB Case

When I began this blog, it was with the intent of recreating Alice Martin Bishop’s life.  I have spent a year now combing primary sources but am nothing more than a self-absorbed family historian.  I am eager to hear from all fellow AMB researchers on what they have found especially in context to the following questions:

  1. Abigail Bishop: What happened to Alice’s eldest daughter?  The lineage for her half-sister, Damaris Bishop, has long been established.  But I can find no records of Abigail reaching adulthood.  Who did she live with as a child because it does not appear Richard Bishop kept her in his home after AMB’s execution?
  2. Forensic Psychiatry:  What can we say about the fact that AMB saw her family die as a four year-old girl and then murdered her four-year old daughter?  It’s not the actual coincidence of age that matters as much as the psychic wounds of a four year old girl which may have never left her…thoughts?

3. Other Suspects: Because AMB admitted to the crime for which she also claimed to have no recollection, can we not even consider Richard Bishop as the murderer of his stepdaughter?  Did someone in Plymouth have a grudge against the Bishops and somehow got into the house?  What about Abigail? What about Rachel Ramsden? What about a stranger?  I know the historical record provides no other evidence than Alice as the culprit, but I have, on occasion, wondered.

4. James Bishop, a 4th child? There is a July 7, 1740 will for a Mary Hudson Bishop, widow of James Bishop who some claim is the 4th child of AMB.  Is this true or is this the Bishop family of Salem? The troublesome Waterfield history of the Sutton family claims there are two children of the Bishop-Martin union: Damaris born 1645 and James born ca. 1646.  I would love to hear from anyone who can verify this …or disprove it.  

5. What would AMB’s trial been like today? “In all states, mothers who kill their children are prosecuted under homicide statutes. …courts continue to evaluate postpartum depression defenses and other mental illnesses under the existing insanity defense.  The prevailing insanity defense test applied across United States jurisdictions is extremely narrow and makes proving legal insanity exceptionally difficult for even the most severely postpartum psychotic women” The current insanity defense test is considered “too narrow because if confines [it] to a consideration of whether the individual knew the difference between right or wrong and not other aspects of the mental illness that are equally relevant” (Manchester, 718).  I don’t think AMB would have fared well under the M’Naghten standard (current test for insanity) because she seems to have immediate remorse for what she did indicating she knew it was wrong.  This is not to say she wasn’t severely mentally ill – it just means it might have not mattered in a 21st c court of law.

I am eager to hear from you! ~ thanks, Erin

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