Around the turn of the century, on a patch of quiet, eastern Kentucky farmland, my great-great grandmother took a hatchet and buried it into the chest of a woman who had been hanging around her husband, or so the family story goes.
The hatcheting was the first story I had ever heard about Mary Jane Fields Bishop (or Granny Bishop as she was known on my dad’s side of the family). A shocking introduction, to say the least. Knowing I come from people who lived very hard lives and endured terrible things is difficult. Knowing that I come from someone who ruined others’ lives and did terrible things haunts me perhaps more than it should, considering I didn’t choose my origins. And yet I keep digging. I keep trying to understand the blood I came from and just how much of it still runs in my veins.
When I first started researching my family in earnest a few years ago, I went out to my late grandmother’s house in Riverhaven. She had raised my dad and his eight older brothers and sisters in that Kentucky expat community in northern Indiana where no one is allowed to build anymore on account of all the flooding and lack of utilities. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but when I was a child in the 1990s, a snake-handling church was located just three houses down from my grandma Mary’s.I keep trying to understand the blood I came from and just how much of it still runs in my veins.
We sat at a Formica kitchen table that used to have a giant canister of black pepper on it for Grandma Mary’s signature (and only edible) dish: biscuits and sausage gravy. That day there were seven of us in what was once her kitchen—two aunts (one by marriage), two uncles, my grandmother’s youngest brother, and my father. Three years later, only five of us are still alive.
The hatchet story nearly didn’t get told. We were packing up our things and about to head out through the back porch where Grandma Mary used to keep dozens of stray cats when Aunt Norma said, “Oh, you know about Granny Bishop?” I had just started dabbling in genealogy, so it took me a few moments to conjure an image of the person she was talking about.
I remembered seeing her pictures on Ancestry.com, labeled by her maiden name, “Mary Jane Fields.” From the photos, she seems so diminutive, hunched over as if the weight of her thin cotton dress was too much for her small frame to hold. There are no photos that show her smiling, but that is understandable since, from the telltale hollow around her lips, it was clear she had lost her teeth.
“I know who you’re talking about, but I don’t know anything in particular about her,” I said, stuffing my iPad into its case.
Norma rose from the kitchen table and started to walk my dad and me to the back door when she said, matter-of-factly, “Well, there was a lady hanging around Granny Bishop’s man, so Granny hit her in the chest with a hatchet. Woman died two weeks later, but everyone said it was from pneumonia.”
My dad and I stopped in our tracks and turned back around as the kitchen broke out in pandemonium, a mix of questions from those of us who’d never heard the story and loud confirmation from those who knew about the hatchet. No matter how many questions I asked, Aunt Norma didn’t know much beyond what she’d just said, but my Uncle Larry and his wife, Barb, had also heard this story before. The part about listing pneumonia as the cause of death was news to them, though they’d heard about the hatchet and that the victim had been following my great-great grandfather around on their mountainous Kentucky farmland.
After we left what was once my grandmother’s home, I furiously scribbled down what I could remember as my dad drove us back to the suburbs. My notes from that visit are infuriating. I was typing as they all talked, but much of what I wrote is too cryptic to be used. For example, I have no idea who was being talked about when I wrote, “faking spitting on you, threw an ashtray broke and cut the knee, hit in the stomach, threw a knife at Fred, got the worst of it. Threw a pair of scissors at Stan.” My best guess is this is about my alcoholic grandfather, Raymond. Stan was my dad’s cousin, and my dad is Fred. But then the very next words are, “hatchet to the chest Granny Bishop (died two weeks later) everyone said it was pneumonia, husband couldn’t.” Husband couldn’t what? What had my aunt Norma said after that? What couldn’t her husband do? Talk to women without risking them ending up murdered? Leave Granny Bishop’s eyesight? Maybe he couldn’t look at Mary Jane the same way anymore, knowing what she’d done.
The daughter of Mary Jane was my great grandmother, Susan Bishop, who was given in marriage at age fourteen to seventy-four-year-old Henry Hazelwood in exchange for an apple orchard. He died a couple of years later, leaving her with an infant son. Until I saw the child listed on the census, I wondered if perhaps she’d been spared from consummating the marriage. Surely, a man that old in those hard times might’ve not been able to. That hope for my fourteen-year-old great grandmother was quickly snuffed out.
Susan Bishop had to live with the knowledge that her parents, Mary Jane and James, wanted an apple orchard more than they wanted to allow her a childhood. And now, I also have to live with that—knowing who I came from and what they were capable of—the kind of inheritance we don’t speak of. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say.
I’ve long been interested in genetics, the only science that could ever hold my interest, to the great disappointment of my chemist father and nursing professor mother. But give me a Punnett square, and I’ll be transfixed for hours. Even with this natural curiosity about genetics, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to wonder about the darker side of inheritance and digging into my genealogy online.
Part of what drew me in was the dopamine hit that comes from filling in a puzzle piece to see the larger picture grow, but another part of me was looking for answers. I don’t understand why my body reacts with elevated trauma responses, which feel unearned given my relatively easy life. I keep bringing it up to my therapist, how I don’t feel like my mental health struggles are justified based on my life experiences. I’ll joke about how I must’ve been in a war in a past life, what with all the nervous twitching and catches of my breath over minor things, but I think there might be a more concrete answer than reincarnation.
My extreme hyper-vigilance, the way my throat closes over itself when I’ve reached the limits of my panic, the sadness that seeps through my bones during summer when most people are happy and basking in the sun: all these neuroses could be explained by epigenetics, a field of study that looks at how DNA can change or be marked in a way that doesn’t alter the genetic code.
The prefix of the word—“epi”—comes from the Greek word for above or over, so, epigenetics could be described as a type of layering, a gauzy film placed over the field of genetics. As a science still in its infancy, epigenetics is more about how the code is read than the actual code itself. What little landmarks or margin notes did the past leave on my code to train my body how to express it?
These shifts can come from environment or an individual’s behavior, but the part that interests me is the inheritance that trauma creates. A catastrophic event in a past generation can affect how future generations’ genes are activated or deactivated. The gene itself may not be harmed or broken, but a chemical imprint or scar is left upon it that influences how that gene is expressed. While our parents’ DNA slams together and pulls apart, creating a unique, brand-new human, epigenetics posits that maybe nobody, not even a squalling newborn, gets a clean slate.
I think of epigenetics in terms of a marked deck of cards. The hand you are dealt does not change—an ace of hearts will still be an ace of hearts—but a marked deck can tell a dishonest player how to read the hands each person has face down on the table in front of them. A carved divot or a dot of white ink laid over the printed, scrollwork pattern on the back of the card can change the game entirely. It can make a winner out of a loser or vice versa.
One side of this chemically marked genetic coin is that the way I am—the anxiety, depression, and panic responses—might make sense. There’s a thread to pull, handover-hand, and follow back to the origin point, even if that event happened long before I was born. The other side of the coin is that my DNA was branded generations ago. My great grandmother stood next to a seventy-four-year-old man, exchanged vows, and waited for what came next. The mother who put her in that position allegedly plunged a hatchet into another woman’s chest. The bodies of the women I descend from were harmed and brought harm to others.
Why shouldn’t I wonder if that violence might have cast shadows? Or am I just grasping for a link to the past? Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better about struggling with a life of abundance, ease, and care, such that my ancestors couldn’t fathom.
There is a compulsive element to my genealogical research. Hours will pass before I realize my eyes have completely dried out from staring at my screen, scrolling through search results and squinting at cursive handwriting on census documents. For a few weeks this past summer, my obsession was with cold-messaging Ancestry.com members who have saved Mary Jane Field’s pictures to their own family trees.
The first woman I messaged, Sylvia, turned out to be the great-granddaughter of Mary Jane Fields by way of my great grandmother Susan’s sister, Rosa Bishop. Disappointingly, she hadn’t heard the hatchet story, though she did know more about Mary Jane than any other of the distant relatives who kindly took the time to write me back.
When Mary Jane’s parents died within a few weeks of each other from the same illness (probably influenza) while they still had young children at home, her mother’s brother, Moses Hignite, was charged with caring for the children. Moses was described as a “mean drunk.” In Sylvia’s family, they were told that the young boys in that family—Mary Jane’s brothers—were worked to literal death by Moses, so that he could inherit their land. Although, on account of the burning of the 1890 census on January 10, 1921 (a national archival disaster that pains even the most amateur of genealogists), I can’t confirm whether they were all dead by the next decade.What of my great-great grandmother remains in my body, in my children’s bodies, poisoning us on a cellular level?
None of the Fields children left with Moses were allowed to go to school but instead were put to backbreaking work no matter their age. According to Sylvia, Mary Jane snuck away from Moses and attended school secretly, for just a single day. She only had that one day of formal education in her entire life because when she came back home that afternoon, she was beaten so thoroughly and severely that she never attempted to go to school again. My great-great grandmother was only granted one day of formal schooling in her entire life, and four generations on down the line, I am teaching at a Big Ten university.
Although kept from schooling, Mary Jane, that beaten child, survived into old age, unlike so many others. She became a mother and, eventually, a grandmother. According to one of her granddaughters, Betty June, Granny Bishop was “a spitfire.” She drank alcohol and carried around a big pouch of tobacco. Mary Jane’s granddaughter, my grandma Mary, had the same habit. Not the drinking (that was my grandpa Raymond) but the chew. The grandkids were always cautioned not to drink from unfamiliar cups out in Riverhaven because what might look like Pepsi might instead be filled with Grandma Mary’s tobacco spit. When I asked Betty June if she had other stories or impressions of Granny Bishop, she simply said, “She was mean,” which sounds about right. I wonder what my disposition might’ve been had I been forged the way Mary Jane had been—in loss and fury.
All these details help to piece together the figure of my great grandmother, but there is one detail that Mary Jane’s granddaughter shared that told me everything I need to know. When told the story of the hatcheting, which Betty June had not heard, she said she was not surprised. What kind of person could you possibly be if someone would not be surprised to learn that you murdered another woman with a hatchet?
Everything I know about my great-great grandmother I collected piece and parcel, largely from strangers on the internet who happened to have some overlap in our family trees. The stories that hold the most weight for me are the ones told by family I know and who know me. Those who gathered with me at my grandma Mary’s house for Saturday breakfast and who share my dark features. Those like my cousin Harold, who looks so much like my dad and is the unofficial family historian.
When I asked him about Granny Bishop and the hatchet, Harold said he had never heard the story. He did know a story about her that his father, Clyde, had told him: “the sweat bee story,” he called it. One summer when Uncle Clyde was quite young, he was spending some time with his Granny Bishop. The sweat bees were bad that summer, landing on their hot, tanned skin and stinging anybody they could. My great-great grandmother made a deal with my young uncle. She told Clyde that she would do him a solid and swat to kill any sweat bees she saw landing on him if he would agree to return the favor. Uncle Clyde was a boy of his word, killing the small, angry bugs that he saw land on his great grandmother. But Granny Bishop just seemed to agitate the sweat bees that swarmed little Clyde, causing him more stings than if she’d just left them alone.
As a boy, he didn’t catch on that his great grandmother half-heartedly swatting at those bees ensured that he’d get stung. Once he was grown and looked back on the memory, he swore to his son Harold that she’d done it on purpose. Clyde thought it was funny in retrospect—his mischievous, ornery great grandmother—and my cousin Harold took it the same way, playful not mean.
But the story landed a little differently for me, having only heard about Mary Jane Bishop with her apple orchard and the hatchet at that point, and also as the mother of two young sons. For me, the sweat bees confirmed what I thought of my great-great grandmother. That she was a woman of calculations who did not mind the pain of others. And perhaps, more than that, she sought to bring pain.
While nailing down the facts about Mary Jane and her hatchet seems to be impossible when anyone who knew anything firsthand has been dead and buried for at least sixty years, I do have a few parameters in mind as I dig for answers. This is what I believe to be true with no actual proof. First, I think the victim was unmarried. From what I know about rural Appalachian life, a married woman, especially a young mother, simply would not have the time to find herself on the business end of a Bishop’s hatchet.
Secondly, I think the poor girl was between the ages of fourteen and twenty-six when she died, with ages sixteen to twenty-one being the most likely. A girl that age is often a risk taker. It would be in her nature and developmentally appropriate for her to not think about Mary Jane and what she might do if she caught her. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that impacts a person’s behavior, decision making, and risk taking—is not fully developed until the age of twenty-five. Cause-and-effect, impulse control, emotional regulation can feel like wisps of smoke that fade into the air for a teenager or young adult. Consequences don’t hold the same weight at this stage of brain development. And, oh, what a consequence she found in her pursuit of James Bishop, whoever she was.
But what if the dead girl didn’t pursue James Bishop? What if, instead of her hanging around Mary Jane’s man, it was the other way around? The question reminds me of a scene from Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, published less than a decade after the death of my great-great grandfather, the man for whom the hatchet was struck. In My Ántonia, there is farm girl named Lena with violet eyes and ragged clothes who tends her family’s cattle out on the prairie in bare feet. When she was still very much a girl, the settlement would talk of her “making Ole Benson lose what little sense he had.” Whenever he felt like wandering off from the cornfield he should’ve been cultivating, he’d find Lena and would “help her” watch the cattle. So much so that the preacher’s wife convinced the girl to come to church on Sunday, as if she was to blame for a “fat and lazy and discouraged” old man hanging around her while she did her chores. Unfortunately for Lena, Old Benson was married to “Crazy Mary,” a woman who had done a stint in an asylum for setting her neighbor’s barn ablaze. Crazy Mary went to church that day, too.
Crazy Mary watched as her husband, Ole Benson, lifted Lena onto her horse after the service, a shocking display between a married man and an unwed girl. Mary ran toward her, chasing Lena and her horse down the road shouting, “Look out, you Lena Lingard, look out! I’ll come over with a corn-knife one day and trim some of that shape off you.”
While My Ántonia was set on the Nebraskan prairie and my great-great grandparents were eastern Kentuckians, the similarities (Crazy Mary?!) are there. I wonder if seeing the connection to Willa Cather’s novel plays a role in my obsession with the hatchet story, because Granny Bishop’s hatchet story, with its dramatic flair and its disturbing details, feels like fiction. And yet I can’t imagine how or why someone would’ve conjured such a tale about their own family member, the diminutive matriarch who held her grandbaby in front of the camera but looked shyly away by the time the photographer pressed the shutter.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one.
Most people know that Lizzie Borden killed her father and stepmother that August morning in 1892, which was just a year after my grandparents were wed. And while the murders were brutal, leaving her father’s face unrecognizable, the actual number of “whacks” was nineteen for her stepmother and just ten for her father who was killed ninety minutes later. One can’t expect too much accuracy from a child’s macabre nursery rhyme, but there is one more error of note. Lizzie Borden killed her parents not with an axe, but a hatchet.Some whisper is saying that I have a dark inheritance, some echo of her blood pumping through my heart.
A hatchet is not an axe, and an axe is not a hatchet, though they are kin to be sure. An axe is meant to be wielded by two strong hands, maybe those belonging to a lumberjack. But a hatchet, the average weighing around two pounds, could be grasped and used by just about anybody—an old man, a school-aged child, a mother. Just one hand is needed to operate a hatchet—to sever a rope, to prune small branches, even to assist in shingling a roof. Both tools are meant for woodsmen. While battle axes and tomahawks—whose size falls between that of an axe and a hatchet—are combat weapons, swung down upon an enemy or arched through the air toward a body meant to be felled, the hatchet is generally associated with utility. To build. To pare down. To be of service.
And yet, in the family story, and now also in my imagination, Mary Jane Bishop gripped the small handle in her work worn hands and drove that small, but sharp enough blade into another woman’s chest. Not hard enough to kill on impact, but hard enough to split the ribcage and breach the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid and drown the woman from the inside. To write the cause of death as pneumonia may have been technically and scientifically correct. And yet, Mary Jane’s hand is what would have brought the liquid into that woman’s chest cavity. It very well could’ve been blood that caused her lungs to become infected.
I do not know the woman’s name, her age. I have not seen the death certificate, though I’ve searched the 1900 and 1910 census to find young women who might not have made it to the 1920 census because of my great-great grandmother. Certainly, an autopsy would not have been done in such a remote mountain area. Her family probably did what most families did back then, placed the body into the bed of a truck and delivered it to whatever gravesite could be found. Maybe an official graveyard with real stones, but perhaps just a small family plot on their land, marked with a wooden cross that would be taken by rot, much like the body below.
A piece I keep turning over in my mind and studying: why would the victim’s family agree to the change of cause of death? Did her mother take time out of her labor-filled days to pull a cane chair up next to her daughter and wipe the sweat from her brow with a scrap of cloth? Who would’ve dressed the gaping chest wound for her? How many of her family members, her father, siblings, grandparents, stood around her bed in a dark room and listened to her ragged breaths in the two weeks between the hatcheting and when the haggard gasps stopped? They must’ve hated my great-great grandmother for what she did. Even if they were Bible-fearing folk, which given the region they probably would’ve been, forgiveness would’ve felt like a hard lump in their throats.
It’s possible that they weren’t just angry at Mary Jane Bishop for cutting into their daughter, their sister. They might’ve been angry at the victim as she lay there dying before them. They could’ve blamed her for her harsh fate, as often happens to us women and girls. “If you hadn’t been sniffing around her man, this never would’ve happened.” Surely, pursuing a married man would’ve been a shameful thing back then, particularly in an insular community without much else to do but talk. Her family might’ve set their mouths straight and tight before signing off on the cause of death because there would be fewer questions, fewer prying eyes and tongues. Considering how many death certificates I’ve searched through in that area, from the late 1800s through 1912 when my great-great grandfather passed, pneumonia or other afflictions of the lung like consumption was a common way to go. The family would’ve received condolences without sideways glances.
I do have another theory as to why the victim’s family would go along with a false cause of death, letting Mary Jane avoid a trial and a hangman’s noose. This theory seems the likelier one to me, given all the little narratives and memories I’ve pieced together that have echoed down four generations. It’s this: given how her own family described Mary Jane, the victim’s family was too terrified to tell the truth. What kind of woman drives a hatchet into the chest cavity of another woman? The victim’s family might’ve justifiably wondered what else Mary Jane was capable of. And one hundred years later, I’m left to wonder what it means to be a direct blood descendant of a woman like that. What of my great-great grandmother remains in my body, in my children’s bodies, poisoning us on a cellular level?
My great-great grandmother is buried out at Boggs Farm in Jackson County, Kentucky. Her body was placed in the back of a farm truck and driven from either Laurel or Clay County (her great-granddaughter Sylvia can’t be sure) out to a small cemetery at Boggs Farm, which was once but is no longer family-held land. Mary Jane had moved away from Jackson after her husband’s death, so her body was returned to the place she had most likely taken another woman’s life. The murder could’ve have occurred on the farm itself or nearby.
Members of my family, who I’ve never met, used to get permission to go to the farm and keep up with the landscaping around the little collection of burial sites and stones, but no one has done that regularly in my lifetime. Sylvia went there with her husband a couple of years ago, around the same time Aunt Norma told me about the hatchet, and the headstones were completely overtaken by brush and grass. “A jungle” is how she described it. Her husband ended up with Lyme disease from multiple tick bites.
This wild earth buries everything in the end—bones, stories, and the truth. A loss, yes, but also a kindness. Part of me is happy to hear that Mary Jane’s grave was swallowed by nature. Everyone knows that when you dig in the past, you might not like what you find, but I already knew about the exchange of fourteen-year-old Susie Bishop for an apple orchard and the sparse details of the hatchet before I started opening tab after tab of death certificates and census records.
I have no proof of what Mary Jane Fields Bishop did or did not do with a hatchet in hand at that isolated Kentucky holler. And yet, some whisper is saying that I have a dark inheritance, some echo of her blood pumping through my heart, telling me it’s true. And if she really did bury that hatchet into the chest of a girl, if she left her to die on that mountain, then it is truly right and just for the tall Kentucky bluegrass surrounding her tombstone to climb and climb until the blades block out her name.
“A Severing” by Angie Romines appears in the latest issue of New England Review.