Have you ever heard that Dorothy May Bradford committed suicide by leaping to her death off the Mayflower? Various versions of the story have appeared over the years. If you hear it now, you’re most likely to hear that she did it because she missed her young son, left behind in Holland, and she was terrified of the strange new land in front of her.
But the first version of the story is quite different, and it comes directly from Austin’s pen. One of her most infamous short stories is “William Bradford’s Love Life,” first published in Harper’s in 1869 and later reprinted in David Alden’s Daughter, a collection of her earlier Pilgrim stories, in 1892. (I also talked about this story with a library discussion group.)
I say infamous because of the repercussions of the story. She received a fair amount of criticism for it and was later vilified by historians seeking to correct the “facts.” It’s one of Austin’s first attempts at historical fiction, but it also becomes one of the most problematic, and it may very well be one of the reasons Austin is forgotten today.
While the Mayflower was docked in Plymouth harbor in 1620 and several of the men, including William Bradford, were on an exploratory mission on the Cape, Dorothy Bradford went missing. It was presumed that she fell overboard into the sea. With no one around to witness her plight and to help, she would likely have drowned quickly due to the frigid December temperatures and the heavy weight of her skirts.
Bradford himself doesn’t mention her death in his journal, which might raise some eyebrows. He didn’t even record his own wife’s death? But he wasn’t really given to recording personal details; he wasn’t writing a diary, but rather a history of the colony, and he doesn’t actually give much attention to the Pilgrim women at all.
It’s perhaps this omission that allowed Austin’s imagination to take over. In her story, Dorothy May is despondent at realizing that her husband is still very much in love with his first flame, and she commits suicide by flinging herself off the Mayflower. Austin claims that the “facts” would have been lost to history, except that some notes and letters remained to tell the tale. The story was popular, but that claim got her into trouble.
When she republished the story in David Alden’s Daughter, nearly 25 years later, she includes a mea culpa of sorts in the introduction, recalling “with rather rueful mirth the reproof received from an aged relative, who, after vainly inquiring for ‘the documents in the case’ of William Bradford, remarked: ‘You have no right to defraud people by pretending to have what you have not” (v-vi).
But whereas the “aged relative” discovered that the story was fiction, other readers did not. The idea that Dorothy committed suicide has been repeated numerous times over the years.
Ernest Gebler put his own spin on the story in his 1950 novel, Plymouth Adventure, imagining her suicide as the result of a forbidden love between Dorothy and the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones. The 1952 movie based on the novel offers yet another dramatic interpretation.
Like most historical myths, this story has some lasting power because it could be true. There’s is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that Dorothy May might have been an unhappy woman.
She was only 16 when she married William and 23 when she died. By then, she had not only endured the difficulties of the Mayflower journey but also the reality of establishing a new life in New England, not Virginia where there were at least more colonists (but more on that in another post).
It was winter, they were stuck on the ship because they had not yet found a suitable site to begin building their houses, and their stores were low, so they were certainly facing a bleak situation. Some scholars have even suggested that scurvy, a common ailment for those without adequate sources of vitamin C, can cause depression, and that might have been a factor.
Bradford himself writes compellingly of the sense of foreboding and despair they experienced. And of course, perhaps the most distressing factor was that they had left their small son, John, behind in Leiden.
William knew Alice and her first husband, Edward Southworth, in London and in Leiden, as Austin’s story says. But as the Separatists were not a large congregation, this doesn’t seem all that unusual. After Edward Southworth died, Alice sailed to Plymouth in 1623 on the Anne, three years after Dorothy’s death, and was soon married to William.
On the surface, this could seem suspect, but quite a few of the Separatists remarried in just the same fashion. The number of deaths in the first few years practically guaranteed such measures, and most marriages were probably made more out of necessity than unbridled passion or even affection. Still, Bradford himself sort of adds a little fuel to the fire by not mentioning Dorothy’s death, which could suggest he was ashamed of her or even uncaring.
But these speculations are just that, and there’s no concrete proof of Dorothy’s suicide or of a love triangle.
Plus, Austin completely ignores Puritan theology in the story. Given a Puritan’s fear of hell and beliefs about suffering in the physical realm as preparation for the rewards of the hereafter, it seems unlikely that Dorothy would have committed suicide. In the story, Dorothy never attempts to control herself, bend to God’s will, or interpret any of the circumstances as a test or message, all of which would have been a devout Puritan’s response.
It’s also possible that Austin may have been trying to capitalize on the popularity of another Pilgrim love story, the love triangle of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Longfellow had published his epic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish to great acclaim in 1858, and he claimed it was based on family legend; he was a descendant of John and Priscilla. Austin herself was descended from William and Alice Bradford, but I’ve not seen any claims that her version was based on family history.
More importantly, I think, are the ways in which she draws more on Gothic tropes than on the historical fiction she later became famous for. Gothic romances were wildly popular in the less-literary magazines and were easier and more lucrative to publish. Even Louisa May Alcott played in this genre, and she had just helped Austin with a full-length Gothic novel, Cipher. 1869 was a difficult time for the Austin family, and she may very well have been inspired by Longfellow’s success.
The writing is more flowery and there’s a general sense that it’s “escape” fiction for weary housewives and bored readers looking for vicarious thrills. Throughout the story there’s a tone of suspense and intrigue. She plays on the idea of the “beautiful death” of the innocent or wronged victim even while insisting that Bradford was not culpable. No doubt she did not want to disparage her ancestor, and one whom she later venerates!
But the trope of the lost letters is probably the most Gothic element; Austin claims the story would never have been told if not for the letters and journals passed down through the family. As a trope, the secret journal or lost letter is so overused that it was cliché; even Jane Austen (the other Jane!) had mocked it in Northanger Abbey in 1818.
But unfortunately for Austin and for Dorothy May, the idea that she committed suicide has had lasting impact. It’s mentioned as a possibility in all the recent Pilgrim histories, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower and Eugene Stratton’s Plymouth Colony. I even found it in the Making of America: A History of the United States, the American history textbook used in the survey courses my students take.
And this is despite the fact that historians like George Ernest Bowman took great pains to debunk the myth, unfortunately at the expense of Austin’s reputation.