Mary Barrett Dyer left little record of her early life, which may have
led to a much bally-hooed and totally unfounded speculation that she was
the estranged daughter of Lady Arabella Stuart by her secret marriage
with her cousin, Sir William Seymour. (Click here
for a recap of this "legend.") Recently discovered documents prove that
Mary had a brother named William Barrett, a fact that adds further evidence
to debunk the Arabella tale and provides a clue to her ancestry.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on October 27, 1633, Mary married William
Dyer, a milliner in the New Exchange, a member of the Fishmongers' Company,
and a Puritan. Mary's maiden name was recorded as "Barrett" in the parish
record. In late 1634 or early 1635, the Dyers emigrated to Massachusetts
where, on December 13, 1635, they were admitted to the Boston church.
They were numbered among the intelligent citizens, being above reproach
and above the average in education and culture. Mary's detractors and
defenders alike describe her as "fair" and "comely." William became a
freeman of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 3 March 1635/6 and he held
many positions of public importance. In 1638 he was elected clerk, and
on December 14, 1635 and January 16, 1637/8 William was granted land at
Rumney Marsh (Chelsea, MA).
Mary were open supporters of Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson and the Rev. John
Wheelwright during the Antinomian controversy. Mary and Anne were friends,
and when Mary went into premature labor on October 17, 1637, Anne, an
experienced midwife, was called to her side. After hours of agonizing
labor, Mary's body gave forth a stillborn daughter. The child was badly
deformed. Also present at the stillbirth were the midwife Jane Hawkins,
and at least one other unnamed woman, who was reputed to be the source
of the information later spread about the monstrous birth that, one observer
later wrote, was "whispered by s[ome] women in private to some others
(as many of that sex as[semble] in such a strang business)." William Dyer
and Anne agreed that the birth must remain a secret, knowing that the
unfortunate birth could play into the hands of the Boston magistrates.
Mary herself could be personally blamed for the malformed baby.
law permitted a midwife to bury a child in private, a midwife could not
lawfully deliver or bury a child in secret. Anne Hutchinson immediately
sought the counsel of Rev. John Cotton about whether the stillbirth should
be publicly recorded. Although he had betrayed her politically, Anne felt
she could count on him in this crisis. Cotton, with a flash of nonconformity,
dismissed the ancient folk wisdom that held that infant death was conspicuous
punishment for the parents' sins and advised her to ignore the law and
to bury the deformed fetus in secret.
this special dispensation, Jane Hawkins and Anne buried the stillborn
child—exactly as they had always done in old England where custom-imbedded
law dictated to the midwife: "If any child be dead born, you yourself
shall see it buried in such secret place as neither hog nor dog, nor any
other beast may come unto it, and in such sort done, as it may not be
found or perceived, as much as you may." The birth and burial remained
a secret for five months.
November 1637, William was disenfranchised and disarmed along with dozens
of other followers of Anne Hutchinson. On March 22, 1638, when Anne Hutchinson
was excommunicated from the church and withdrew from the assemblage, Mary
Dyer rose and accompanied her out of the church. As the two women left,
there were several women hanging around outside the church and one was
heard to ask, "Who is that woman accompanying Anne Hutchinson?" Another
voice answered loud enough to be heard inside the church, "She is the
mother of a monster!" Governor Winthrop heard this and was excitedly questioned
Cotton, who broke down and confessed that "God, Cotton and Anne Hutchinson"
had buried a deformed child five months ago. Although the child had been
buried "too deep for dog or hog," it was not too deep for Winthrop who
ordered it exhumed. Winthrop and the clergymen who examined it showed
an inordinate interest in the physical characteristics of the "monster."
According to John Winthrop's Journal, Mary Dyer, who was "notoriously
infected with Mrs. Hutchinson's errors," was divinely punished for this
sinful heresy by being delivered of a stillborn "monster." Winthrop included
gruesome, detailed descriptions in his journal and in letters sent to
correspondents in England and New England:
a woman child, stillborn, about two months before the just time, having
life a few hours before; it came hiplings [breach birth] till she turned
it; it was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears
stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape's; it had no forehead, but
over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp, two of them were above one inch
long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also;
the nose hooked upward all over the breast and back, full of sharp pricks
and scales, like a thornback; the navel and all the belly, with the distinction
of the sex, were where the back should be; and the back and hips before,
where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had
two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it
had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each
foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.
and banished in their turn, the Dyers followed Anne Hutchinson to Rhode
Island where William became one of the founders of Portsmouth. On March
7, 1638 he was one of the eighteen who signed the compact and he was elected
Clerk. The Dyers ultimately settled in Newport where by March 19, 1640
William had acquired 87 acres of land.
1652 William and Mary Dyer accompanied Roger Williams and John Clarke
on a political mission to England. Mary remained for five years, becoming
a follower of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, whose doctrine
of the Inner Light was not unlike Mrs. Hutchinson's "Antinomianism."
to New England in 1657 was ill-timed. John Endicott had succeeded John
Winthrop as Governor in 1649 and he was far more intolerant of religious
dissention. He feared that if he permitted the Quakers to express their
views in Massachusetts Bay Colony, the whole structure of the Church-State
partnership might collapse.
and Ann Austin were the first Quakers to arrive in Boston. No sooner did
they disembark than they were led to the Boston jail for three weeks before
being sent back to England. On August 9, 1656, the port authorities were
alerted to search the Speedwell as it entered Boston Harbor before anyone
landed. The passenger list had "Q's" beside the names of four men and
four women, and Endicott ordered these eight brought directly to Boston
court. Christopher Holder and John Copeland led the group and they dumbfounded
Endicott and the local ministers with their familiarity with the Bible.
More irritating to Endicott was Christopher Holder's knowledge of the
law. When they were marched off to jail, Holder and Copeland made immediate
demands for their release, stating that there was no law that justified
Endicott knew this was true. There was nothing in the Massachusetts Bay
Colony Charter which permitted the imprisonment of anyone merely on grounds
of their religious beliefs, and so he devised a tactic to get rid of the
Quakers. The Massachusetts General Court met in mid-October of 1656 and
1657 and succeeded in passing several laws against "the cursed sect of
heretics...commonly called Quakers" which permitted banishing, whipping,
and using corporal punishment (cutting off ears, boring holes in tongues).
On October 14, 1656 the Court ordered:
master or commander of any ship, barke, pinnace, catch, or any other vessel
that shall henceforth bring into any harbor, creeks, or cove without jurisdiction
any known Quaker or Quakers, or any other blasphemous heretics shall pay...the
fine of 100 pounds...[and] they must be brought back from where they came
or go to prison.
trying to cover all the loopholes in any possible entry to Boston, the
Court addressed what it would do with anyone who persisted successfully.
It was decided that such a person should go to the House of Correction
and be severely whipped, kept constantly at work, and not allowed to speak
to anyone. They set up certain fines: 54 pounds for having any Quaker
books or writing "concerning their devilish opinions," 40 pounds for defending
any Quaker of their books, 44 pounds for a second offence, and the "House
of Corection for a third offence…until there be a convenient passage for
them to be sent out of this land." These laws were read on the street
corners of Boston with the beat of drums for emphasis.
Holder and John Copeland sat in their cells where they could hear the
rattling of the drums and realized they were going to have to leave on
the next available ship departing for England.
and Anne Burden, unaware of the new laws, arrived on the third ship and
were at once arrested. Despite their protests, they were kept in jail
incommunicado in darkened cells with boarded up windows. Mary's books
and Quaker papers were confiscated and burned. Mary finally was able to
slip a letter out through a crack to someone outside the jail, but it
took a long time to reach William Dyer in Newport.
Two and a
half months later, Governor Endicott was startled when William Dyer barged
into his home, demanding that his wife should be freed immediately. While
Endicott knew that William had been disenfranchised by Boston, he was
still highly respected by the Boston authorities for his prominent position
in Rhode Island. They would have to free Mary Dyer because of William's
prestige, but only on a condition. William was put under a heavy bond
and made to "give his honor" that if his wife was allowed to return home,
he was "not to lodge her in any town of the colony nor to permit any to
have speech with her on the journey." Under no condition should Mary ever
return to Massachusetts.
for Mary to be silenced like a misbehaving child as she returned to her
home! Back in Rhode Island, Mary became a prominent Quaker minister, traveling
over the new country. Preaching "inner light," Mary rejected oaths of
any kind, taught that sex was no determinant for gifts of prophecy, and
contended that women and men stood on equal ground in church worship and
organization. In 1658 she was expelled from New Haven for preaching.
Christopher Holder and the seven other banished Quakers had returned to
England. Christopher wasted no time in getting in touch with George Fox
in order to secure a ship for a return trip to New England. While Mary
was being rebuked in New Haven, Christopher Holder and John Copeland were
being ordered to leave Martha's Vineyard. Hiding in the sand dunes for
several days, they met up with friendly Indians who volunteered to help
them cross over to Massachusetts.
in Sandwich where they found a community of people unsettled in their
religious affiliations and had who had just lost their minister. Holder
and Copeland were received with enthusiasm by about eighteen families
who were ready to become Quakers. Finding a beautiful dell by a quiet
stream in the woods, they called their enchanted hideaway "Christopher's
Hollow," a name which has remained with the place. A circle of Friends
gathered together and sat on a circle of stones to share their religious
convictions. It was the first real Friends meeting in America, and the
start of regular meetings.
this success, Holder and Copeland moved from Sandwich to Duxbury, from
town to town in Massachusetts, leaving fifteen converted Quaker "ministers"
in their wake. Eventually, Governor Endicott got wind of their activities
and alerted scouts throughout New England to arrest them, but they remained
free until they walked into Salem, Endicott's home town.
arrived at the Salem Congregational Church, he listened to the sermon
of the day, then arose from the rear of the church to challenge what had
been said and present Quaker alternatives. One of Endicott's men seized
Holder, hurled him bodily to the floor of the church and stuffed a leather
glove and handkerchief down his throat. Holder turned blue, gagged, and
gasped for life. He was close to death when Samuel Shattuck, a member
of the congregation, pushed Endicott's man aside and retrieved the glove
and handkerchief from Holder's throat and worked hard to resuscitate him.
A lifelong friendship between Shattuck and Holder started at that moment.
and Shattuck were all taken to Boston prison. Shattuck was freed by paying
a 20 shilling bond. Holder and Copeland were brought before Endicott who
ordered that each should have thirty lashes. After several months, they
were released from prison, but were soon to return.
15, 1658, Holder and Copeland returned to Cape Code. Despite a joyous
reunion in Sandwich, Endicott's spies arrested them in the middle of a
meeting and marched them to Barnstable where they were stripped and bound
to the post of an outhouse. With the standard three-corded rope, they
were each given 33 lashes until the bodies ran with blood. The Friends
of Sandwich stood in horror as "ear and eye witnesses" to the cruelty."
from the scourging, Holder and Copeland returned again to Boston on June
3, 1658 where they were once again arrested. On September 16, 1658 by
the order of Governor Endicott, Christopher Holder, a future son-in-law
of Richard Scott, had his right ear cut off by the hangman at Boston for
the crime of being a Quaker. Richard's wife, Katherine Marbury Scott (Anne
Hutchinson's sister), was present, and remonstrating against this barbarity,
was thrown into prison for two months, and then publicly flogged ten stripes
with a three-corded whip.
19, 1658, the Massachusetts authorities during a stormy session had passed
by a single vote a law banishing Quakers under pain of death. In June
1959, Quakers William Robinson of London and Marmaduke Stephenson of Holderness
who had once sought shelter from a rain storm with Thomas Macy in Amesbury,
were now in Rhode Island, but felt a call to re-enter Massachusetts. They
were accompanied by Patience Scott, a young girl who later became a sister-in-law
of Christopher Holder, and Nicholas Davis. They were all promptly thrown
in jail. Learning of her Friends' incarceration in Boston, Mary Dyer went
there in the summer of 1659 to visit them and was herself again imprisoned.
wrote a letter to the Massachusetts authorities, dated August 30, 1659,
chastising the magistrates for imprisoning his wife without evidence or
legal right. "You have done more in persecution in one year than the
worst bishops did in seven, and now to add more towards a tender woman,"
wrote William, "…that gave you no just cause against her for did she come
to your meeting to disturb them as you call itt, or did she come to reprehend
the magistrates? [She] only came to visit her friends in prison and when
dispatching that her intent of returning to her family as she declared
in her [statement] the next day to the Governor, therefore it is you that
disturbed her, else why was she not let alone." (Click here to read
full text of William's letter.)
12, the Quakers were released from prison and banished from the Massachusetts
Bay Colony under threat of execution should they return. Nicholas Davis
and Mary Dyer obeyed, but Robinson and Stephenson felt it their duty to
remain and continue their ministry, determined to "look [the] bloody laws
in the face." Within a month they were again arrested. When it was learned
Christopher Holder was again in jail and threatened with further torture,
Mary Dyer, Hope Clifton and Mary Scott (future wife of Christopher Holder
and Anne Hutchinson's niece) walked through the forest to Boston from
Providence to plead for his release and that of others. Mary Dyer was
arrested while speaking to Holder through the prison bars.
no mistaking the moves of Holder, Robinson, Stephenson and Mary Dyer.
They deliberately challenged the legal right of Endicott to carry out
the death penalty. Doing what their compatriots were doing in England,
they returned to the field as soon as they were released, willing to lay
down their lives, if necessary, yet never striking a blow in retaliation.
Passive non-resistance and religious appeals constituted the ammunition
and weapons of this Colonial Quaker army. They had all been banished with
the assurance that if they returned death awaited them.
19 Mary Dyer was brought before the General Court with Robinson and Stephenson.
Asked why they had returned in defiance of the law, they replied that
"the ground and cause of their coming was of the Lord." When Gov. John
Endicott pronounced sentence of death, Mary Dyer replied, "The will of
the Lord be done." "Take her away, Marshal," commanded Endicott. "Yea
and joyfully I go," responded Mary Dyer.
in jail, Mary, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson sat in their
cells writing pleas to the General Court to change the laws of banishment
upon pain of death. (Click here to read the full text of Mary's
letter.) On October 27, the three Quakers were led through the streets
to the gallows with drums beating to prevent them from addressing the
people. Robinson and Stephenson were hanged, but Mary Dyer, her arms and
legs bound and the noose around her neck, received a prearranged last-minute
reprieve as a result of intercession of Gov. John Winthrop, Jr. of Connecticut,
Gov. Thomas Temple of Nova Scotia and her son.
Back in her
cell, Mary composed another letter to the General Court, from which comes
the inscription on her statue at Boston: "Once more the General Court,
Assembled in Boston, speaks Mary Dyar, even as before: My life is not
accepted, neither availeth me, in Comparison of the Lives and Liberty
of the Truth and Servants of the Living God, for which in the Bowels of
Love and Meekness I sought you; yet nevertheless, with wicked Hands have
you put two of them to Death, which makes me to feel, that the Mercies
of the Wicked is Cruelty." (Click here to read this second
letter in its entirety.)
18, 1659, William Dyer, Jr.'s petition on behalf of his mother to MA authorities,
was thus answered: "Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the General Court
to be executed for her offence; on the petition of William Dyer, her son,
it is ordered the said Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight hours
after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time being
found therein she is to be executed."
unwillingly back to Rhode Island. She was accompanied by four horsemen
who followed her fifteen miles south of Boston. From there she was left
in the custody of one man to escort her back to Rhode Island.
Mary longed for the companionship of other Quakers. She busied herself
across Long Island Sound on Shelter Island where a group of Indians had
approached her, asking if she would hold Quaker meetings with them. Although
Mary was out of danger in this environment, she was not content. She made
it known that she must return to Boston to "desire the repeal of that
wicked law against God's people and offer up her life there." In late
April, 1660, in obedience to her conscience and in defiance of the law
and without telling her husband, she returned once more to Boston.
It took a
week for the news to reach William Dyer that Mary had left Shelter Island.
Quickly, he wrote again to the magistrates of Boston. (Click here to read
William's moving letter.) Governor Endicott
received the letter and presented it to the General Court. Too bad if
William was having trouble with his wife. She was giving them trouble,
too. She had no right to come back and defy their orders. The General
Court summoned Mary before them on May 31, 1660.
you the same Mary Dyer that was here before?" Governor Endicott asked
the same Mary Dyer that was here at the last General Court," she replied.
own yourself a Quaker, will you not?"
myself to be reproachfully called so," Mary said stiffly.
Endicott said, "The sentence was passed upon you by the General Court
and now likewise; you must return to the prison and there remain until
tomorrow at nine o'clock; then from thence you must go to the gallows,
and there be hanged till you are dead."
did not flinch. "This is no more than what you said before."
it is to be executed," said Endicott. "Therefore prepare yourself tomorrow
at nine o'clock."
in obedience to the will of God to the last General Court desiring you
to appeal your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death," said
Mary, "and that same is my work now, and earnest request, although I
told you that if you refused to repeal them, the Lord would send others
of his servants to witness against them."
a prophetess?" asked the Governor.
the words that the Lord speaks in me and now the thing has come to pass."
reached his saturation point and, waving to a prison guard, yelled,
"Away with her! Away with her!"
the appointed time on June 1, 1660, Mary was escorted from her prison
cell by a band of soldiers to the gallows a mile away. Apprehensive that
a gathering crowd might become uncontrollably compassionate, the Magistrates
took every precaution to cut off communication between Mary Dyer and her
followers. Led through the streets sandwiched between drummers, with a
constant rat-a-tat-tat in front and behind her, Mary Dyer walked to her
precautions, some of the followers were able to get close enough to appeal
to her to acquiesce in banishment. "Mary Dyer, don't die. Go back to Rhode
Island where you might save your life. We beg of you, go back!" "Nay,
I cannot go back to Rhode Island, for in obedience to the will of the
Lord I came," Mary said, "and in His will I abide faithful to the death."
At the place
of execution the drums were quieted and Captain John Webb spoke, trying
to justify what was about to happen.
been here before and had the sentence of banishment upon pain of death
and has broken the law in coming again now," he said. "It is therefore
SHE who is guilty of her own blood."
him. "Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal
the unrighteous and unjust laws of banishment upon pain of death made
against the innocent servants of the Lord. Therefore, my blood will be
required at your hands who wilfully do it." Mary then turned towards the
crowd and continued, "But, for those who do it in the simplicity of their
hearts, I desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my
father, and in obedience to this will I stand even to death."
cried, "Mary Dyer, O repent, O repent, and be not so delued and carried
away by the deceit of the devil." Mary looked directly at him and said,
"Nay, man, I am not now to repent."
stepped forward and asked, "Would you have the elders pray for you?" Mary
responded, "I desire the prayer of all the people of God." A voice from
the crowd called out, "It may be that she thinks there is none here."
John Norton pleaded, "Are you sure you don't want one of the elders to
pray for you?" Mary answered, "Nah, first a child, then a young man, then
a strong man, before an elder in Christ Jesus."
the crowd called out, "Did you say you have been in Paradise?" Mary answered,
"Yea, I have been in Paradise several days and now I am about to enter
Webb signaled to Edward Wanton, officer of the gallows, who adjusted the
noose. Mary needed no assistance in mounting the scaffold and a small
smile lighted her face. Pastor Wilson had his large handkerchief ready
to place over her head so no one would have to see that look of rapture
twisted to distortion—only the dangling body. As her neck snapped, the
crowd stood paralyzed in the silence of death until a spring breeze lifted
her limp skirt and set it to billowing. "She hangs there as a flag for
others to take example by," remarked an unsympathetic bystander. That
was indeed Mary Dyer's intention—to be an example, a "witness" in the
Quaker sense, for freedom of conscience.
the frantic attempts of the Boston magistrates to rid themselves of the
challenging Quakers, they failed. Mary's death came gradually to be considered
a martyrdom even in Massachusetts, where it hastened the easing of anti-Quaker
statutes. In 1959 by authority of the Massachusetts General Court, which
had condemned her nearly 300 years before, a bronze statue was erected
in her memory on the grounds of the State House in Boston. A statue of
her friend, Anne Hutchinson, stands in front at the other wing. The words
of Mary Barrett Dyer, written from her cell of the Boston jail are engraved
Life not Availeth Me
In Comparison to the
Liberty of the Truth
Dyer Memorial - Founders' Park, Portsmouth, RI
Photo courtesy Elliot J. Wilcox © 1997
Reading: (Available at Amazon.com)
Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker
Antinomian Controversy, 1636 - 1638: A Documentary History
of Light: Quaker Women Preacher and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad,
Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism
I'd be happy to
exchange family information.
Please send e-mail to Sam Behling.
See lineage of
Read a biography of Mary's friend,
Anne Marbury Hutchinson
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