Mary Barrett Dyer

Quaker martyr, 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.

In 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).

William and 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.

While English 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.

Acting on 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.

In 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:

It was 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.

Excommunicated 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.

In 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."

Mary's return 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.

Mary Fisher 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 their imprisonment.

Governor 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:

That what 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.

After 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.

Christopher 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.

Mary Dyer 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.

How galling 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

They landed 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.

Happy with 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.

When Holder 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.

Holder, Copeland 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.

On April 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."

After recovering 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.

On October 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.

William Dyer 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.)

On September 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.

There was 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.

On October 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.

That week 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.)

On October 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."

Mary returned 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.

Once home, 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.

"Are you the same Mary Dyer that was here before?" Governor Endicott asked her.

"I am the same Mary Dyer that was here at the last General Court," she replied.

"You will own yourself a Quaker, will you not?"

"I am myself to be reproachfully called so," Mary said stiffly.

Governor 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."

Mary Dyer did not flinch. "This is no more than what you said before."

"But now it is to be executed," said Endicott. "Therefore prepare yourself tomorrow at nine o'clock."

"I came 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."

"Are you a prophetess?" asked the Governor.

"I speak the words that the Lord speaks in me and now the thing has come to pass."

Endicott reached his saturation point and, waving to a prison guard, yelled, "Away with her! Away with her!"

At 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 death.

Despite these 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.

"She has 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."

Mary contradicted 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."

Pastor Wilson 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."

John Norton 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."

Someone from 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 eternal happiness."

Captain John 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.

Despite all 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 beneath.

My Life not Availeth Me
In Comparison to the
Liberty of the Truth

Mary Dyer Memorial - Founders' Park, Portsmouth, RI
Photo courtesy Elliot J. Wilcox © 1997


Further Reading: (Available at

Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker

The Antinomian Controversy, 1636 - 1638: A Documentary History

Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preacher and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775

First 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 Dyer Family

Read a biography of Mary's friend, Anne Marbury Hutchinson

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