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Hanging of Mary Dyer

Depiction of Mary being led to her execution
Depiction of Mary being led to her execution

Mary Barret was born around 1611 in England although where exactly isn’t known. A probate document remains from 1633/4 from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury concerning the estate of what appears to be the estate of her brother, William Barret, leaving his assets to Mary and her husband, which suggests that their parents were deceased and that William had no heirs. It could also highlight that Canterbury was close to the area in which Mary and her brother were born or lived.

Mary married William Dyer, a milliner, in 1633, original from Lincolnshire, in St Martin in the Fields on 27th October 1633, and a child, William Jr was born on 24th October 1634. William Jr died on or shortly after birth and was buried on his parents’ wedding anniversary. The following year, the Dyers joined an ever increasing number of Puritan non-conformists and emigrated to the New England colonies of America. A week after reaching Boston, and being received into the Boston Church, Mary’s second child, Samuel born during the crossing or upon arrival, was baptized in the Church.

Further children followed, a premature stillborn daughter in 1637 – we will come back to her – and sons, Henry in 1640, William in 1642, Mahershallalhashbaz between 1643 and 1646, a daughter, Mary in 1647 and finally Charles in 1650. There has been a persistent but denounced theory that Mary Barret Dyer was the secret child of Arbella Stuart and her husband Sir William Seymour, borne out by her inexplicable return to England following the execution of Charles I, leaving her husband and children behind, and remaining there for a number of years. Mary was recorded in several accounts as being both educated and a woman of independent good financial means, with a polite kind demeanour and a pleasant countenance, both in stature and face.

Mary and William Dyer were present when the Boston Church fractured with the arrival of Minister John Cotton from England in what became known as the Antinomian Controversy, as it became apparent that his theological views challenged somewhat those held by resident Minister John Wilson. Quickly gaining support from established Bostonian Anne Hutchinson, a prominent member of the colony and a mid-wife, others in the congregation soon followed suit. Anne’s views soon brought her to the attention of the colony officials and eventually this disapproval found its way to the governors of Massachusetts.

Cotton’s views, preached by Minister John Wheelwright, of the free-will Covenant of Grace rather than the established doctrine of Covenant of Works, soon brought the wrath of the General court upon the free-thinkers, and Anne Hutchinson found herself on trial.

Traducing the Ministers was the charge she faced, and despite resounding defense of her beliefs, Anne Hutchinson was banished from the colony. Wheelwright’s own charges of contempt and sedition were found guilty, although a petition was subsequently signed by over 60 members of the congregation, including William Dyer. These signatories were later forced to recant or be disarmed and disenfranchised. Some, fearing for their safety and their livelihoods, which the removal of their guns would jeopardise, recanted. Others, including William Dyer, chose to leave and establish their own township on what is now Rhode Island.

It was as Anne Hutchinson left the courtroom that Mary Dyer’s troubles would begin in earnest. She joined hands in support of Hutchinson. The question was asked as to her identity and once established, background digging confirmed the Dyers held similar views to those of the heretics, but also that in 1637, Anne had delivered Mary of a stillborn, severely deformed child. After lurid descriptions of the infant were offered, despite only one other person being present and awake during the delivery, other than Hutchinson, an exhumation was ordered and the subsequent report by investigator Governor Winthrop was issued that wildly described the infant as 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 [i.e., a skate or ray], 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.’

Mary Dyer's monument - incorrectly placing her death at Boston Common
Mary Dyer’s monument – incorrectly placing her death at Boston Common

Whilst most of the description in twenty-first century terms can be dismissed as fanciful, if not completely fabricated, a small element of fact remains that leads Historians to surmise that the little girl suffered from anencephaly, a pre-natal condition which arrests the development of the skull early on and leads to the absence of the brain and rear of the skull. In 17th century religious fervour, this deformity suggested the wrath of God and proved heretical beliefs, and was enough to condemn Mary Dyer. In response to Winthrop’s claims, John Cotton himself dismissed the notion as ‘a monstrous conception of his [Winthrop’s] brain, a spurious issue of his intellect’.

Mary Dyer left Rhode Island for England in 1651 and remained for five years, being joined briefly by her husband and comrades who were seeking a new patent to establish their settlement as a new colony, separate from the established rule. Their quest was refused and they returned, without Mary, the following year. During this period, Mary met and heard the teachings of George Fox who had recently established the Society of Friends – The Quakers- and upon her return to Rhode Island, in 1657, along with a new group of followers, began to spread his message.

From the outset, the Massachusetts colony Puritan governors, along with those of Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven openly persecuted the Quakers. Punishments included whipping, placing in stocks, fines, imprisonment and having ones ears cut off. Mary was imprisoned more than once on her travels, spreading the word, and visiting friends, her husband being forced to intervene to secure her release. In 1658, whilst recovering from Pneumonia, and visiting the Scotts in Providence, Mary received word that three Quaker men had been taken and suffered the loss of their right ears. The Scotts’ older daughter was engaged to one of the men, Christopher Holder. Mrs Scott had already been punished by whipping for her Quakerism. The group travelled to Boston to visit the men, while they were being held.

All of them, including the younger Scott daughter, aged just eleven were immediately imprisoned alongside other visitors, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who were visiting from London.

A new law was passed in the Massachusetts colony granting Capital punishment in the form of banishment, upon pain of death was hastily passed in 1658 in an attempt to quash the Quaker movement, and following their incarceration, the group were released under this threat. Robinson and Stephenson, being Englishmen remained in the area, visiting Salem, the others dispersed to their homes.

Stephenson and Robinson were subsequently rearrested and taken back to Boston, where they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Robinson was denied right of address, Stephenson was able to make a statement. Mary Dyer, upon hearing of their re-imprisonment had returned to Boston and was as a result also incarcerated. Her husband did not come to take her home on this occasion, having previously signed an oath swearing that she would not return. He wrote a letter instead questioning the legality of the actions of the Massachusetts officials. It made no difference. Mary Dyer was sentenced to death.

On 27th October 1659, the three prisoners were led out to an area of common ground, to an old Elm tree. Mary chose to walk between the two men, they joined hands in support, an action that was heavily frowned upon and questioned as improper. Mary politely reminded them that in their beliefs, the feelings of brethren transcended those of gender, and as they were all equal in the eyes of the Lord, there was nothing improper about brothers and sisters joining hands in spiritual and moral support.

Mary watched as Stephenson and Robinson, citizens of a foreign land, were given a rudimentary hanging, with a simple rope fastened around their necks and over the bough of the tree, from a position on a ladder, which was kicked from beneath their feet. Then it was her turn. Mary was placed upon the ladder, and her hands and legs tied. As the rope was placed around her neck, and a handkerchief placed around her eyes. As she awaited her fate, a conditional reprieve, granted at the request of her son was brought forth and read out.

The reprieve had been granted prior to the execution, but it was thought the fear of death would be enough to prevent Mary from continuing with her beliefs, and further entering Boston to speak them. The authorities knew there would be no execution for Mary Dyer, the reprieve was the excuse they needed not to carry out the sentence. They did not want to be accused of hanging a woman, the legality of which could be called into question, they also felt a reprieve would go some way to preventing the martyrdom of Stephenson and Robinson.

Unfortunately, the plan backfired. Following her stay, Mary refused to accept the provisions of her release, claiming to do so would be to deny her beliefs. Concerned that their actions may be called into question, the Massachusetts General Court sent a draft vindication of the proceedings to the newly installed King Charles II. In reply, Edward Burrough wrote a book, including a list of the persecutions and atrocities committed against the Quakers, and decimating their points one by one. This publication sadly came too late for Mary Dyer.

After spending the winter of 1659 at her home on Shelter Island, On the 21st May 1660 Mary returned to Boston, to force the authorities into changing their laws, or face having to hang a woman. Ten days later she was once again picked up and taken before the Governor. She confirmed she was the same Mary Dyer who had previously been reprieved. Governor Endicott pronounced the remainder of her sentence to be carried out, the next day and ordered her to be taken away.

Once again, William Dyer wrote to request reprieve for his wife. His request was denied. On 1st June 1660, at around 9am, Mary Dyer was taken from her jail to the Elm Tree Gallows. She was granted chance to recant, and asked if she would desire the Church Elders pray for her, she replied that she recognised no elders, In answer to Captain Webb’s pronouncement that she was guilty by her own blood, Mary said

‘Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death, made against the innocent servants of the Lord, therefore my blood will be required at your hands who willfully do it; but for those that do is in the simplicity of their hearts, I do desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my Father, and in obedience to his will I stand even to the death’.

Mary Dyer was then hung.