Mary Barrett Dyer, friend of Anne Marbury Hutchinson and willing to die for her faith, was an emotional and determined woman who made her mark on America. Conflict seemed to follow her around but on the whole Mary was a woman who stood her ground, was faithful to her God and friends and who was would not quit.
Mary Barrett, daughter of unknown parents.
She married William Dyer 23 October 1633 at St. Martin-in-the-fields, London, England
She died 01 June 1660 in Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Mary and William Dyer had the following children:
1. William Dyer born and died in London, Middlesex, England in October 1634
2. Samuel Dyer who married Anne Hutchinson, granddaughter of Anne (Marbury) and William Hutchison and daughter of Edward and Catherine (Hamby) Hutchinson
3. Daughter Dyer born 17 October 1637 in Boston, Suffolk, MA
4. William Dyer born about 1642 in Boston, Suffolk, MA. He died about 1687 in Sussex Co., PA. He married Mary Walker and was the father of at least five children.
5. Mahershalalhasbaz Dyer born 1643 in Newport, Newport, RI. He married Martha Pearce.
6. Henry Dyer born about 1647 in Newport, Newport, RI and died there February 1689/90. He married Elizabeth Sanford, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Sanford
7. Mary Dyer born about 1647 in Newport, Newport, RI and died Aft. 26 January 1678/79 in McHenry Ward, New Castle co., Delaware. She married Henry Ward and was the mother of at least two children.
Mary Barrett Dyer’s life was a life of legends, mystery and determined faith. Little is known about her early life, her birth or parentage. A supposed brother has been recently been discovered but aside from that her life before her marriage to William Dyer is a blank. For years there was speculation that she was the daughter of Lady Arabella Stuart by her secret marriage to Sir William Seymour. But this, though a romantic tale, has proven to be just that. What ever background Mary came from, she was a woman of great emotion and determination and equal to any drama a royal descendant could deliver. Mary was also a “comely” woman, as John Winthrop described her. It’s not hard to imagine this energetic woman, as the heroine in a dark drama. She had not only the personality for drama, but, most likely, the physical make up of a movie star.
William Dyer married Mary Barrett in St. Martin-in-the Fields chapel in London, England on 27 October 1633. William must have been a dynamic man, himself, for he was not only a milliner in the New Exchange but also a member of the Fishmonger’s Company in London, England. In New England, he stood up for Mrs. Hutchinson and Rev. Wheelwright, along with Mary and in Rhode Island he served as Clerk of the Assembly, Attorney General and Deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly. Both William and Mary were well educated and of good families.
Mary’s troubles in Boston began within a few years of arriving in the New World. Shortly before leaving England, she gave birth to a son named William who baptized in London on 24 October and buried three days later. Her second son, Samuel who would married the granddaughter of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was born in Boston, a healthy child who would grow into a man and follow his mother’s religious footsteps. However, Mary’s third child was the most unfortunate of all. Mary was probably already a friend of Anne Hutchinson by the time she was carrying her third child. Anne, being a midwife, had probably helped her Mary through all her pregnancies in Boston. On October 17, 1637, Mary went into premature labor. Anne, Jane Hawkins and one other woman were called to help with the difficult birth, which produced a badly deformed and stillborn daughter. Because a deformed, dead child might be considered a punishment from God or an indication that Mary had been involved in witchcraft or other ungodly behavior, Anne, the other midwifes and William agreed to keep the birth and details secret. Anne sought advise from the Rev. John Cotton about how to deal with the burial of the child and whether the birth should be recorded. The Rev. Cotton didn’t hold to the belief that a deformed child was proof and punishment of the parents’ sins, advised Anne to bury the child secretly. English law said, "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." Jane Hawkins and Anne Hutchinson burial of the child remained a secret for five months.
In November of 1637, Anne Hutchinson and her followers were disenfranchised. Mary and William Dyer were among her supporters. How it must have pained Mary to see her friend publicly scorned. In March the following year, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated from the church. As she left the church, Mary Dyer walked with her. One woman outside the church asked, "Who is that woman accompanying Anne Hutchinson?" Someone else cried, “She is the mother of a monster!” John Winthrop on hearing this called John Cotton over and questioned him. John confessed that he and God and Anne Hutchinson had buried the stillborn child “too deep for dog or hog”. However, it wasn’t too deep for Winthrop who immediately ordered it exhumed. A large crowd watched as the decaying, deformed body was lifted from the ground. He later wrote about the “monster.”
"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."
With, no pity from the people of Boston, the poor body of her stillborn child, sealed Mary’s fate. Winthrop considered the child a sign of God’s displeasure in Mary and her husband. Mary, most likely would have left Massachusetts with the Hutchinson party even if there had been no stillborn child, but the tragedy played itself out to a greater degree because of the child. Mary and William and their young son, left Boston with the Hutchinson and several others and relocated to the wilderness of Rhode Island.
In Portsmouth, Rhode Island, the Dyers settled into exile. The men there quickly drew up and signed the Portmouth compact. There, Mary gave birth to four more sons and a daughter. In 1650, William and Mary along with Roger Williams and John Clarke returned to England for political reasons. I have not been able to determined if any of their children went with them but it is possible that at least the youngest may have gone as they could only have been, at most four or five years old. Samuel, the oldest, would have 15 and old enough to leave behind to care for the farm. While in England, Mary meet George Fox who had founded the Society or Friends, or Quakers, who theology was similar to Anne Hutchinson’s. Mary quickly became a follower and joined the Friends church. When William Dyer was ready to go home to Rhode Island, Mary stayed behind to learn more about Fox’s theology.
George Fox, born in 1624, was a young man with big thoughts. At age 19 he left his trade as a cobbler and began wandering about England in search of truth. He developed the belief that God’s light worked through him and other true believers “without the help of any man, book, or writing.” He denounced “man made” religion, creeds, rites and such. He used the biblical “thee” and “thou” that distinguished Quakers up until the twentieth century. Mr. Fox also believed that Christ could enlighten any man or woman. Mary, an intelligent woman, must have been very attached to this thinking, especially in view of her friendship with Anne Hutchinson and the banishment from Boston.
While William Dyer returned to Rhode Island in 1653, it was another five years before Mary came home. By the time she returned she was a full pledge Quaker. Mary’s timing couldn’t have been worst. John Endicott, a strong-willed man who felt that a different religious view point, especially one as unstructured as the Quaker’s, could be the downfall of Boston’s church-state partnership. Mary Fisher and Ann Austin had been the first Quakers to taste Endicott’s bitter pill. They were jailed as soon as they left their ship and then sent back to England on the next ship out. In 1656, Christopher Holder, John Copeland and six other Quakers were met by the same hostile welcome when they disembarked in August. Endicott was amazed at their Bible knowledge and Holder’s legal knowledge. Holder and Copeland demanded they be released, as they were aware that there was no law permitting their imprisonment. Endicott, however, felt threatened by the Quakers and did what he felt he had to safe guard the souls of Boston. In late 1656 and 1657, the Massachusetts General Court passed laws against “the cursed sect of heretics…commonly called Quakers”. The colony was allowed to banish, whip and cut off ears or tongues in order to control the sect. All this was done before Mary and Anne Burden, another Quaker, arrived in Boston on a third ship. The two women were taken from the ship and escorted to a dark, windowless cell. Their books and papers were burned.
Mary was able to get a letter out of the prison to let her husband in Rhode Island know of her plight. Nearly three months later, an irate William Dyer marched into Endicott’s home demanding the release of his wife. While William had been disenfranchised by Boston, he was still an important man in the colonies and Endicott was compelled to release Mary into her husband’s care. But William was given strict instructions to take Mary home and to keep her out of Boston.
Mary had a martyr’s complex, for sure. She set about preaching about the “inner light” to anyone who would listen. Of her beliefs, Mary wrote: "Was ever the like laws heard of among a people that profess Christ come in the flesh? . . .Of whom take ye counsel? Search with the light of Christ in you, and it will show you of whom, as it hath done with me and many more. . ."
Brave Mary ventured into Massachusetts where she was banished from New Haven for her “false” preaching. Her fellow Quakers who had been banished back to England, had returned to New England and were preaching to and being banished from Massachusetts towns. Holder ended up in Salem where he challenged the church there with his Quaker theology. Governor Endicott’s men caught up with Holder in Salem, nearly killing him as he was being arrested. Samuel Shattuck saved his life, but for his effort he was taken to jail, along with Copeland. Shattuck was released soon after but Holder and Copeland remained in jail for several months. Holder and Copeland, like Mary, would not quit. By June of 1658 they were back in the Boston jail. Katherine Marbury Scott, a sister of Mary’s friend, Anne Hutchinson, protested when Holder’s ear was cut off and landed in jail herself. Boston authorities were being a bit tired of the relentless persistence of the Quakers and quickly made being a Quaker a crime that was punished by death. A year later in June of 1959, Marmaduke Stephenson of Rhode Island and William Robinson of London, accompanied by Patience Scott (Katherine Scott’s daughter whose sister would later marry Christopher Holder) and Nicholas Davis began to preach in Massachusetts. On entering Boston, they were thrown into jail. Mary Dyer, of course, on learning that her friends had been jailed, immediately returned to Boston, where, of course, she was jailed.
William Dyer learned about his wife’s incarceration and wrote a scathing letter to Endicott and the Boston Magistrates, which can be read in William’s profile [line 13] following Mary’s. William’s influence once again saved his wife and the other Quakers. The Puritans leaders banished the Quaker, threatening execution if they came back to Boston. Davis and Mary Dyer returned to Rhode Island but some of the Quakers remained in Boston and continued to preach. Within a month, they, of course, were arrested. Mary Dyer, Hope Clifton and Mary Scott walked back to Boston to plea for their friends’ freedom. As Mary Dyer spoke to Christopher Holder through the prison bars, she was arrested again, tried along with the imprisoned men and condemned to death.
The Quaker trio would not repent and on 27 October 1659 the two men, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson were hanged. Mary, bound, blindfolded and with a noose around her neck, once more was spared again by a family member, this time her son, William Dyer, with the help of Governor John Winthrop, Jr. of Connecticut and Governor Thomas Temple of Nova Scotia. Mary was released into the custody of her son. There is speculation that Mary’s near-death experience was all a scheme to scare her into leaving Boston, at least in by the Governors and leaders of Boston. Her reprieve read: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme; and it is further ordered, that she shall he carried to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her neck, till the rest be executed and then to returne to the prison and remain as aforesaid.” Mary wrote the General Court and refused the reprieve.
When she returned to prison and understood the ground of the reprieve, she refused it, and the next morning she wrote to the General Court ”My life is not accepted, neither availeth me, in comparison with 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: I rather chose to Dye than to live, as from you, as Guilty of their Innocent Blood.”
The citizens of Boston were amazed at Mary’s courage and determination. Their voice against harming Mary caused the officials to put her on horseback and send her on her way back to Rhode Island where she promptly left and wintered on Long Island. In the spring of 1660, Mary set out once more for Boston where she arrived on 21 May and was once more brought before Governor Endicott. He tried once more to get Mary to deny her faith but she once more refused. The governor condemned her to die. Mary’s family tried once more to intervene but their petition was denied. At nine o’clock on June 1, Mary was taken from the jail and walked to the gallows that stood on the Boston Common. As she walked up the ladder she was told that if she denied her faith she could save her life. She replied “Nay. I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in His will I abide faithful to the death.”
With Mary’s death, the hanging of Quakers ended. Hanging men was one thing, but even the starch Puritans population couldn’t stomach hanging a woman. As for Mary herself, she was quit the drama queen but one with a flare and strength that you can’t help but admire her faith even in the face of death. She stands as one of the most remarkable women of her time.
1. By the Name of Dyer by William Allen Dyer 1940
2. NEHGR, Vol. CIV, Jan. 1950, page 40 "The True Story of Mary Dyer" by G. Andrews Moriarty
3. Dyer Search, Summer 1990, page 44 "William and Mary Barret Dyer; The Monster Story" by Johan Winsser
4. http://www.mayflowerfamilies.com/enquirer/mary-dyer "Mayflower Families; Mary Dyer"
5. The Great Migration, Vol. II, C-F by Robert Charles Anderson and George Sanborn Jr. and Melinde Lutz Sanford, NHGS
6. William Dyer's Letter of 30 August 1659 to Boston Magistrates for release of Mary Dyer from prison
7. Martyrdom of Mary Dyer (d. June 1, 1660) from Smitty's Genealogy, Quaker, and Civil War Pages http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/martydom_of_mary_dyer.htm