Defendant: Mary Dyer
Crime Charged: Quakerism
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Judge: Governor John Endecott
Place: Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Dates: October 19, 1659 and May 31, 1660
Sentences: First trial: death by hanging, commuted to banishment from the colony and hanging should she return. Second trial: death by hanging
Significance: Mary Dyer, convicted and executed in 1660 for practicing her Quaker faith, was an important "witness for religious freedom" in American history.
In 1638, when the Church of Boston excommunicated Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer had been the one person to walk to Hutchinson's side and extend her hand in sympathetic solidarity. Twenty-two years later, she once again acted without hesitation and in accord with her own principles.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been established to secure religious freedom for its Puritan founders. This religious freedom was not extended to dissenters and they were frequently and energetically ejected from the colony. In 1658, Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, were identified as a particularly dangerous sect of dissenters. According to the Records of the Governor, "The doctrine of this sect of people . . . tends to overthrow the whole gospell & the very vitalls of Christianitie . . . ." The colony responded by passing a law on October 19, 1658, which banished Quakers "on payne [sic] of death."
In 1659, Dyer learned that two of her Quaker friends, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were being detained in a Boston jail. She visited the two and was promptly imprisoned herself. The three were then banished from the colony and warned that they faced execution should they ever return. They left the colony when they were released, but within a few weeks they decided to return to "looke [the] bloody laws in the face."
As the governor's records describe it, the three Quakers were imprisoned for "theire rebellion, sedition, & presumptuous obtruding themselves upon us," and for acting "as underminers of this government." They were tried by the General Court on October 19, 1659. When they were "brought to the barre," each of the three "acknowledged themselves to be the persons banished" and previously "convicted for Quakers." Governor John Endecott delivered identical sentences to all of the defendants: "You shall go from hence to the place from whence you came [prison], & from thence to the place of execution, & there hang till you be dead."
Dyer remained calm and said simply, "The will of the Lord be done." William Dyer, her husband, sought earthly intervention. On August 30, 1659, he wrote to the "Court . . . assembled at Boston" to protest the infringement of his wife's religious liberty. He compared the General Court's members to the "Popish inquisitors" of the thirteenth century, pointing out that they, too, had acted as "judge and accuser both." Finally and most saliently, he expressed outrage that the Puritans, who had fled persecution in England, should in their turn persecute Quakers: "Surely you or some of you, if ever you had the courage to looke a bishop in the face [back in England], cannot but remember that the [first, second] or third word from them was, You are a Puritane are you not, & is it not so [here] in N[ew] England, the magistracy having . . . assumed a coercive power of conscience, the first or next word. After [my wife's] appearance [before you] is [the accusation] You are a Quaker." Among the others who protested Dyer's sentence were Dyer's son, William, Governor John Winthrop, Jr., of Connecticut, and Governor Thomas Temple of Nova Scotia.
When the day of her expected hanging arrived, Dyer, Stephenson, and Robinson were paraded in the company of drum- beating soldiers to "the place of execution." Then Dyer, like her fellow convicts, was "made to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope around her necke." Stephenson and Robinson were hanged, but Dyer, to her surprise, was left alive in her untightened noose. She was then granted "liberty for forty eight howers . . . to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed."
Dyer enjoyed her liberty for seven months, and then she returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On May 31, 1660, before the General Court and Governor Endecott, "she acknowledged herself to be Mary Dyer, . . . denied our lawe, [and said she] came to bear witness against it." Later that day, "The whole court mett together and voted, that the said Mary Dyer, for her rebelliously returning to this jurisdiction . . . shall . . . according to the sentence of the General Court in October last, be put to death."
Dyer was hanged on June 1, 1660. In 1959, the Massachusetts General Court commemorated and reinterpreted Mary Dyer's actions: It ordered that a seven-foot statue of Dyer be placed on the Boston State House lawn, bearing the inscription "Witness for Religious Freedom."
For Further Reading
Chu, Jonathan M. Neighbors, Friends, or Madmen: The Puritan Adjustment to Quakerism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts Bay. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn. Encyclopedia of Women's History in America. New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Dyer, William. Mary Dyer, Quaker: Two Letters of William Dyer of Rhode Island, 1659-1660. Printed for Worthington C. Ford by the University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A., n.d.
Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth. The ABC-CLIO Companion to Women's Progress in America. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1994.
James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Belknap Press, 1971.
Knappman, Edward, ed. Great American Trials. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.
Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. Boston: From the Press of William White, Printer to the Commonwealth, 1854.
Source: Women's Rights on Trial, 1st Ed., Gale, 1997, p.312.