Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Endecott’s memento mori death's-head


© 2014 Christy K Robinson

Gov. John Endecott, with signet ring
on his right little finger.
 John Endecott, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a hot-headed, zealous Puritan who had a long history acting first and dealing with consequences later. His extreme religious beliefs led him to cut the cross out of the British flag (treason), to chop down a festive Maypole where some not-so-Puritan English settlers were observing centuries-old celebrations, to require Taliban-like sumptuary laws of Massachusetts women (clothing, jewelry, embroidery and lace, head coverings, and—if he could have—requiring face veils), and he’s particularly infamous for his intense hatred for and persecution of the Quakers. He was the governor who pronounced Mary Dyer’s death sentence.

Endecott wore a ring on his right pinkie finger, which he used as a signet to impress in the soft wax of a seal on letters or documents proving it was his own signature. Endecott’s ring had the image of a skull and crossbones, known as a memento mori, a reminder that all men must die.
Nazi SS death's-head ring from World War II

Today, everyone associates the skull and crossbones with pirate flags, and death by toxin. Latin cultures celebrate a Day of the Dead on November 1 and use a skull motif. Some remember that the death’s head was the emblem of the Nazi SS. Heinrich Himmler, who oversaw the systematic extermination of untold millions of Jews and Slavs, wore a death’s head on his belt buckle that said, “God with us.” The Nazi death-camp guards wore buttons with the death’s head.
Heinrich Himmler's belt buckle.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the memento mori became popular as mementoes of the dead, containing a lock of hair, a picture of an urn or skeleton, in a ring or pendant. The rings took several forms, sometimes a skull mounted on a slim gold ring, sometimes a circle with enamel over gold, or an inside inscription, and sometimes a disk that could be pressed as a seal. Endecott seems to have had the latter.

John Endecott’s letter to John Winthrop in 1643 was sealed with the death’s head in wax. This is a snippet from a “Memoir” written by his descendant, Charles Endicott, in 1847.
The letter is transcribed on page 68 of the book at  https://archive.org/stream/memoirjohnendec00endigoog/memoirjohnendec00endigoog_djvu.txt   
The letter ends with this salutation: 
“…The Lord our good God uphold and continue you amongest us to do yet further service to whose grace I committ you,
Yours ever trulie to serve,
Salem, 26th 6th mo., '43. [26 August 1643]
Jo: Endecott.”

The biographer, a seventh-generation descendant of Governor Endecott, wrote,
“The foregoing letter is transcribed from the original, now found among the papers of Gov. Endecott, in a very good state of preservation. The chirography is handsome, but difficult to read, the characters being those used at the beginning of the 17th century. Notwithstanding the lapse of two hundred years [1643-1847], the sealing wax still bears the perfect impression of the flesh of his thumb, where he pressed it down on account of its thickness. Its subscription is
To the right worshipfulle John Winthroppe, Esq., Governr. at Boston, Dl [deliver]."

He continued, “The seal is a death's head and cross bones, an apt emblem of the gloomy minds, and tastes of our Puritan fore-fathers. On the outer circle is the name of ‘John Garrad.’ This was an impression from a signet ring which he wore upon the little finger of his right hand.”  

John Garrad had been sheriff of Hertfordshire for about three years. He died in 1625; possibly, the ring belonged to Garrad and was given to Endecott at the funeral. This seems likely because Endecott would have had his own name or initials on a ring if he’d commissioned it for himself. Endecott sailed for Massachusetts in 1628, a recent convert to the Puritan beliefs, and a married man for the first time at age 40.

Footnote from 1847 biography of John Endecott
Endecott didn’t start his bloody reign of terror when the Quakers arrived in New England in 1656. He was one of the militia captains who slaughtered or enslaved hundreds of Pequot Indians (men, women, and children) in 1636-37. He was one of the magistrates who prosecuted Anne Hutchinson, inspected the deformed, stillborn fetus of Mary Dyer’s, hanged women as witches, and in 1651, was responsible for the near-fatal beating of the Baptist minister of Newport, Rhode Island, Obadiah Holmes, when he and two other Baptists went to Salem to encourage an elderly Baptist in his own home.

That prompted a letter exchange with Rev. Roger Williams, who lived at Providence, but had been friendly with Endecott in the early 1630s when he preached at Salem. Rev. Williams was not a man who was short on words, nor was he hesitant to use all the sharp, pointy arrows in his quiver! He said that those who sent a letter with the death’s-head seal were flying to the hole or pit of rottenness (a.k.a. hell). His letter was very long, and I’ve selected some excerpts for you.


The copy of a letter of Roger Williams, of Providence, in New England, to Major Endicott, Governor of the Massachusetts, upon occasion of the late persecution against Mr. Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, and others, at Boston, the chief town of the Massachusetts in New England.

August, 1651.

Sir,—Having done with our transitory earthly affairs (as touching the English and the Indians) which in companion of heavenly and eternal, you will say are but as dung and dross, &c. Let me now be humbly bold to remember that humanity and piety, which I and others have formerly observed in you, and in that hopeful remembrance to crave your gentle audience with patience and mildness, with ingenuity, equanimity and candor, to him that ever truly and deeply loved you and yours, and as in the awful presence of His holy eye, whose dreadful hand hath formed us to the praise of His mercy or justice to all eternity. 
--- 
Sir, while something of this nature I muse over your Death's head, I meet (in the entrance of your letter) with this passage, "Were I as free in my spirit as formerly I have been to write unto you, you should have received another manner of Salutation then now with a good Conscience I can Express; However God knoweth who are his, and what he is pleased to hide from sinful man in this life, shall in that great Day be manifested to All." 

Sir, it hath pleased the Father of Spirits at this present to smite my heart in the very breaking up of your letter, This Death's Head, tells that loving hand that sealed it, and mine that opens your letter, that our eyes, our hands, our tongues, our brains are flying hence to the hole or pit of rottenness : Why mould not therefore such our letters, such our speeches, such our actings be, as may become our last: minutes, our death-beds, &c. If so, how meek and humble, how plain and serious, how faithful and zealous, and yet how tender and loving mould the spirits and speeches be of dying and departing men? 
[In modern terms, Live as if each day is your last, and be tender and loving in spirit and in speech.]

Sir, will my honored and beloved friend not know me for fear of being disowned by his conscience? Shall the goodness and integrity of his conscience to God cause him to forget me? Oh how comes it then that I have heard so often, and heard it lately, and heard so much, that he that speaks so tenderly for his own, hath yet so little respect, mercy or pity to the like conscientious persuasions of other men? Are all the thousands of millions of millions of consciences, at home and abroad, fuel only for a prison, for a whip, for a stake, for a gallows? Are no consciences to breathe the air, but such as suit and sample his? May not the most High be pleased to hide from his as well as from the eyes of his fellow-servants, fellow-mankind, fellow-English? And if God hide from his, from any, who can discover? Who can shut when he will open? and who can open when he that hath the key of David will shut? All this and more (honored Sir) your words will warrant me to say, without any just offence or straining. 

Object. But what makes this to Heretics, Blasphemers, Seducers, to make them that sin against their conscience (as Mr. Cotton sayeth) after conviction? What makes this to stabbers of Kings and Princes, to blowers up of Parliaments out of conscience?

--- 
Oh Sir, you cannot forget what language and dialect this is, whether not the same unsavored, and ungodly, blasphemous and bloody, which the Gardiner's and Bonner's [Catholic bishops who tortured and killed Protestants in Bloody Mary’s reign] both former and latter used to all that bowed not to the State golden Image of what Conscience soever they were. And indeed, Sir, if the most High be pleased to awaken you to render unto his holy Majesty his due praises, in your truly broken-hearted Confessions and Supplications, you will then proclaim to all the world, that what profession soever you made of the Lamb, yet these expressions could not proceed from the Dragon's mouth. 
--- 
Sir, I must be humbly bold to say, that 'tis impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by their sword, and to worship a true Christ! to fight against all Consciences opposite to theirs, and not to fight against God in some of them, and to hunt after the precious life of the true Lord Jesus Christ. Oh remember whether your Principles and Consciences must in time and opportunity force you. 'Tis but worldly policy and compliance with men and times (God's mercy overruling) that holds your hands from murdering of thousands and ten thousands were your power and command as great as once the bloody Roman Emperors was. 
--- 
It hath been his way and course in all countries, in Germany, France and England, (especially) whatever their pretences have been against Heretics, Rebels, Schismatics, Blasphemers, Seducers, &c. How hath he left them to be their own Accusers, Judges, Executioners, some by hanging, some by stabbing, some by drowning and poisoning themselves, some by running mad, and some by drinking in the very same cup which they had filled to others?

Some may say, “Such persecutors hunted God and Christ, but I, but we, &c.” –

I answer, the Lord Jesus Christ foretold how wonderfully the wisest of the world, would be mistaken in the things of Christ, and a true visible Christ Jesus! When did we see thee naked, hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, &c. 
--- 
Oh remember it is a dangerous combat for the potsherds of the earth to fight with their dreadful Potter. It is a dismal battle for poor naked feet to kick against the pricks; it is a dreadful voice from the King of kings, and Lord of lords, “Endecott, Endecott, why huntest thou me? why imprisonest thou me? why finest, why so bloodily whippest, why wouldest thou (did not I hold thy bloody hands) hang and burn me? 
---
First, On a moderation towards the Spirits and Consciences of all mankind, merely differing from or opposing yours with only Religious and Spiritual opposition.

Secondly, A deep and cordial resolution (in these wonderful searching, disputing and dissenting times) to search, to listen, to pray, to sail, and more fearfully, more tremblingly to enquire what the holy pleasure, and the holy mysteries of the most Holy are; in whom I humbly desire to be

Your poor fellow-servant, unfeignedly, respective and faithful,

Roger Williams.

I’ve found no response from Endecott to Williams. Perhaps the governor’s response was to ignore the sermon.
Memento mori ring of the same period as Endecott's,
from Norwich, England

Endecott served as governor or deputy governor for 14 more terms before he died in 1665. His descendant and biographer, writing in 1847, believed that he died peacefully at age 77. Some historians say that Endecott was ill or gangrenous and stank so terribly that servants refused to enter the room. Another writer says that Endecott was known to have a painful back condition, and her theory is that he had syphilis from his youth (when he fathered a bastard son), and the disease had affected his sanity and erupted as a sore, which would explain the foul odor. 

I mentioned Endecott's memento mori in both of my novels, Mary Dyer Illuminated, and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This.  The first mention was when William Dyer was discussing Roger Williams' letter. The ring shows up again at Mary Dyer's death sentence. Tiny details like this require 20 or more hours of research, but they bring an authenticity to the scene.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

John Winthrop’s love letter to his fiancĂ©e


Winthrop’s un-Valentine warning to potential Bridezilla
It's not romantic, but then romance and love are not the same thing. 

© 2014 Christy K Robinson

In the spring of 1618, John Winthrop, who would be governor or deputy governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony for most of the years between 1630 and his death in 1649, was a two-time widower. He had four living children by his first wife Mary Forth, who died. About five months later, in December 1615, he married Thomasine Clopton, but she died a year later, after giving birth to their first baby.

John then became engaged to Margaret Tyndal, the daughter of a knight. They would marry, have children (four lived to adulthood), and she would die of fever in 1647. Margaret was the model Puritan wife who honored, obeyed, and deferred to her husband in all things.

The letter I’ve chosen to reproduce below with a minimum of editing (removing symbols left by the scanning of old books) is one that 30-year-old John Winthrop wrote to 17-year-old Margaret Tyndal, 25 days before their April 29, 1618 wedding.

The letter is very long, and as a postscript, Winthrop explains that if he’d known he’d write half that much, he’d have chosen larger paper. He used many scripture references to teach his soon-to-be bride her role as a proper wife, and how their marriage was to reflect the relationship of Christ and his church.

In my research of the 17th century, I haven’t found any Bridezillas. Anglicans favored church weddings that started at the church door with the service from the Book of Common Prayer, and then processed to the chancel rail for Communion. Puritans disdained the BCP and its resemblance to the Catholic liturgy; they also did not consider marriage one of the sacraments. So Puritans often married in a civil service in a home or tavern, which was conducted by a magistrate and then blessed by a minister’s prayer. Both Anglicans and Puritans held feasts and celebrated traditions, drank and danced.

Yet John Winthrop felt it necessary to warn Margaret about “trifles” of “apparell, fashions & other circumstances” and savoring the fleshly delights of the world. As a knight’s daughter and future wife of a lawyer, she was required to honor her men with dressing to a certain standard neither too high nor too low. Even the height of a woman’s heels was prescribed for her class.

Winthrop wanted Margaret to avoid the appearance of evil (perhaps ostentatious fabrics or jewelry), and to keep herself from being a stumbling block to others, to keep them from the sin of vanity. He even warned her not to offend him by wearing ornaments, saying that “the good assurance which I have of thy unfained love towards me, makes me perswaded that thou wilt have care of my contentment, seeing it must be a chief stay to thy comfort: & withall the great & sincere desire which I have that there might be no discouragement to daunt the edge of my affections.”

In other words, if Winthrop’s kept happy, Margaret will be happy.

Then Winthrop urged his “sweet love” not to be upset about his requests and to be a good sport, saying that he was not requiring more of her than he would of himself.

It appears from subsequent letters and what Winthrop wrote in his public journal that he and Margaret had a loving, trusting marriage which lasted for 29 years. The 17-year-old bride became a stepmother to his first four children, and they seemed to love her as their own mother. In 1647, six months after Margaret died, he remarried for a fourth time, to Martha Rainsborough.

_______________________
JOHN WINTHROP TO MARGARET TYNDAL.

To my best beloved Mistress Margaret Tyndall at Great Maplested, Essex.
Grace mercie & peace, &c:

My onely beloved Spouse, my most sweet freind, & faithfull companion of my pilgrimage, the happye & hopefull supplie (next Christ Jesus) of my greatest losses, I wishe thee a most plentifull increase of all true comfort in the love of Christ, with a large & prosperous addition of whatsoever happynesse the sweet estate of holy wedlocke, in the kindest societye of a lovinge husbande, may afford thee. Beinge filled with the joye of thy love, & wantinge opportunitye of more familiar comunion with thee, wch my heart fervently desires, I am constrained to ease the burthen of my minde by this poore helpe of my scriblinge penne, beinge sufficiently assured that, although my presence is that which thou desirest, yet in the want thereof, these lines shall not be unfruitfull of comfort unto thee. And now, my sweet Love, lett me a whyle solace my selfe in the remembrance of our love, of which this springe tyme of or acquaintance can putt forthe as yet no more but the leaves & blossomes, whilest the fruit lyes wrapped up in the tender budde of hope; a little more patience will disclose this good fruit, & bringe it to some maturitye: let it be our care & labour to preserve these hopefull budds from the beasts of the fielde, & from frosts & other injuryes of the ayre, least our fruit fall off ere it be ripe, or lose aught in the beautye & pleasantnesse of it: Lett us pluck up suche nettles & thornes as would defraud of plants of their due nourishment; let us pruine off superfluous branches; let us not sticke at some labour in wateringe & manuringe them : — the plentye & goodnesse of fruit shall recompense us abundantly: Our trees are planted in a fruitfull soyle; the grounde, & patterne of our love, is no other but that betweene Christe & his deare spouse, of whom she speakes as she finds him, My welbeloved is mine & I am his: Love was their banquetting house, love was their wine, love was their ensigne; love was his invitinges, love was her fayntinges; love was his apples, love was her comforts; love was his embracinges, love was her refreshinge: love made him see her, love made her seeke him: love made him wedde her, love made her followe him: love made him her saviour, love makes her his servant. Love bredd or fellowshippe, let love continue it, & love shall increase it untill deathe dissolve it. The prime fruit of the Spirit is love; truethe of Spirit true love: abounde with the spirit, & abounde with love: continue in the spirit & continue in love: Christ in his love so fill our hearts with holy hunger & true appetite, to eate & drinke with him & of him in this his sweet Love feast [referring to the sacrament of the Holy Communion, which it was then the custom to administer to the bride and bridegroom at their marriage], which we are now preparinge unto, that when our love feast shall come, Christ Jesus himselfe may come in unto us, & suppe with us, & we with him: so shall we be merrye indeed. (O my sweet Spouse) can we esteeme eache others love, as worthy the recompence of our best mutuall affections, & can we not discerne so muche of Christs exceedinge & undeserved love, as may cheerfully allure us to love him above all? He loved us & gave himselfe for us; & to helpe the weaknesse of the eyes & hande & mouthe of or faithe, which must seeke him in heaven where he is, he offers himselfe to the eyes, hands & mouthe of our bodye, heere on earthe where he once was. The Lord increase our faithe.

Nowe my deare heart let me parlye a little with thee about trifles, for when I am present with thee my speeche is prejudiced by thy presence, which drawes my minde from it selfe: I suppose nowe, upon thy unkle's cominge, there wilbe advisinge & counsellinge of all hands; & amongst many I knowe there wilbe some, that wilbe provokinge thee, in these indifferent things, as matter of apparell, fashions & other circumstances, rather to give contente to their vaine minds savouringe too muche of the fleshe &c, than to be guided by the rule of Gods worde, which must be the light & the Rule; for allthoughe I doe easyly grant that the Kingdome of heaven is not meat & drinke, apparell &c, but Righteousnesse, peace &c: it beinge forbidden to fashion ourselves like unto this world, & to avoyde not only evill but all appearance of it must be avoyded, & allso whatsoever may breed offence to the weake (for which I praye thee reade for thy direction the [epistle] to the Rom:) & for that Christians are rather to seeke to edifie than to please, I hold it a rule of Christian wisdome in all these things to followe the soberest examples: I confesse that there be some ornaments which for Virgins & Knights daughters, &c, may be comly & tollerable, which yet in so great a change as thine is, may well admitt a change also: I will medle with no particulars, neither doe I thinke it shalbe needfull; thine owne wisdome & godlinesse shall teache thee sufficiently what to doe in suche things: & the good assurance which I have of thy unfained love towards me, makes me perswaded that thou wilt have care of my contentment, seeing it must be a cheife staye to thy comfort: & withall the great & sincere desire which I have that there might be no discouragement to daunt the edge of my affections, whyle they are truly labouring to settle & repose themselves in thee, makes me thus watchfull & jealous of the least occasion that Satan might stirre up to or discomfort. He that is faithfull in the least wilbe faithfull in the greatest, but I am too fearfull I doe thee wronge, I knowe thou wilt not grieve me for trifles.

Let me intreat thee (my sweet Love) to take all in good parte, for it is all of my love to thee, & in my love I shall requite thee: I acknowledge, indeed, thou maist justly say to me as Christ to the Pharisies, Hypocrite, first cast out the beame that is in thine owne eye &c, for whatsoever I may be in thy opinion, yet mine owne guiltie heart tells me of farre greater things to be reformed in my selfe, & yet I feare there is muche more than in mine owne partiall judgment I can discerne; iust cause I have to complaine of my pride, unbeleefe, hardnesse of heart & impenitencie, vanitye of minde, unrulinesse of my affections, stubbornesse of my will, ingratitude, & unfaithfullnesse in the Covenant of my God, &c. therefore (by Gods assistance) I will endeavour that in myselfe, which I will allso desire in thee. Let us search & trye or hearts & turne to the Lord: for this is our safetye, not our owne innocencye, but his mercie: If when we were enemies he loved us to reconciliation; much more, beinge reconciled will he save us from destruction.

Lastly for my farewell (for thou seest my lothenesse to parte with thee makes me to be teadious) take courage unto thee, & cheare up thy heart in the Lorde, for thou knowest that Christ thy best husbande can never faile thee: he never dies, so as there can be no greife at partinge; he never changes, so as once beloved & ever the same: his abilitye is ever infinite, so as the dowrye & inheritance of his sonnes & daughters can never be diminished. As for me a poore worme, dust & ashes, a man full of infirmityes, subiect to all sinnes, changes & chances, wch befall the sonnes of men, how should I promise thee any thinge of my selfe, or if I should, what credence couldst thou give thereto, seeinge God only is true & every man a lyar. Yet so farre as a man may presume upon some experience, I may tell thee, that my hope is, that suche comfort as thou hast allreadye conceived of my love towards thee, shall (throughe Gods blessinge) be happily continued; his grace shalbe sufficient for me, & his power shalbe made perfect in my greatest weaknesse: onely let thy godly, kinde, & sweet carriage towards me, be as fuell to the fire, to minister a constant supplie of meet matter to the confirminge & quickninge of my dull affections: This is one ende why I write so muche unto thee, that if there should be any decaye in kindnesse &c, throughe my default & slacknesse heerafter, thou mightest have some patternes of or first love by thee, to helpe the recoverye of suche diseases: yet let or trust be wholly in God, & let fis constantlye followe him by or prayers, complaininge & moaninge unto him or owne povertye, imperfections & unworthynesse, untill his fatherly affection breake forthe upon us, & he speake kindly to the hearts of his poore servant & handmayd, for the full assurance of Grace & peace through Christ Jesus, to whom I nowe leave thee (my sweet Spouse & onely beloved). 

God send us a safe & comfortable meetinge on Mondaye morninge. Farewell. Remember my love & dutye to my Ladye thy good mother, with all kinde & due salutations to thy unkle E: & all thy brothers & sisters. Thy husband by promise,
JOHN WINTHROP.
Groton where I wish thee. Aprill 4. 1618.
My father & mother salute thee heartyly with my Lady & the rest.
If I had thought my lettre would have runne to halfe this lengthe I would have mayde choyce of a larger paper.


****************************
Like this article? Read my non-fiction book on 17th-century life and times,
The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson.
Nonfiction, illustrated. The research and recent discoveries behind the novels. The Dyers is a lively nonfiction account of background color, culture, short stories, personality sketches, food, medicine, interests, recreation, cosmic events, and all the "stuff" that made up the world of William and Mary Dyer in the 1600s.  Chapters on John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Endecott, and many others. More than 70 chapters, and all-new, exclusive content found nowhere else!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Found! More 17th-century documents in William Dyer's hand

© 2014 Christy K Robinson
 
A series of 17th-century documents were discovered in the Newport Historical Society (NHS) vault on February 4, 2014. The document shown here dates from 1642.

Same photo, but rotated 135 degrees for your comfort.


Ruth Taylor, Executive Director at Newport Historical Society, wrote: “This is likely a transcription of a boundary setting-agreement. The document features the names of Roger Williams, Benedict Arnold, and Miantonomi, but none appear to be original signatures. It is interesting that the transcriber copied not just Miantonomi's name, but also the small boat pictograph he used when signing.
Miantonomi's
signature mark.
Rhode Island
Hist. Society calls it
a bow & arrow, not
a boat.

In 1636, Rev. Roger Williams was the founder of the township of Providence Plantations, which added Portsmouth in 1638, and Newport in 1639, to form the Colony of Providence Plantations and Rhode Island. Benedict Arnold, one of Providence's first 13 settlers with Williams, was one of the wealthiest landowners there, and was the ancestor of the infamous General Benedict Arnold of the American Revolution. Miantonomi was a Narragansett Indian sachem (chief) who was executed by approval of the United Colonies in 1643.

The handwriting on the discovered document shown in the photo is almost surely that of William Dyer, Mary Barrett Dyer's husband. He was appointed Secretary of the colony from 1639-1647, when he became Recorder. Those d's with the back loop are much like William's. I have a number of images of his handwriting to compare with.  

NHS photo again, enlarged. Notice the backward-looped d's, and the W on Roger Williams' name,
which looks like the W on William Dyre's signature.
1638: Portsmouth Compact of founders of Rhode Island, in William Dyer's hand.
Notice the W at the beginning of the paragraph.
1643: William Dyer's informal memo regarding the physically abusive John Hicks and his wife Herodias Hicks (soon to be) Gardner.
“Memo John Hicks of Nuport was bound to ye pease by ye Govr [Coddington] & Mr Easton
in a bond of £10 for beating his wife Harwood Hicks and prsented [at this]
court was ordered to continue in his bond till ye next C[ourt] upon which his wife
to come & give evidence concerning ye case”
 
1660: Portion of William Dyer's letter to Massachusetts General Court
appealing his wife's death sentence. Notice the backward loop on the d's at the ends of words.
Document courtesy of  Massachusetts State Library



1659: William Dyre (Dyer)'s signature.
The W is drawn in four continuous strokes.

You can purchase a high-resolution, ready-to-frame reproduction of William Dyer's May 27, 1660 letter to the Massachusetts Bay Court, pleading for the life of Mary Dyer. Click the "letters" tab above this article.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

A mystery cloaked in the obvious

Why almost everything you know about 
Mary Dyer's letter and hanging—is wrong.  
And why it's not your fault.

© 2014 Christy K Robinson
You can buy a copy of Mary Dyer's letter, written
in her own hand! Click THIS LINK.


            Who is buried in Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb? Is the Pope Catholic? Who wrote Mary Dyer’s last letter?

In previous books about Mary Dyer, in internet genealogy sites that copy from one another, and going all the way back to the 17th-century Quaker chroniclers, we are told that Mary Dyer (known as the “Quaker Martyr”) wrote two letters in late October 1659: the night before her death sentence was to be executed, and again, after her reprieve. Those writers give us the text content of the letters. The inscription on the Mary Dyer sculpture in Boston is taken from the text of the second letter.
While researching my novels on the Dyers, I tracked down original documents to see what the penmanship was like. (I didn't attempt graphological analysis.) Were there cross-outs, ink blots, even margins, evidence of a bumpy surface on which the paper was placed, or did the text flow freely from mind to the page? Many men who were fairly high in colonial government could only make marks instead of signatures. William Dyer was a businessman, clerk, and eventually a colonial official (first attorney general in all of America)—was he measured in his phrasing, did he cram his handwriting to save space at the end of a line, did he write in even planes or slant it up or down, and did he use standard spellings of his day or write phonetically?
Of course, I had similar questions about Mary’s writing. Many women could read their Bibles, at least, but not every man or woman could also write (print or cursive), and if they did, it looked like chicken scratches.
So I set about looking for these original holographs. After weeks of research, I found two of William’s letters regarding Mary (the ones transcribed accurately on several websites), and one of Mary’s letters, in the Massachusetts Archive and its state library.

Fragmentary image of Mary Dyer's letter to the Boston court,
26 October 1659.

Image courtesy of Massachusetts Archive
As soon as I read Mary’s letter, I noticed that it bore little resemblance to the text she’s supposed to have written the night before she expected to die.
First lines of the letter everyone thinks Mary wrote:
Whereas I am by many charged with the Guiltiness of my own Blood: if you mean in my Coming to Boston, I am therein clear, and justified by the Lord, in whose Will I came, who will require my Blood of you, be sure, who have made a Law to take away the Lives of the Innocent Servants of God, if they come among you who are called by you, 'Cursed Quakers,' altho I say, and am a Living Witness for them and the Lord, that he hath blessed them, and sent them unto you: Therefore, be not found Fighters against God, but let my Counsel and Request be accepted with you, To repeal all such Laws, that the Truth and Servants of the Lord, may have free Passage among you and you be kept from shedding innocent Blood, which I know there are many among you would not do, if they knew it so to be: Nor can the Enemy that stirreth you up thus to destroy this holy Seed, in any Measure contervail, the great Damage that you will by thus doing procure: Therefeore, seeing the Lord hath not hid it from me, it lyeth upon me, in Love to your Souls, thus to persuade you: I have no Self Ends, the Lord knoweth, for if my Life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me, nor could I expect it of you,…

First lines of the letter Mary actually wrote (line breaks follow Mary’s line breaks in the original holograph):
from marie dire to the generall court now this present 26th of the 8 moth 59
assembled in the towne of boston in new Ingland greetings of grace mercy
and peace to every soul that doth well : tribulation anguish and wrath to all that doth evell
Whereas it is said by many of you that I am guilty of mine owne death by my
coming as you cal it voluntarily to boston: I therefore declare unto every one
that hath an eare to hear: that in the fear peace and love of god I came and in weldoing
did and stil doth commit my soul and body to him as unto a faithful creator
and for this very end hath preserved my life until now through many trialls and
temptations having held out his royal scepter unto mee by wch I have accesse
into his presence and have found such favoure in his sight as to offer up my
life freely for his truth and peoples sakes :
So what accounts for the huge difference in the two versions? The short answer is that Quaker minister and writer Edward Burrough received a copy of Mary’s original letter, and created his own letter, putting Mary’s name to it for persuasiveness and authority. And for 355 years, everyone has thought Burrough’s letter was Mary’s.
But it’s not.
Why would Burrough do that?  His purpose was not to preserve Mary’s words, but to put an end to the Quaker persecutions raging in England and New England by writing a pamphlet to King Charles II, refuting the defensive pamphlet written by the Boston magistrates after Mary’s unpopular execution in June 1660. Burroughs’ efforts succeeded, and the king ordered Governor Endecott to stop executions and refer any capital cases to England for trial.
Cover page of Burrough's 1660 pamphlet
My training and career have been focused on writing and editing magazines, books, and websites for nonprofit organizations, religious entities, and universities. It’s the practical, workhorse side of public relations and marketing. It was my job to mold (and often rewrite) the words of the CEO or other executives to more precisely fit the mission and message of the organization. If I may project backward by 350 years, I suspect that immediately after Mary’s execution in 1660, someone in Boston copied Mary’s letter to the General Court, and sent the copy to Burrough in England. It was his purpose to craft an image for the new Quaker movement, and do to King Charles what Mary had already done to the people of Massachusetts:
1.      create outrage that the Boston authorities were out of control,
2.      that they’d gone too far by killing a high-status woman who was innocent of a capital offense, and
3.      that they must stop the persecution of people who were only obeying God.

But Mary’s letter(s) contained words meant only for the Boston magistrates—words of softer persuasion, that they would listen to God’s voice in their hearts and stop the torture and killings of God’s people, the Quakers. So Burrough rewrote or ghost-wrote the letter in fiery, angry language to fit his agenda, presented the pamphlet (containing only the first letter) to the king in audience in winter 1661, and obtained the desired writ. Mary had written that she wasn't having her life taken--she was laying it down of her own accord (she said she offered her life freely), to call attention to the government's brutality (their "bloody laws"). However, Burrough basically accused MassBay court of murder.
Only one more Quaker was hanged after Mary, because of the delay in trans-Atlantic travel. Another Quaker who had been condemned to die was reprieved and banished because the writ came in time to save him.
Then in 1662, Burrough, a Quaker preacher and political advocate, was arrested for holding illegal religious meetings in his home. He was sent to Newgate Prison, and despite a release order from the king (which was ignored, probably by anti-royal Puritan rebels left over from the Cromwell days). Burrough remained in prison and died there at age 29 in February 1663. Prison conditions were extreme: starvation, filth, vermin, and disease killed many prisoners, and unheated dungeons in freezing winters would certainly hasten death.
With Mary Dyer and Edward Burrough dead and Quaker persecutions surging again, no one remained to think about or argue who wrote the letters. Mary’s letter was returned to the General Court files kept by the malevolent Edward Rawson, secretary, and that’s the letter that remains in the archive vaults to this day. A second letter—if it ever existed—is not preserved, though someone wrote a letter that purports to be Mary’s, for which we have no holograph. It’s as strongly worded as the other letter’s Burrough version, so perhaps he wrote the second letter and didn’t use it in his pamphlet.
If Mary’s first letter was changed so radically, we have to assume that the second letter was also altered significantly. But we have no original with which to compare.
I used the text of Mary’s original first letter, making it more modern with paragraph breaks and conventional spellings, in my second biographical novel, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. I used phrases from the second letter (whether written by Mary and edited or rewritten by Burrough) in dialog, but chose not to reproduce the second letter made so famous in genealogy websites.
Mary Dyer's letter reproduced in 16x20" on satin photo paper.
You can buy the unframed reproduction
at this link: 
http://bit.ly/DyerHandwriting
Someday, when my fantasy of all of this intricate and fascinating Great Migration-era story becomes a TV series on PBS and BBC, it would be fun to explore or invent who had the authority to borrow Mary’s letter and send copies to England.
Was there a Quaker mole in the midst of the Boston wolves?   
 
The letter in Mary Dyer’s hand
Mary came to the end of the large sheet of paper, and turned it over to write six more lines, the ghost image you see behind the words in the middle of this fragment. On the right vertical edge of the paper are water stains which smeared the ink. Perhaps it was raining when the messenger carried her letter from the jail to the Massachusetts General Court, presided over by Governor John Endecott. The letter was folded at some point, and the paper has flaked away at some folds and edges, but for the most part, it's legible, even after more than 350 years!  
Paper was a luxury commodity in seventeenth-century New England because it had to be imported. In Europe, paper was milled from macerated hemp, flax, and linen or cotton rags. (Wood pulp was not used until 1843.) Important documents like royal charters were written on vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep or goat skin).
William Dyer, Mary’s husband, would have had a ready supply of paper for his work as clerk, recorder, secretary, attorney general, and solicitor to the colonial assembly. His penmanship is fine, and contains few corrections, which means the documents were copied from draft notes, or that he was confident of his writing and reporting abilities and got it right the first time.
As I mentioned before, Mary Dyer was among the privileged few women who could both read and write. And judging from the even, consistent appearance of her handwriting, she had plenty of practice. Perhaps Mary kept a journal that was lost or burned, or wrote letters to friends that have been lost to the ages. In my novels, I suggested that Mary kept farm and business accounts for the family, and during her time in England, kept a journal and wrote letters. Keeping ledgers was common among merchant-class women, and in England the aristocratic women kept journals and wrote letters and books.
The letter she wrote to the General Court while in prison was very legible, but she had more words to write than she had paper, so she had to turn the paper over and write six more lines on the back, which most writers did not do because the ink could bleed through. She probably had to buy the sheet of paper and use of a quill pen and ink from the jailer, as Quakers were not allowed any books or writing materials in the prison—upon conviction, the law required that those items be burned to prevent them from proselytizing, journaling, or fomenting more rebellion.
(Of course, burning Quaker possessions also destroyed evidence that might have been used against them, but the Governor and assistants didn’t seem to have thought of that—nor  had they ever watched CSI or Law and Order. I find it amusing that one of the Plymouth Colony Quakers used the lack of evidence because his books were burned, to successfully to defend himself.)
All of New England’s paper was imported from England at this time. There, all the paper for books, broadsheets, pamphlets, government and private use, was made by one or two companies who held a monopoly on the process. Mary’s paper’s finish was a horizontal “laid,” which is a fine texture of parallel lines rolled onto the paper when it’s still wet. Cheaper paper of the era, made at most paper mills in England, was a coarse gray, but this paper’s original color may have been a white or cream, which browned with age. Its content was probably 100 percent linen rag. It appears it was a quality sheet of paper, perhaps obtained from the office of Edward Rawson, MassBay Colony secretary, and is the same type of paper that William Dyer used for Rhode Island business and the letters he sent to the Boston court on behalf of his wife.
I wondered if Mary had written the letter in a prison cell, or if she was in a room with a table and some light. There’s no evidence of an uneven or rough surface under the writing, so I think a table was used. In comparison to William’s fine-tipped pen which perhaps had a metal nib, Mary’s writing is much more thick or bold, so the pen might have been of low quality or needed trimming. But she had enough light to keep her lines and letters even. She didn’t write words that she scribbled over. And if she made a mistake, perhaps she was able to scrape off the ink and rewrite a word, but I can’t tell from a digital scan on a computer screen.
In the text she wrote, Mary Dyer cast herself in the role of biblical Queen Esther, a Jewess who threw herself on the mercy of the Babylonian King Ahasuerus to save her people from slaughter. No one approached the totalitarian, oft-drunken monarch Ahasuerus and lived unless the king held out his scepter in acceptance, which he did for Esther. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, had told her that it was her destiny to persuade the king to stop the persecution and genocide, saying that God had brought Esther to her role “for such a time as this.” And Esther was successful in saving her people.
Mary saw herself as called by God to take a stand before the ultra-fundamentalist government of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, at “such a time as this,” the height of Puritan-on-Quaker persecution, by saying that they were persecuting Christ’s children, and therefore, Christ himself. She asked them to search themselves for any spark of the Light of Christ within them, and warned them of eternal damnation if they persisted in their policies and attitudes. 

Mary Dyer: "but to me to live is Christ and to die is gaine"
At the page turn, Mary asked that Quakers be allowed to attend the execution and clothe the bodies of her Friends Stevenson and Robinson (and herself) with shrouds. The aftermath of the death penalty was to strip the bodies after death and throw them naked into an open pit near the road where birds, tidewater, and nature would decompose them and serve as a warning and crime deterrent to passersby. There was a fence around the pit to prevent the bodies being taken away.
Boston court records do not show if Mary’s letter was read in court, or if they denied or accepted her request. Many letters of the time, in England and New England, show the date they were read and recorded. They say “endorsed” or “denied” and are dated. There was no such notation on her letter, although there’s a scrap of paper taped to the letter which states that it’s from Mary Dyer, with the date she wrote it. It’s not in Mary’s hand, though. It seems to be a file note.
Perhaps there was no resolution noted on the letter because nine days before the October execution, her fate had already been decided by the court. Nine days before her teenage son William brought the reprieve to "save" his mother.
Did Mary’s letter have any effect, then, on stopping Governor Endecott and Reverends John Norton and John Wilson from their bloody persecution and death penalties? Probably not.
But her death itself, seven months later, did cause considerable outrage amongst even the non-Quaker populace, and of course Edward Burrough used Mary’s letter as a model for his successful pamphlet.
The unintended effect of Mary Dyer’s letter is that 350 years later, we gain insight into the real story and intimate details behind the legend.


Christy K Robinson is the author of three books set in the 17th century: the biographical novels Mary Dyer Illuminated, and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, and (nonfiction) The Dyers of London, Boston, & NewportThe descriptions of Mary's dates with the gallows, in the second book, come from both early Quaker historians and New England court records, as well as modern research into the government and execution customs, and give a view of her sacrifice that has never been seen before. Reality is much more powerful than legends.
How to order the books: Dyer books (biographical fiction and nonfiction)
How to order the Dyer letter reproduction: http://bit.ly/DyerHandwriting