Thursday, May 21, 2015

Timeline of Mary Dyer’s last month

The not-very-merry month of May

© 2015 Christy K Robinson

As I was researching and writing the two novels on Mary and William Dyer (originally, I planned one book about Mary, but when I included her “other half,” I had to separate the manuscripts), I found conflicting accounts among histories that were mostly written by Quakers. They told the story for the purposes of proselytizing, for justifying the actions of their fellow believers, and some wrote short pieces as eyewitnesses, but they told Mary’s part of the story from one perspective.

Today, we have the benefits of archived materials in both Old and New England, journals and correspondence that have been scanned and transcribed for the Gutenberg Project, satellite maps, geological surveys, online art collections, and we can analyze events with more logic and science than the historians of past centuries. We can fit Mary’s and William’s puzzle pieces into the greater picture.

A small portion of my timeline for the Dyer books.
© Christy K Robinson
To clear up the conflicts in their reporting, and insert actual events and lives the Dyers interacted with, I made an Excel grid from the 1580s when Gov. John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson were born, to 1709, when the Dyers’ youngest child died. I could figure when women were pregnant and how long sea voyages took, how many times and how long Mary Dyer was in prison (and who she was with), and where people were when earthquakes and comets and epidemics occurred. It answered many questions, and inspired story lines.

When it came to the 1650s, though, the Anglo-Dutch War broke out and Cromwell’s Protectorate ruled the British Empire, and Quaker missionaries arrived in America, the facts were terribly garbled, so I broke the 10 years into months. It helped me unravel the conflicting reports, especially about Mary’s two dates with the gallows, and to realize that there were no coincidences. The events like the Hutchinsonians making the Exodus from Boston in 1638, and Mary’s final return to Boston in 1660, were deliberate and well considered.

In May, all across New England, colonial elections were held, and courts and assemblies heard cases like incorporating towns, funding roads and bridges, and criminal cases like dealing with Quakers and Baptists, thieves, alcoholics, and adulterers. During this month, freemen (voters and jurymen) came from all over the colony to stay in town and do their civic duty, attend church services, and do trading and exports.

William Dyer was at colonial assembly in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in late May 1660. Boston was full of thousands of people at the same time, when the annual elections returned John Endecott for another year’s term as governor. That’s precisely why Mary Dyer chose May 21 to arrive in Boston: for the greater audience to witness her civil disobedience and be forced to deal with the issues. It wasn’t a random date or a sneak-in-the-back-door entrance: she calculated the time when the Governor, deputy governors, magistrates, freemen, leading citizens and candidates—would all be in one place. If she were to be executed, she wanted everyone to know it and see it.

Not quite two years before, two Quaker men had had their ears cut off in private, and they were immediately shipped back to England. Their disobedience had a smaller effect on the Boston populace. Katherine Scott, who would become the mother-in-law of one of those men, protested that secret punishment, noting that it was against English law to punish in private (because punishment was meant to deter further crime in the community), and Endecott and the deputies were in violation of the law. For being impudent to the governors, Mrs. Scott was stripped to the waist and they gave her 10 lashes with the tri-corded whip before they imprisoned her for a while.


May 1660, Julian calendar
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From late November 1659 to May 11, 1660, Mary was staying at the northeast end of Long Island, on a smaller island called Shelter Island.

May 10-11: Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick, 62-year-olds who had been severely persecuted for Quaker beliefs and practices, died in exile on Shelter Island, where Mary Dyer had spent the winter. It’s a small island, half land and half marsh, so Mary and the Southwicks would have been in each others’ company at the Sylvester house during the extremely harsh winter. In my book, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, I speculated that she saw their failing health and stayed until their deaths. Her sorrow and outrage may have helped propel her return to Boston.

Approx. May 12: Mary took a ship from Shelter Island to Providence, Rhode Island. It would have taken 12-24 hours in the best of weather, so estimate a May 13-14 arrival in Providence.
Mary attended a Quaker Meeting in Providence, and took young Patience Scott (daughter of Katherine Marbury Scott) with her on the 44-mile walk to Boston. It probably took three days to walk that distance, and sleep and eat in the forest, so they may have set out on May 17-18.

Saturday, May 20: “In the night there was a continuation of thunder and lightning, from 9 to 3 o’clock.” (Annals of Salem). The book only recorded remarkable events, not your everyday weather report, so this storm was severe and noticeable, and probably part of a system that included other parts of Massachusetts. There may even have been tornadoes.

Sunday, May 21: Mary arrested for returning to Massachusetts Bay Colony against her banishment order. Her arrival was timed for Sunday/First Day, when church attendance swelled the numbers of people in town. She was jailed for 10 days. (One historian wrote that Mary was free, ministering and preaching between the 21st and her arraignment on the 31st. My timeline containing all the accounts corrected that.)

Saturday, May 27: William Dyer was engaged with Assembly meetings in Portsmouth, RI, we learn from his letter of May 27. Someone needed two to three days to bring him the news that Mary was in Boston jail, meaning that she was incarcerated almost immediately on her arrival in town. And William’s letter needed 1-3 days to arrive at Boston’s General Court, even with a fast messenger. 

Wednesday, May 31: Mary Dyer arraigned at General Court, and sentenced to death based on her October 1659 trial. See related article, 1660 warrant to bring Mary Dyer to trial.

Thursday, June 1:  Thursday was Lecture Day in Massachusetts Bay Colony, with required church attendance. It was also the day when punishments and executions were carried out, because people were supposed to see the wages of wickedness and turn away from sin, and then go to church to hear a sermon tied to the events of the day. Mary Dyer was executed on Boston Neck at 9:00am, after which the 2,000 to 5,000 spectators went to church.


Christy K Robinson is author of two biographical novels on William and Mary Dyer, and a collection of her nonfiction research on the Dyers. In 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged for her civil disobedience over religious freedom, and her husband’s and friends’ efforts in that human right became a model for the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights 130 years later. The books (and Kindle versions) are available on Amazon. CLICK HERE for the links.
And if you'd like to own or give an art-quality print of Mary Dyer's handwriting, her letter to the General Court of Massachusetts, CLICK HERE