Friday, August 30, 2019

#OnThisDay: William Dyer fights for his wife

© 2019 Christy K Robinson

Upon discovering that his wife Mary was imprisoned in Boston in August 1659, William Dyer wrote a two-page letter to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, asking for her release on the grounds that she had broken no laws, and that they had treated her inhumanely—worse than they’d treat their domestic animals.

Prison conditions: 
see Boston’s prison during the Dyer years

Assuming that it could take two days (by special messenger) or up to two weeks for letters to pass between Boston and Newport, and that Mary had been in solitary confinement for two weeks, this put Mary Dyer in prison by at least the first days of August 1659, if not in July. William had received more than one letter from her, but the letters might have arrived at the same time, or possibly had been delivered to Newport while he was in Portsmouth, 15 miles to the north.
William Dyer addressed the court at Boston which he knew would assemble on 6 September 1659. This was the
envelope that carried his two-page letter to the court on Mary Dyer's behalf.
William was the former attorney general of Rhode Island, a magistrate on its admiralty court, and its solicitor general, so he was well acquainted with New England law and court procedure. Massachusetts Colony courts didn’t allow defense attorneys, but they did accept written testimony such as William Dyer’s arguments.

William’s letter points out that MassBay Court’s laws were invalid, and didn’t match with their own 1640s laws, and also weren’t lawful according to English law. Therefore, they were holding Mary illegally. That wasn't new for such people as Gov. John Endecott and Assistant Gov. Richard Bellingham.

William Dyer's letter of 30 August 1659 to Boston Magistrates asking for release of Mary Dyer from prison


Having received some letters from my wife, I am given to understand of her commitment to close prison to a place (according to description) not unlike Bishop Bonner's* rooms ... It is a sad condition, in executing such cruelties towards their fellow creatures and sufferers ... Had you no commiseration of a tender soul that being wett to the skin, you cause her to thrust into a room whereon was nothing to sitt or lye down upon but dust .. had your dogg been wett you would have offered it the liberty of a chimney corner to dry itself, or had your hoggs been pend in a sty, you would have offered them some dry straw, or else you would have wanted mercy to your beast, but alas Christians now with you are used worse [than] hoggs or doggs ... oh merciless cruelties.

You have done more in persecution in one year than the worst bishops did in seven, and now to add more towards a tender woman ... that gave you no just cause against her for did she come to your meeting to disturb them as you call itt, or did she come to reprehend the magistrates? [She] only came to visit her friends in prison and when dispatching that her intent of returning to her family as she declared in her [statement] the next day to the Governor, therefore it is you that disturbed her, else why was she not let alone. [What] house entered she to molest or what did she, that like a malefactor she must be hauled to [prison] or what law did she transgress? She was about a business justifiable before God and all good men.

The worst of men, the bishops themselves, denied not the visitation and release of friends to their prisoners, which myself hath often experienced by visiting Mr. Prine, Mr. Smart and other eminent [men] yea when he was commanded close in the towne, I had resort once or twice a week and [I was] never fetched before authority to ask me wherefore I came to the towne, or Kings bench, or Gatehouse ... had there not been more adventurours tender hearted professors than yo'selves many of them you call godly ministers and others might have perished ... if that course you take had been in use with them, as to send for a person and ask them whe'fore they came thither. What hath not people in America the same liberty as beasts and birds to pass the land or air without examination?

Have you a law that says the light in M. Dyre is not M. Dyre's rule, if you have for that or any the fornamed a law, she may be made a transgresso', for words and your mittimus hold good, but if not, then have you imprisoned her and punisht her without law and against the Law of god and man ... behold my wife without law and against Law is imprison' and punished and so higly condemned for saying the light is the Rule! It is not your light within your rule by which you make and act such lawes for ye have no rule of Gods word in the Bible to make a law titled Quakers nor have you any order from the Supreme State of England to make such lawes. Therefore, it must be your light within you is your rule and you walk by ... Remember what Jesus Christ said, 'if the light that be in you is darkness, how great is that darkness.'

[illegible] ... conscience, the first and next words after appearance is 'You are a Quaker' see the steppes you follow and let their misry be your warning; and then if answer be not made according to the ruling will; away with them to the Cobhole* or new Prison, or House of Correction ... And now Gentlemen consider their ends, and believe it, itt was certaine the Bishops ruine suddenly followed after their hott persuanes of some godly people by them called Puritans ... especially when they proceeded to suck the blood of Mr. Prine [Prynne], Mr. Burton and Dr. Bostwicks eares, only them three and butt three, and they were as odious to them as the Quakers are to you.

What witness or legal testimony was taken that my wife Mary Dyre was a Quaker, if not before God and man how can you clear yourselves and seat of justice, from cruelty persecution ye as so fair as in you lies murder as to her and to myself and family oppression and tiranny. The God of truth knows all this. This is the sum and totals of a law title Quakers: that she is guilty of a breach of a tittled Quakers is as strange, that she is lawfully convicted of 2 witnesses is not hear of, that she must be banished by law tittled Quakers being not convicted by law but considered by surmise and condemned to close prison by Mr. Bellingham's suggestion is so absurd and ridiculous, the meanest pupil in law will hiss at such proceeds in Old Lawyers ... is your law tittled Quakers Felony or Treason, that vehement suspicion render them capable of suffering ... If you be men I suppose your fundamental lawes is that noe person shall be imprisoned or molested but upon the breach of a law, yett behold my wife without law and against law is imprisoned and punished.

My wife writes me word and information, ye she had been above a fortnight [more than two weeks] and had not trode on the ground, but saw it out your window; what inhumanity is this, had you never wives of your own, or ever any tender affection to a woman, deal so with a woman, what has nature forgotten if refreshment [food] be debarred?

I have written thus plainly to you, being exceedingly sensible of the unjust molestations and detaining of my deare yokefellow, mine and my familyes want of her will crye loud in yo' eares together with her sufferings of your part but I questions not mercy favor and comfort from the most high of her owne soule, that at present my self and family bea by you deprived of the comfort and refreshment we might have enjoyed by her [presence].

her husband
W. Dyre
Newport this 30 August 1659
Bottom of second page of William Dyer's 30 August 1659 letter to the General Court at Boston.

*Who was Bishop Bonner? 
Edmund Bonner, 1500-1569, was Bishop of London and a torturer of Protestants in the 1650s reign of Mary I, Queen of England. He had aligned with Henry VIII’s Church of England for some time, but when the Catholic “Bloody Mary” came to the throne on the death of her Protestant brother Edward, Bonner became the personification of an English Inquisition.  He was described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
"This cannibal in three years space three hundred martyrs slew
They were his food, he loved so blood, he spar├Ęd none he knew."

When Mary I died and Elizabeth I came to the throne, Bonner was given the opportunity to take an oath of allegiance to her and to the Church of England, which he refused to do. He spent the last 10 years of his life as a prisoner in the notorious Marshalsea Prison, which is a remarkable time considering prison conditions. Perhaps his status as an ordained bishop gave him privilege in housing, food and drink, and isolation from epidemic diseases in prison.
Bishop Edmund Bonner's executioners beating a Protestant heretic until he bleeds.

For William Dyer to liken his wife’s prison conditions to that of a religious torturer’s chambers from a century before was a bold criticism of the Puritan Congregational theocracy of Massachusetts. Catholic torture was one of the reasons the English hated, persecuted, and discriminated against Catholics for hundreds of years. And here was a heretic Rhode Island attorney general calling the Puritans as bad as Bishop Bonner.

*For-profit prison is a “cobhole”
William Dyer wrote that when a Quaker was arrested merely for visiting prisoners (as William himself had done without molestation), and “answer be not made according to the ruling will; away with them to the Cobhole or new Prison, or House of Correction…” The prisons were money-makers because the prisoners had to pay their own “accommodation.”

This was true of their native England, as well as New England. And it’s almost certainly one of the reasons Mary Dyer returned to the Boston prison, to provide the Quakers and other prisoners with clothes, blankets, clean water, food, medical attention for their beating wounds, and encouragement by prayer.
Silver cobs from the colonial era

 I’d never seen the word “cobhole” until I read William’s letter. So I looked it up, and there was absolutely nothing. I found that the English word for the Spanish silver coin or cabo, was “cob.” Coins were difficult to come by in New England, and cobs were much-clipped lumps of silver that were used as currency. So a cobhole was probably sarcastic slang for a money pit—a lucrative extortion racket where the prisoner’s family threw away money for “services” a prisoner didn’t receive because funds had been siphoned off by the jailer.

Cobs also circulated as coinage, many cobs made their way to the English colonies where they were used both as coins in commerce and hoarded as specie. As the cobs were crudely produced it was quite easy for colonials to clip off some silver and then pass the coin off at full value. Also, because of their crude design it was easy to make lightweight counterfeit cobs using the clipped silver. Many clipped and lightweight Spanish cobs were melted down in Boston to make the Massachusetts silver coinage.

*Church + state = oppression
William relentlessly writes of the grave injustice that a theocratic (ministers + governors and judges) government imposes on its constituents. He implies that their Christian behavior does not match either a criminal or civil code or a biblical standard of morality, and if quotation marks had been used in 1659, his and Mary's words "as you call it" would have carried a heavy sarcasm. Surely that was not lost on his intended audience! He was calling them false Christians because of their disdain for human and biblical law that they had imposed in the name of God.
  • no commiseration of a tender soul (William uses a religious term, soul)
  • no just cause against her (for interrupting a church meeting or opposing a public official, which were offenses punishable with whippings and imprisonment in the Massachusetts Bay theocracy)
  • She was about a business justifiable before God and all good men (they're not "good men" if they have such laws, and Mary was well within biblical mandates to care for the poor, sick, and imprisoned)
  • The worst of men, the bishops themselves, denied not the visitation (Mary did not receive legal counsel, and probably also did not receive food. William is saying that the Puritan theocracy was more harsh and lawless than the English bishops the Puritans had called cruel, and had executed only a decade earlier.) 
  • tender hearted professors than yourselves many of them you call godly ministers (if they'd not had legal assistance and food brought to them, many "godly ministers" -- he means persecuted Puritan ministers back in England -- would have died in conditions like the Boston prison offered.
  • they proceeded to suck the blood of Mr. Prine [Prynne], Mr. Burton and Dr. Bostwicks eares (William refers to the three English Puritans whose ears were hacked off and cheeks branded by the King Charles/Archbishop Laud theocracy in 1637.)
  • see the steppes you follow and let their misry be your warning (William decries what Boston is saying: let the misery of our prisoners be a deterrent to others who would follow. Do we not see this in the American immigration policies and for-profit detention of 2017-2019, policies made and enforced by those who publicly call themselves Christian?) 
  • what inhumanity is this, had you never wives of your own (Puritans strongly believed that God revealed his will only to men, and men were to reveal that will to their wives and children, so the Massachusetts governors were not acting in a godly way according to their own religious tenets.)

William’s indignant but logical and persuasive letter resulted in Mary’s release, and the release of other Quakers in prison.

However, the Quakers were there to commit civil disobedience, so they got themselves arrested a short time later.

Beautiful high-resolution prints of the letters written in 
Mary Dyer's and William Dyer's handwriting 
are available for sale at this link:
Christy K Robinson is author of these books (click the colored title): 

Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)

1 comment:

  1. Cob hole. "A place too small for any ordinary purpose." C. Clough Robinson. A glossary of words pertaining to the dialect of mid-Yorkshire. Derived from cob, meaning a small hard lump, as a cherry pit, cob[ble] stone, corn on the cob, and a coin that has been heavily clipped. William Dyer was from Lincolnshire in the English Midlands, as were many early emigrants to New England, not so from from Yorkshire.


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