Friday, October 18, 2019

#OnThisDay 18 October 1659

© 2019 Christy K Robinson

“She is to be forthwith executed.”

It was a fix.  

Many books and articles have been written that say that Mary Dyer was to be executed by hanging on the 27th of October, 1659. That’s what she believed, and that’s what her husband William believed. When their son, William Dyer the younger, perhaps 18 or 19 years old at the time, arrived with a reprieve at the moment Mary stood on the gallows ladder, it was a moment of dramatic theater.

But it was staged.

On Tuesday, the 18th of October, a small group of leaders of the Boston government had decided Mary’s fate and how it would all play out for the thousands of spectators who came out for the hanging of three Quakers. We know this from the Colonial Records of 18 October 1659, which I have modernized for spelling and to correct scanning blips.

“It is ordered that the said Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight hours to depart out of this Jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is to be forthwith executed. And it is further ordered that she shall be carried to the place of execution and there to stand upon the Gallows with a rope about her neck until the Rest be executed; and then to return to the prison and remain as aforesaid.”

Gov. Endecott and his court had no intention of hanging Mary at this time, since her freedom had been urgently sought by the governor of Nova Scotia and Acadia (Maine), by Gov. John Winthrop Jr. of Connecticut ("as on his knees"), her teenaged son William Dyer, and her husband William Dyer, the attorney general of Rhode Island.

Making a martyr out of this lovely, educated, well-connected woman would be a terrible mistake, and the officials knew it well. Executing the two young men, repeat offenders with their defiance of banishment orders and their proselytizing of beliefs up and down the cities of the Bay, might be justified, and could serve as a deterrent to those who would stand up to authority; but a woman who almost certainly did not preach, but supported her Quaker friends as called to do in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25)—no, that would be a disaster of public relations and could bring violent protest and political insurrection. They really, really, really wanted Mary Dyer to go back to Rhode Island and shut up. As they later wrote in a lengthy tract trying to justify and vindicate their actions, the magistrates believed that “the sparing of Mary Dyer upon an inconsiderable intercession, will manifestly evince [that] we desire their life absent rather then their death present.”

So the court came up with this little morality play by which they hoped to frighten Mary Dyer into her predetermined subjugated-woman role, most proper in their Calvinist eyes. Let’s hang her friends, and pretend we’re about to hang her, then we’ll be seen to show tender mercy to the little woman so her boy can take her home.

“It is ordered, that Wm Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, & Mary Dyer, Quakers, now in prison for their rebellion, sedition, & presumptuous obtruding themselves upon us, notwithstanding their being sentenced to banishment on pain of death, as underminers of this government, &c, shall be brought before this Court for their trials, to suffer the penalty of the law, (the just reward of their transgression,) on the morrow morning, being the nineteenth of this instant. Wm Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, & Mary Dyer, banished this jurisdiction by the last Court of Assistants on pain of death, being committed by order Robinson of the General Court, were sent for, brought to the bar, acknowledged themselves to be the persons banished. After a full hearing of what the prisoners could say for themselves, it was put to the question, whither Wm Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, & Mary Dyer, the persons now in prison, who have been convicted for Quakers, & banished this jurisdiction on pain of death, should be put to death according as the law provides in that case. The Court resolved this question on the affirmative; and ye Governor [John Endecott], in open Court, declared the sentence to Wm Robinson, it was brought to ye bar:

“Wm Robinson, you shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, & from thence to the place of execution, & there hang till you be dead.”

The like sentence the Governor, in open Court, pronounced against Marmaduke Stephenson & Mary Dyer, being brought to ye bar one after another, in ye same words.

"Whereeas Wm Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, & Mary Dyer are Order require sentenced by this Court to death for their rebellion, &c, it is ordered, that the secretary [Rawson] issue out his warrant to Edward Michelson, marshal general, repairing to the prison on the twenty seventh of this instant October, & take the said William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, & Mary Dyer into his custody, & then forthwith, by the aide of Capt James Oliver with one hundred soldiers, taken out by his order proportionably out of each company in Boston, completely armed with pike, & musketeers, with powder & bullet, to lead them to the place of execution, & there see them hang till they be dead, and in their going, being there, & return, to see all things be carried  peaceably & orderly.”

Warrants issued out accordingly.

It is ordered, that the Reverend Mr Zechariah Symmes & John Norton repair to the prison, & tender their endeavors to make the prisoners sensible of their approaching danger by the sentence of this Court, & prepare them for their approaching ends.

Rev. Zechariah Symmes had emigrated on the Griffin with Anne Hutchinson’s family in 1634, had publicly criticized Anne, and he had been one of the inquisitors at the Hutchinson trials for sedition and heresy in the fall and spring of 1637-38. Symmes was well-acquainted with Mary Dyer, the mother of a “monster” miscarriage that proved God’s judgment on Mary’s heresy in following Anne Hutchinson. Symmes was sure to look on Mary Dyer with distaste and disapproval, even 21 years later.

Rev. John Norton had arrived in Boston just as Anne Hutchinson was tried for heresy, and Mary Dyer had taken Anne’s hand in support, which exposed Mary to the community as the woman who had given birth to the “monster,” a premature fetus with no brain, and spina bifida. In 1652, on the death of Rev. John Cotton, he succeeded as the Teacher of Boston’s First Church.

“Tendering their endeavors” would not have been at all tender, as we know it in modern terms.

Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the General Court to be executed for her offences, on the petition of William Dyer, her son, it is ordered, that the said Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight hours after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, & in the meantime that she be kept close prisoner till her Son or some other be ready to carry her away within the aforesaid time; and it is further ordered, that she shall be carried to the place of execution, & there to stand upon the gallows, with a rope about her neck, till the rest be executed, & then to return to the prison & remain as aforesaid.

It is ordered, that thirty-six of the soldiers be ordered by Capt. Oliver to remain in & about the town as sentinels to preserve the peace of the place while the rest go to the execution.

The magistrates feared an insurrection by the citizens of Massachusetts Bay Colony, of whom thousands of people were in the city for the quarterly court business and legislative matters. Thirty-six soldiers were ordered to remain in the town of Boston to keep order while the prisoners and execution officials were taken by 100 pikemen and musketeers to the gallows on Boston Neck, just outside the fortified gate to the town. The plan to guard Boston—and the magistrates themselves—required advance orders.

Source for the colonial records above:


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. Facebook comments:

    Donna Martz: Wow! I had no idea! Of course, I am brand new to Colonial history. Transposing the print is very helpful. Still, were the other two people hanged, or did they make their escapes with Mary?

    Christy K Robinson: I'll have more posts to share this week and next since this is the 360th anniversary of the events.
    But here's the spoiler: the two Quaker men, Robinson and Stevenson, were hanged on Oct. 27, 1659, while Mary Dyer was reprieved. But she deliberately returned, in defiance of her banishment order, in May 1660, and they were forced to hang her on June 1, 1660. She committed civil disobedience and believed that *because* she was a well-connected woman, her death would have more meaning. And it did. (As I say, more posts to come, so stay tuned!)

    Donna Martz: Oh my God! These Puritans surely did not foresee the direction this country was destined to go! This is very interesting. Until recently, I have basically no education in history. Because of genealogy research, my education is getting upgraded tremendously. It is really fascinating to learn what life was like in various locations and eras. It has been exciting to learn. I will watch for your posts!

    Christy K Robinson: Whether or not you're descended from the people in my Dyer website, I hope you and others will read it to learn the culture, religious views, politics, and natural events that made our ancestors who they were, which is what's passed down to us. I research these people not as flat cartoon saints or villains, but as multidimensional people. So bookmark the site, and read down the archives as you find time.

  2. Facebook comments:

    Jim Stevens: She was looking to be a martyr.

    Christy K Robinson: Yes, she absolutely was looking to be a martyr. She was no victim of the Puritan regime: Mary Dyer purposely tried to be arrested because she believed God had commanded her to go to Boston to try their "bloody law" that tortured and threatened death to Quakers who refused to conform to religious conventions.

    Not a victim. A victor! Mary's death and her letter/manifesto to the court resulted in the change she sought.


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