Monday, September 5, 2011

Mary Dyer’s “monster”

***Please close page if you're sensitive to images of fetuses, 
and accept my apology. 
I think the images are necessary to illustrate the article.***

Mary Dyer Illuminated (paperback and Kindle)
tells the story of Mary Dyer's
and Anne Hutchinson's monster births,
in context, in an uncomplicated,
"addictive" narrative style.

Paperback book, 390 pages:
Kindle book:   
Kindle's free reading app: 

© 2011 Christy K Robinson 

This article is copyrighted. Copying, even to your genealogy pages, is prohibited by US and international law. You may "share" it with the URL link because it preserves the author's copyright notice and the source of the article.  
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 On October 17, 1637, Mary Dyer gave birth to a stillborn, deformed baby girl, two months prematurely. This was Mary’s third time in childbirth: her first son William had died immediately after being christened, and was buried in England. Her second son, Samuel, was born in autumn 1635, and christened by Rev. John Wilson, ironically the man who would taunt Mary at her execution. This baby girl was never christened and had no name.

Anne Hutchinson and Jane Hawkins were the attending midwives. In October, Anne had been told to stand trial for heresy in early November, and it appears that William Dyer was away from Boston for at least a month at this time: either on a venison or corn-trading mission with the Indians, or scouting land in Rhode Island on which to plant a town.

The seven-months-gestation child was born dead: it had anencephaly and spina bifida malformations, according to a neurologist (see below). It was buried in an unknown location (not a consecrated cemetery), probably on the nearby Boston Common grazing ground, by Reverend John Cotton, teacher of the First Church of Boston, where the Hutchinsons and Dyers were members.The secret burial was based on old English law that stillborn babies should be buried deeply enough not to be disturbed by animals.

The existence of the baby was unknown to most people (and I suspect its malformation was kept from Mary Dyer as a mercy), until Anne Hutchinson’s second trial for heresy and sedition in March 1638. Most of the men in the Hutchinson faction had gone on a scouting and surveying trip to Aquidneck Island to arrange for their exodus in April 1638. So the governors and ministers arrayed themselves as prosecutors, jury, and judge against Anne, who was not allowed defense counsel.

At Anne’s inevitable conviction, excommunication, and expulsion from the meeting house, Mary Dyer stood up and walked out with Anne, holding her friend’s hand for support. As they left the building, someone in the crowd mentioned that Mary was the mother of a “monster.”

Governor Winthrop, in his zeal to further prosecute Anne and her supporters for their heresy, ordered the exhumation and examination of this monster, Mary Dyer’s baby, which had lain in the frozen ground for six months. It would have decomposed somewhat between October and December, and then frozen with the severe winter that brought repeated blizzards and a frozen harbor; then when it was exhumed, it would have decomposed even further.

Illustration from De Monstrorum
 “Monster” was a term commonly used for more than a hundred years in England, to include conjoined twins, congenital birth defects, stillborn malformed babies, and even deformed living children. A 1634 book, De Monstrorum, illustrated human-beast hybrids that could come of bestiality, and in the later 1630s, Governor Winthrop described a pig-human hybrid with its human father’s face. At Plymouth Colony, a young man was convicted and hanged for having carnal knowledge of farm animals. In such cases, following the Old Testament, both man and beast were destroyed--if his "seed" mixed with the animal, then it would have been cannibalism to use that animal for food or its hide.

Usually, a monster birth was connected with the curse of witchcraft, or was proof of the mother’s heresy to established Christian beliefs and behavior. In the 1650s, a rumor went around that monsters were born to women who preached, or who had listened to a woman preacher—a direct reference to Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, and the many sects, including Quakers, that were springing up with women in teaching and preaching roles.

Anencephalic fetus
 In 1642 and 1644, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop’s account of Mary Dyer’s 1637 stillborn baby’s deformation was published in England with a forward by Rev. Thomas Welde, one of Winthrop’s colleagues who became first a London child-labor trafficker and later a minister in the north of England. In A Short Story of the Rise, Reign and Ruin of the Antinomians, Familists and Libertines That Infected the Churches of New England, Winthrop’s text described Mary’s daughter:
“It was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback* [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”
Anencephalic with spina bifida
*Thornbacks were disdained as filth: William Wood wrote in New England’s Prospect, p. 37, that “Thornebacke and Scates is given to the dogges, being not counted worth the dressing in many places.”

Winthrop didn't directly accuse Mary Dyer (and later, Anne Hutchinson) of witchcraft, or that their pregnancies were devil-spawn, but he certainly implied it by using words like claws and horns. William Hutchinson and William Dyer were socially connected and economically powerful and could protect their wives and families from a direct accusation. 

Norman McNulty, MD, a neurologist, says of Winthrop’s evaluation: “Anencephaly is certainly part of the picture and it was probably some non-inheritable congenital malformation that led to this malformation. Sometimes, in utero strokes very early in development lead to lack of development of brain tissue (anencephaly) which is probably what happened here.”

Anencephalic babies usually don’t live to birth; if they do, they die within hours. They have only a brain stem and usually have other severe defects, so it’s impossible to sustain life. For more information on anencephaly, click HERE. In addition to the anencephaly, the baby almost certainly had spina bifida. These compounded neural defects might have come from a diet poor in Vitamin B,  from lead poisoning (lead/pewter eating and drinking vessels), or from using popular remedies that included mercury.

Mary Dyer’s poor daughter was used as a sermon illustration for decades, and she was known in America and England for being the mother of a monster. Imagine that reputation hanging over you everywhere you go, for decades.

Edward Johnson, in Wonder-Working Providence, 1628-1651, wrote regarding the 1638 earthquake in New England, "yet was not this the first loud speaking hand of God against them; but before this the Lord had poynted directly to their sinne by a very fearfull Monster, that another of these women [Mary Dyer] brought forth, they striving to bury it in oblivion, but the Lord brought it to light, setting forth the view of their monstrous Errors in this prodigious birth."  

There was even gossip that Sir Henry Vane the Younger, a 24-year-old one-term governor of Massachusetts and eventually a high official in English royal court and Parliament, had an illicit affair with both Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson, which, because of the supposed utter abandon of morality, and Sir Henry’s liberal religion and politics, had resulted in both abnormal births. (Anne had a hydatidiform molar pregnancy terminate in about June of 1638, only months after Mary’s stillbirth.)

Sir Henry Vane had a set of Disciples, who first sprang under him in New-England, when he was Governour there, But their Notions were then raw and undigested, and their-Party quickly confounded by God's Providence, as appears from Mr. Tho. Weld's Account. One Mrs. Dyer, a 'Chief Person of the Sect, did first bring forth a Monster, which had the Parts of almost all Sorts of Living Creatures; some Parts like Man, but most ugly and misplac’d ; and some like Beasts, Birds, and Fishes, having Horns, Fins and Claws: And at the Birth of it the Bed shook., and the Women were forced to leave the room. Mrs. Hutchinson, the chief Woman among them; and their Teacher, (to whose Exercises a Congregation of them us'd to assemble) brought forth about 30 Mishapen Births at once; and being banish’d into another Plantation, was kill'd there by the Indians.
An Abridgement Of Mr. Baxter's History Of Young Sir Henry Vane, His Life And Times, by Richard Baxter, Edmund Calamy (editor) —1713: “The Presbyterian view is given by Baxter: ‘Sir H. Vane had a set of disciples who first sprang under him in New England. But their notions were then raw and undigested, and their party quickly confounded by God's providence.’ Baxter's proofs of the divine disfavor visited upon the New England Antinomians are certain monstrous births which poor Mrs. Hutchinson and one of her female followers [Mary Dyer] brought forth, — a sad and disgusting recital.” Calamy's Abridgment of Baxter's Life of Young Sir Henry Vane, pp. 98, 99. 

There’s no record of what Mary Dyer or Anne Hutchinson thought of their tragic pregnancies, because at that time, their emotions and sorrow didn’t matter to the men who recorded history. They were adjudged heretics and deserving of their misfortune. But my hunch is that after Anne’s death in 1643, Winthrop's publications in 1642 and 1644, the English Civil War had stabilized, and she was finished having children and weaning them, and finally Edward Johnson's 1651 history book, Mary Dyer sailed for England in early 1652. I believe her one of her several goals was to set the record straight about Anne Hutchinson, her mentor, friend, and mother figure. In England, Mary encountered a new sect that in some ways reflected the principles that Anne had taught 15 years before: they were the Quakers.

What Plymouth Colony's governor asked about Mary's baby: image and transcription of the Bradford letter:  

The DYERS book is available on Amazon
by clicking HERE.
 Like this article? Read the non-fiction book on 17th-century life and times, The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson. (Click the highlighted text to go to the book.)
Nonfiction, illustrated. The research and recent discoveries behind the novels. The Dyers is a lively nonfiction account of background color, culture, short stories, lives of their friends and enemies (Anne Hutchinson, Henry Vane, John Winthrop, John Endecott, and many others), food, medicine, interests, recreation, cosmic events, and all the "stuff" that made up the world of William and Mary Dyer in the 1600s. More than 70 chapters, and all-new, exclusive content found nowhere else! 

Christy K Robinson is author of the books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)



  1. Comments from Facebook:

    Larisa said,
    Anomalies like this are hard enough to deal with today when we understand (mostly) how they happen...I can't imagine how women like Mary Barrett Dyer were able to do so with the misinformation and prejudice!

    Christy said,
    Gov. Winthrop obsessed about Anne and Mary for years, and it was carried on by Edward Johnson and others. There's NO proof, but I believe because of the timeline, that clearing Anne's and her reputations as godly women and not heretics or circus freaks, impelled Mary to travel alone to England in 1652. (William was sailing from England to RI, as Mary left America.)

    Carolyn said,
    I give you an A+ for the well researched article...

    Christy said,
    Glad you liked the article. I didn't want to sensationalize such a tragic event, but did want to explain why it was such a huge topic in those times. I found more references, including history and science articles I had to purchase, to Mary's and Anne's "monsters" that would have been redundant in the article, but absolutely monumental to people of the time.

  2. Interesting read. Glad I wasn't born back then. I'd be one of those so-called "monsters." And my mother a "witch." Sad, really.

  3. This article was recommended as a "Good Blog Post" on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011.

  4. Wow. A amazing post. I'm thinking fast here. My ancestor Hugh March and his wife came over from England to Newburyport in 1638. Wonder what things were like then. Did pick up a book about the early history of the settlement. The March Tavern still stands. Called the Isley Swett.

  5. Historywriter, I'm glad you liked it. I've read 100 or more books specifically about the Early Modern politics, religions and sects, culture, biographies, correspondence, etc., of both England and New England, and I am FAR from being a historian or expert on the era. At some point in the next couple of months, I'll publish a bibliography here in the blog. In the meantime, please look in the 17th-century links menu of this page, and click on the "Mary Barrett Dyer on Facebook" link. I've used that page to describe factoids and nuggets about the culture and events of that time.

  6. So, so sad for them, yet they carried on faithfully! I, too would have been a monster and my mother branded a witch or some other awful thing. She's a wonderful mother who with my father raised a sick baby to an expectant mother herself (well, I'm adopting). Thank you SO MUCH for the warning re: images. I came to this page for facts about what could cause this monstrous description of that poor baby. Our baby is due October 17, so I'm creeped out a bit, but really, a good article that took work and did the subject justice. Thank you.

  7. When I first read Winthrop's cruel desription of Mary Barrett Dyer and William Dyer's stillborn daughter, I felt strongly that the baby might have had a neural tube defect. The fact that the neurologist feels the anencephaly and spina bifida was likely non-inherited is interesting. While an environmental cause is more likely to be the case, given the time period, malabsorption of vitamin B could very well be a genetic issue, as vitamin B deficiencies can be inherited. I am a direct descendant, and I also have a neural tube defect (Arnold-Chiari Malformation). I'm not suggesting that I definately inherited a gene that caused my NTD, but there is a gene called the MTHFR gene with is a key gene involved in the processing of B-vitamin folate.

    1. Mary Dyer's first baby lived long enough to be baptized and given a Christian burial, but we don't know the cause of death for the first William. Infant mortality was extremely common. In my book, I implied that he had a heart problem. The second baby, Samuel, was normal, and this anencephalic baby was Mary's third pregnancy. There were about three more years until the second William was born, three more years to Maher, and then about four years to Henry, a year to Mary, and two years to Charles. It's possible that Mary took her time weaning her babies and may have practiced birth control, but she also may have had miscarriages during the long stretches, that were kept private. We'll never know. Six Dyer children lived to adulthood and from their professions and lifespans, seem to have been healthy and able-bodied.

      I read several scientific papers on anencephaly and talked to the neurologist friend, before I wrote this article and the book, and tried to show the best representation of risk factors. The sources were firm on the environmental factors being the probable cause, and that it was a one-off.

      I'm sorry to hear of your disorder, but can tell by your statement above that you're an intelligent, learned person. Always glad to have your kind of person as my distant cousin!

  8. Thank you. I'm glad to have discovered your blog. It has driven me nuts how many family trees I've found that still claim the Tudor line. It was your post, "Who Were Mary Dyer's Parents?" that first lead me here. I am still through it all. My line is through her son Samuel.

  9. Hello Christy, you've got a great blog here. I'm a third year university student. I have been given the task of writing a paper on Mary Dyer, arguing whether she was "blessed" or "damned". You've got some great sources on your blog, I was wondering where I could access these sources outside of the blog. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi, Kyle. Glad you like the blog. I've worked hard and studied my subjects very carefully to raise the SEO to bring in researchers and readers.
      There are very few primary resources on Mary Dyer, and even those have to be examined carefully for bias. What I've done is study hundreds of journal articles and cultural or sociological books of the Dyers' times and places, and learned who their friends and enemies were, which tells us about the Dyers. The speeches and writings of Anne Hutchinson, Gov. John Winthrop, Henry Vane, and especially William Dyer became my sources, in addition to reading documents and court records from Long Island to New Haven, Rhode Island to Plymouth to Boston and Salem. I also had to know their English background and politics. Then I created a matrix in Excel, a timeline from the 1580s through 1710, for lives and events. I included travel times by ship or on foot, pregnancies, death dates, battles, famines and epidemics, folk remedies, religious and political events, cosmic events, etc. Some of the long-established mistakes about Mary Dyer can be corrected by logic and a timeline.
      As to blessed or damned, depends on who they were. The theocratic governments considered her a cursed heretic, but Mary considered herself called by God. Her October 29, 1659 letter (the version SHE wrote in her own hand--see tab above) showed her willingness to lay down her life for the principle of liberty of conscience, whereas the 1660 version, rewritten after her death, that appears in every other website but mine, has her bitter and angry at the Boston court.
      To tell as true a story as possible, we have to lay aside our 21st-century views and try to see it their way. We have an increasingly secular society, but theirs was intensely religious, black and white and never gray. Even the law-breakers recognized their misdeeds and expected to go to hell. Most people took natural events, including tragic pregnancies, as messages from God.
      So I can't give one or two resources to study. Just the article above came from my research of medical journals (not about Mary Dyer), talking with a physician, court records, John Winthrop's book, searches on Sir Henry Vane, and reading many other old books that are now part of the Gutenberg Project. I've synthesized that research, and much more, in my three books on the Dyers.

  10. Reading Wainthrop,who comes across as a reasonably measured commentator for the time, and certainly not wildly fictitious, I was concerned as to how he allowed this account to prevail. Your explanation (and accompanying images, tragic and disturbing as they are) are most helpful - not least implications of diet etc. As such it enables me to take a balanced view of his remarks on other subjects. Many thanks from the Theology Department at Birmingham University, UK

    1. Thank you for your remarks, Andy.
      I've read John Winthrop's journal/history of Massachusetts Bay Colony, his spiritual journal "Experiencia," the letters in the Winthrop Papers, and of course "The Rise, Reign, and Ruin of the Antinomians..." and have found other writings online in old digitized books. From them, I've learned a lot about who he was as a person. He was a complex man, and he was working hard to prove himself one of the Elect--which made him arrogant and judgmental, at least in spiritual matters. He showed the same zeal for rooting out heresy when Anne Hutchinson had her "monster birth" in June 1638, less than a year after Mary Dyer's miscarriage. (The Hutchinson monster article is also on this website.) Anything to do with law-breaking could be a target for his moralizing, from a mouse eating the Book of Common Prayer, to mental illness, to postpartum depression, to alcoholism, to bestiality or homosexuality.

      The "Rise, Reign, Ruin" book was published anonymously though historians agree it was written by Winthrop, and the most vicious part, the introduction that described the monster births, was almost certainly written by Rev. Thomas Weld, whose activities while a colonial agent in the early 1640s included child trafficking, and creating a fraudulent charter regarding the borders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island colonies.

      The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were the kind of men about who it's difficult to stay objective, 400 years later. Some of them are our ancestors, and we want them to be warm and fuzzy grandfather types. But that would be bad scholarship on our part, and I'm sure the colonial founders would have hated being thought of that way.

  11. Fascinating!! Samuel Dyer and Mary Hutchinson are my 8th great grandparents <3

    My Line ended up in Nova Scotia Canada :)


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