Friday, June 1, 2012

Top 10 Things You May Not Know About Mary Dyer

© 2012 Christy K. Robinson 

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17th-century painting of Catholics
hanging Protestants in the 30 Years War.
This is the type of gallows
used in Mary Dyer's time.
Mary Barrett Dyer, 1611-1660, is commonly known as the subject of a statue outside the Boston statehouse in Massachusetts, and that she was hanged by the puritan government there in 1660. Countless thousands living today claim her as their ancestor. And that's generally all they know. Here are some tidbits to expand your horizons—or perhaps pump up the history paper your teacher assigned (be sure to read the archived articles in this site, and click the links for more details).

10. Mary Dyer's death bought your constitutional freedom.
The sacrifice of Mary Dyer’s life in 1660 had direct bearing on the Rhode Island Charter of 1663 which legally granted liberty of conscience (religious freedom), and eventually on the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, and used as a model for many governments around the world. When you hear the words “First Amendment rights,” remember Mary Dyer, and that she and her cause were the motive for separation of church and state in America, and freedom to worship (or even not worship!) and speak according to your conscience. Maybe you think a religion-based or morals-based government would be good to take us back to the good ole days. If so, remember the religious governments of Islam (Iran, Taliban and Al-Quaeda, Iraq, ISIS, Saudi, and many others), the English Bloody Mary, the Catholic Inquisition and conquest of the Americas, the Puritan slaughter and enslavement of Irish Catholics, the European and American trials and executions of "witches" who weren't witches, the mass migrations away from sectarian persecution, the Holocaust of the Jews, the Bosnian genocide... Government and religion must be kept separate, and religious beliefs must not determine laws. Mary and William Dyer knew that.

9. Mary Dyer was hanged, but not for “being a Quaker.”
This nonfiction e-book
by Christy K Robinson
(author of this blog) is an
anthology of  research
on the Dyers, Anne Hutchinson,
John Winthrop, the cultures they
lived in and shaped, and the
civil liberties issues they
raised which affect us today.
I know, that’s what most of the genealogy websites—and Wikipedia, and Ruth Plimpton's book, and countless opinions and feature articles say (actually, it's a big circle of quoting one another). But it’s not true that Mary Dyer was hanged for "being a Quaker." Thanks to the Quaker missionaries from England, there were hundreds of Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) converts in New England in the late 1650s and early 1660s. They were subject to persecution and physical torture (imprisonment in wet or freezing jail cells, topless whipping for men and women, branding, having ears notched or sliced off, tongues bored through, being dragged from town to town, put in stocks, fined heavily and/or their possessions confiscated, banished) because they represented anarchy to the church-state government formed by the Massachusetts Bay founders. Quaker persecution also happened in England, and for the same reason—fear of anarchy to established traditions and government.
 Not one person was hanged for religious beliefs in their hearts and minds for "being a Quaker," but because they were intentionally disobedient to anti-Quaker laws. You can see by Mary's 1659 letter to the Massachusetts court that she was ready for heaven, that she was appalled at their cruelty and wickedness, and that she chose to die. When she left Shelter Island in the spring of 1660 and walked from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, Massachusetts, it was her intention to defy the anti-Quaker laws and be executed, specifically to bring attention to the cruelty of the theocratic governor and magistrates and their unjust laws, and raise public outcry against them. According to a Quaker observer, she believed 'it was required of her once more to visit Massachusetts, to finish, as she expresses it, "her sad and heavy experience in the bloody town of Boston."' Mary was re-tried on May 31, and hanged on June 1, 1660. By the way, it is incorrect grammar to say that Mary was "hung." People are hanged, objects are hung. 

8. Not hanged on Boston Common.
The gallows in Boston were located
to the left of the fortification,
at the narrowest part of Boston Neck.
This drawing is from 1728.
Note the post-and-lintel gallows.
Nearly all accounts of Mary’s and other “criminal” hangings say they were hanged on an elm tree on Boston Common, and their bodies were buried in a common grave (of Indians, thieves, paupers, etc.) now lost. This belief started more than a hundred years after Mary's 1660 execution.  In M.J. Canavan’s speech to the Boston Historical Society, published in the book, Where were the Quakers hanged in Boston?, he makes the case that executions in the 17th century were made just outside the fortification on Boston Neck, the isthmus that connected the Shawmut Peninsula to the Massachusetts mainland. It was about a mile’s walk from the prison, as described by the Quaker historians, but the Common was only a fraction of a mile. Further, from 1630, Boston was intended to be the New Jerusalem which would be the City on a Hill, filled with godly men whose strict keeping of the Old Testament law would hasten the second coming of Christ. From biblical times, criminals were executed outside Jerusalem's gates to symbolically keep their corruption or "uncleanness" from the Holy City. The place of crucifixion was outside the city. Boston authorities seem to have modeled their gallows on that, by putting the gallows outside the city gate. Where was Mary Dyer buried? Probably not in the criminals' open pit of the Neck's marshes. Researcher Johan Winsser believes that because Mary was a high-status woman, her body was taken home to the Dyer farm's burial plot at Newport, Rhode Island.

7. Mary Dyer committed civil disobedience. 
The four Quakers who were hanged, including Mary Dyer, actually chose to die, rather than agree to permanent exile from Massachusetts and their preaching and religious support there.  They were given the opportunity to leave—and live—and chose instead to take a stand for liberty of conscience in the hope that their deaths would be so shocking that the persecution would end. They were hanged for civil disobedience. Mary Dyer’s letter to the Boston magistrates shows that she was opposed to their “bloody” laws of religious intolerance and persecution, and that she rejected their conditional offer of release. 

6. Mary was educated, intelligent, beautiful, wealthy.
What did she look like? She was described as a woman “of no mean extract or parentage, of an estate pretty plentiful, of a comely stature and countenance, of a piercing knowledge in many things, of a wonderful sweet and pleasant discourse, so fit for great affairs, that she wanted [lacked] nothing that was manly, except only name and sex.” Another writer said of Mary: "a Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good report, having a Husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children."

5. Mother of a “monster.”  
Mary Dyer’s third pregnancy ended in the premature stillbirth of a girl with anencephaly (having only a brain stem) and spina bifida deformities. Six months after it was buried, Governor John Winthrop ordered the exhumation and examination of the baby, calling it a monster, and proof of God’s judgment on Mary’s heresy to the puritan beliefs and lifestyle. In 1644, he published a book in England about Anne Hutchinson's heresy trial that described the Dyer baby’s appearance. In the mid-1600s, there was an urban legend that women who preached, or even listened to a woman preacher, bore monsters. Mary bore eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood.

4. Mary Dyer was co-founder of two American cities.
Many people believe that Mary Dyer was a Pilgrim who came to America on the Mayflower. Untrue! Stop it now! Though her name is not on the documents because as a woman she wasn’t a “freeman” who could vote, Mary came to Boston in 1635 with her husband. In 1638, she was a pioneer who walked from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband, small child, and other families connected with Anne Marbury Hutchinson. Mary’s husband William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact that united the founders of the new colony, and he was among the purchasers of Rhode Island from the Indian sachems. One year later, Mary and William and others established the town of Newport, Rhode Island. The other women who co-founded Newport are listed in this blog and nowhere else, which is a shame, because it was easy to find out!

3. Mary’s husband was a milliner, surveyor, farmer, politician, militia captain, sea captain, and trader.
 William’s apprenticeship in London had been to the professional guild, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, which had London mayors and council members among its alumni, but his first profession was milliner. A milliner was not a maker of fancy hats and bonnets, but a supplier of leather goods and accessories from Milan, Italy (Milan-er). William’s apprenticeship in foreign trade, imports and exports, and merchandizing was probably the equivalent of a modern Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree! And it's probable that like a university student or intern, in his nine years of apprenticeship, William would have learned much about commercial fishing and its inspections and regulation. In New England, he was quickly put to work as a surveyor, trader, and administrator.

2. Mary was married to a man of “firsts.”
Mary’s husband, Captain William Dyer, was the first Secretary of State of Rhode Island, first Attorney General of Rhode Island (1650), and first Commander-in-Chief Upon the Seas for New England (1652-53). He was also commissioned to take military action against the Dutch colonists of New England, by the Council of State in England.

A Dutch trading ship at House of Good Hope,
a fort near Hartford, Connecticut
Captain William Dyer (Commander-in-Chief Upon the Seas) and Captain John Underhill (Commander-in-Chief Upon the Land) were commissioned, during the Anglo-Dutch War in 1652-53, to harass the Dutch traders and settlers occupying what’s now known as Long Island, Manhattan, New York, and Connecticut. William’s job was to take “prizes” of ships and their cargos, and split the profits with the English Council of State and the colony. As a result of the Dyer/Underhill ship and farm “takeovers” (or at least the imminent threat of them), the Dutch governor ordered a defensive wall built across the southern part of Manhattan Island. The wagon road that ran alongside the wooden palisade was called Wall Street. Wall Street is still the domain of raiders, 350 years later…  Mary was staying in England during the time William performed these controversial acts.

1. Mary Dyer heard God’s voice.
In her twenties, Mary was a close friend and student of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, who claimed divine revelation and visions, and by doing so, incited the fury of the Boston Puritan leaders who believed that God only communicated in that way with men. Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop said that Anne and Mary were “much addicted to revelations.” When Mary studied Quaker beliefs in the 1650s, she learned that they called divine revelation the Inner Light. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians today would recognize it as the Holy Spirit speaking to one’s heart. Secular people would term it a conscience.

Henry VII of England,
absolutely NOT the ancestor
of Mary Dyer.
Bonus thing you may not have known: Mary Dyer was not the secret child of Arbella Stuart and William Seymour.   
That's what many genealogy pages (and Ruth Plimpton's book) say about Mary's ancestry. If you've copied that to your records, it's WRONG. No researcher has found proof of Mary's parents or her birth or christening record. The legend was created in the 1800s by a Dyer descendant. The false story is that she was the child of Lady Arbella Stuart (3x great-granddaughter of Henry VII), aged 35 in 1610, and William Seymour (4x great-grandson of Henry VII), aged 22 at time of their secret and illegal marriage. Age 35 was very old for first-time pregnancy in those days. If Arbella had been pregnant and borne a baby, it would have been noticed by servants, royal household personnel, Anglican clergy, or any of the hundreds of Lambeth Palace or Tower of London employees--it was impossible to hide something like that, especially since Arbella was under a royal-watcher microscope! But according to legend, the newborn Mary was spirited out of the Tower of London (a prison, remember, with tight security) and raised by her nurse, the original Mary Dyer, and hidden from King James I while he searched for the child who had a better claim to the throne. What a crock of snooty bias! There's also a false rumor that Arbella Stuart was killed by King James in 1615 in the Tower of London. Arbella actually died--childless--from a self-imposed hunger strike. And William Seymour's children were born to a later wife, years afterward. Face it, it's impossible for Mary Dyer to have been the Stuart-Seymour daughter. Really, isn't it MORE remarkable that Mary Dyer was brilliant and accomplished on her own, without a privileged background? Read more about this easily-busted myth HERE.

All three Dyer books are here:

To join hundreds of friends and descendants of Mary and William Dyer in a discussion of their culture and experiences, join the Facebook page called "William and Mary  Barrett Dyer Descendants," and/or follow this blog (see margin).
Is this article (and the links in this site backing it up) helpful? Consider a donation to the  researcher/author. Each article here takes 20-30 hours to research and write. You can help support William and Mary Dyer research costs (Ancestry & NEHGS subscriptions, memberships, reference books). Click the "Donate" button below to help. Thank you!


Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:
and of these 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. There are several streets in the NYC area named Underhill. Wonder if they were named after the good Captain? Although, I'm not sure where all of them are; they may be in sections that were established long after (centuries, even) any of his privateering acts took place. I find the painting of Catholic Spaniards hanging Dutch Protestants interesting. Do you know where this took place? What country or area the painting depicts? People often refer to the bad blood between the English and that was true, obviously, but it was mainly in the 17th century? Before the English took control of New Amsterdam (what is now NYC)? I wonder how much existed afterwards?

  2. Yes, Capt. Underhill owned several parcels of land in New Netherland (Manhattan, parts of Long Island), and was governor of New Hampshire for a year. He was married to a Dutch woman (whose name was Anglicized to Helena) from his early military career in Holland, where he had worked for or with the English separatists (the Pilgrims left behind). There's an Underhill cemetery somewhere in New York (maybe Long Island?). And he has many descendants living today.

    There was a series of Anglo-Dutch wars, naval wars, that began in 1652 with politics over East and West Indies trading.

    Underhill would have had intimate knowledge of the American territories he was raiding because they were his neighbors and business competitors. He'd even worked for Gov. Kieft in the 1640s.

    1. Actually the Cemetery is in New Jersey across the Hudson River from Manhattan in a town by the name of Edgewater. The cemetery is located on UNDERHILL AVE in EDGEWATER. It is located on the property that once was owned by an aluminum company that manufactored the same there by the name of the ALCOA building. I once lived across the street from the cemetery and the factory. It was gated with an wrought iron fence and many graves are located there with Dutch headstones from the 1600's and latter.

  3. Although William Dyre was a member of the prestigious Fishmongers' Company of London, there is no evidence that he practiced that trade prior to his removal to New England and much reason to doubt it. Dyre served his apprenticeship under Walter Blackborne, a prosperous haberdasher, milliner, and shopkeeper. While most members of the London guilds practiced the trade represented by their fraternity, some number took advantage of a provision known as the "custom of London," which permitted a citizen who obtained the freedom in one company to practice the trade of any other. Thus in time, a tradesman might no longer be engaged in the occupation that the name of his fraternity bears—and Blackborne was at least a third-generation Fishmonger. Blackborne and Dyre both signed long term leases and occupied shops in the fashionable and high-end New Exchange, leaving little time to go fishing.

  4. Breathtaking analysis, Christy! One more bonus point: Mary Barrett Dyer was not the sister of Herodias Long of Newport, RI, who was also claimed to be the daughter of Arabella Stuart by a hopeful descendant.

  5. Great to read this. I do remember skimming over her name when studying American History but I really enjoyed what you wrote here and hope to read more about her in the future.

  6. Isabella and William married 6/22/1610. Thereafter she was not immediately imprisoned in the Tower but stayed with Thomas Perry in Lambeth until April 2, 1611. Moving her was postponed due to "illness" or perhaps late stage of pregnancy? Also of interest . . the King wanted her moved because he thought Perry was treating her like a guest rather than a prisoner. Could this be because of her condition? Although her maid claims she was not pregnant perhaps that was a false statement to conceal and protect Isabella's offspring. No claim here that Mary Dyer is the daughter but it doesn't seem so impossible that a child may have been conceived.

  7. I am a direct descendant of Mary Barrett Dyer, she was my 12th great grandmother

  8. If I count correctly Mary Dyer is my 11th Great Grandmother through her son Samuel and his wife Anne (who was also his great niece)
    This arm of her family tree is on the east coast of Canada :-)

    1. Mary seems to have been my 9th great grandmother, AND Anne Marbury Hutchinson was my 10th great grandmother. Yours is the first mention I’ve seen of a familial link between Anne and Mary, besides my own!

  9. I'm not sure what you mean by Samuel Dyer being married to his great niece. Samuel married Anne Hutchinson, the daughter of Edward Hutchinson, who was the son of Anne Marbury Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons and Dyers were not related until Samuel married young Anne. But it's always great to discover new Dyer descendants.

  10. My husband is a descendent of Mary Dyer. I have to look at the geneology but she is a relative.

  11. Love your wit as well as the information!

  12. I am compiling resources for a project, "Women of Valor: Interfaith Voices in America" and this is very helpful, thank you!

    1. Thanks, Frances. I hope you'll attribute this info to me and my site. Sometimes I find my work (extensive research over years) copied wholesale without attribution, while fantasies and incorrect notions go unchallenged.
      Christy K Robinson,

  13. My 10th great grandmother! I just found this out yesterday. I'm in tears reading this information. Thank You!!

  14. My husband found out some of his ancestors came over on the Mayflower & that he is kin to Mary & William Dyer... Luved reading this article; so informative, Thank You for this information!!

  15. The great "sin" of the Quakers was that they were anti Trinitarian.These articles never reflect that.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous.
      Also, the Quakers believed in direct revelation from God, whereas the Puritan government believed only the Elect could receive revelation and interpret it. And they believed women could receive revelation and speak about it in public, to men and women, which was an outrage to orthodox Reform groups.

    2. You are so articulate and passionate - I hear the Light of Mary in your voice.

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. I am a descendant of Mary Barrett Dyre. I believe she is my ninth or tenth Grandmother, maybe even earlier.


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