Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A peek at William Dyer's handwriting

 © Christy K Robinson
William Dyer's 27 May 1660 letter to Massachusetts General Court.
You can buy a high-resolution, ready-to-frame reproduction of this letter
by clicking on the "letter" tab above this article.

Image courtesy of Massachusetts Archives

Honored Sirs,
It is no little grief of mind, and sadness of hart that I
am necessitated to be so bould as to supplicate your Honored
self with the Honorable Assembly of your General Court to extend your
mercy & favor once again to me & my children. Little did I
dream that ever I should have had occasion to petition you in
a matter of this nature, but so it is that through the divine providence
and your benignity my sonn obtained so much pitty & mercy att
your hands as to enjoy the life of his mother. Now my supplication
to your Honors is to begg affectionately, the life of my dear wife,
'tis true I have not seen her above this half yeare & therefore
cannot tell how in the frame of her spiritt she was moved thus
againe to runn so great a Hazard to herself, and perplexity
to me & mine & all her friends and well wishers. So itt is from
Shelter Island about by Pequid Narragansett & to the towne of Providence…

This is a fragment of a complete letter by William Dyer, dated 27 May 1660, written from Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It was an attempt to free his wife, Mary Barrett Dyer, from prison and her death sentence. But Mary had intentionally defied her death-penalty Massachusetts banishment order, and sailed from Shelter Island (northeastern end of Long Island) into the Narragansett Bay, perhaps gliding past her own home on the western shore of Rhode Island north of Newport. She kept going by water to Providence, and then, in a reversal of her and William’s first exile from Massachusetts in 1638, she walked to Boston.

She was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to death, which was carried out on 1 June 1660.

A close inspection of the high-resolution image shows faded black ink on linen-textured paper that browned over the intervening 350 years. The left edge is stained by glue or book-binding. The right edge is understandably frayed and flaked. William’s handwriting here is consistent with other documents he wrote, with a fine-tipped quill and artistic flourishes. There are a few ink blots, particularly on loops, and the double t's (lett, quiett, att) are heavier than other letters, where he may have refreshed his quill.

The language, though tender when he refers to Mary, is otherwise courtly and professional (honored sirs, render you Love and Honor), as one would assume from a former clerk, secretary of state, and attorney general. He was no friend or colleague of Governor Endecott or Deputy Governor Bellingham, but he tried to appeal to their and the jury’s emotions about putting a beloved wife and mother to death, a woman who could be suffering from delusions (William was not a Quaker and didn't share his wife's beliefs).

What do you think William Dyer’s handwriting says about his personality or frame of mind? How does it compare with his wife’s handwriting?

The background of William's 17th-century words and phrases that are unfamiliar to us more than 350 years later, is given in the book Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (Vol. 2 of the trilogy on the Dyers), by Christy K Robinson.

Related article: Found! More documents in William Dyer's hand