Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mary Dyer's arrest after solar eclipse

© 2014 Christy K Robinson

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This is what an 83% annular solar eclipse looks like through a solar filter.
But without the lens, the sky was almost as bright as usual without the eclipse.
One of the most thrilling research moments I had while preparing and writing my trilogy on Mary and William Dyer was discovering where Mary was when an act of God took place.

I’d already looked up every cosmic event during her lifetime, from 1611 to 1660, in astronomical tables, almanacs, and town records, for earthquakes, comets, meteor showers, eclipses, blood moons, hurricanes, and anything that would be considered supernatural to people of that time. Lunar and solar eclipses could be predicted by astronomers and astrologers, but the religious groups still considered natural events to be sobering messages from God.

I found a record for Salem, Massachusetts, that mentioned an unusually severe thunderstorm on the night before Mary Dyer arrived in Boston for the last time before she was hanged, so I wrote it into the story. In the same records, I found a description of a solar eclipse for November 14, 1659, about two and a half weeks after Mary had been sent to the gallows the first time and reprieved. She and the Quakers of New England might have connected the eclipse with God’s disapproval of the hanging deaths of William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson in Boston.

The Salem record for November 4 said,
An eclipse of the sun began ‘presently after 
seven o’clock in the morning, 
continued till half past nine; digits eclipsed nine.’”

The difference between November 4 in the Salem record, and the November 14 date the eclipse occurred is explained by the old Julian calendar used in the 17th century, and the Gregorian calendar that our society uses today.

More about the eclipse later. Now let’s turn to what Mary Dyer was doing on that day.

I also found a record from Plymouth Colony, 73 miles south of Salem, that the recent English immigrant Thomas Greenfield was arrested on that date, for transporting one “Mary Dier” from Newport, Rhode Island, to Sandwich, in Plymouth Colony. Presumably, Mary was there to talk with the Sandwich Quakers. She would have spoken of the deaths of her Friends not quite three weeks earlier, and assured the Sandwich group that they were now in heaven or "in the Light." The Quakers’ numbers were growing fast thanks to the missionary efforts of Robinson and Stephenson, William Leddra, and the new converts themselves.

Several members of the Plymouth Colony Quakers remained in prison in Boston.

A major drawing point for converts was the Quaker endurance under severe persecution. The next generation of Pilgrims and the many Puritan immigrants from England contrasted their rigid religious system with the light and grace of the Quakers, and wanted to know what was so important that Quakers would prefer being whipped to a pulp and having their farms and stock confiscated, to attending Puritan Sunday services.

This is the record I found for Plymouth’s court actions in the autumn of 1659.
“Whereas Thomas Greenfield, coming lately out of England, and arriveing att Road Iland, came into these ptes about the fourteenth day of November, and brought Mary Dier with him to Plymouth, contrary to an order of Court which prohibiteth any of those called Quakers to come into this jurisdiction, shee, the said Mary Dier, being one of those soe called; and hee, the said Greenfield, being examined and required to answare directly whether hee had any residence, viz, house or land, att Sandwich, within this govtment or noe… [it mattered whether he was a ‘foreign Quaker’ or a colony resident, and they wanted to know his address so they could seize 30 shillings worth of goods for his fines]. 
"And the said Greenfield, for his bringing in or being a conduct to the said Mary Dier from Road Iland to Plymouth, was sentenced to pay for her transportation backe to Road Iland the summe of sixteen shillings; and for the fees of Mary Dier’s imprisonment the summe of eleven shillings, of which said summes the marshall, Barlow, was by warrant required to levy on the estate of the said Thomas Greenfield, whersoever hee should find it within his liberties."

Where was the jail? Not in Sandwich, where they were arrested. Colony records mention only a jail at Plymouth in the 1640s and 50s, says historian and museum director Jeremy Bangs. So they might have walked the 19 miles (an all-day walk) or were transported by an oxcart or boat. Walking would be likely for prisoners, but with Mary’s high status, perhaps the Quakers or the marshal provided a ride, or, much more likely, put her under house arrest right there in Sandwich. 
1701 map of Plymouth, with prison and gallows hill
in upper right corner.

It appears that Greenfield, who wouldn’t give his home address, and Mary Dyer, whose financial estate was known to be “plentiful,” weren’t willing to pay their fines. Mary’s fee of 11 shillings (the modern value of their 11 shillings is £72.05 or $116.63) corresponds with about six days of incarceration expense in their economy, and Greenfield was supposed to pay. Perhaps the court didn’t want to involve the formidable attorney William Dyer paying his wife’s expenses.

When Mary was released in the third week of November, with winter already upon them, it’s probable that she went immediately to Shelter Island, at the eastern tip of Long Island, because William Dyer’s May 27, 1660 letter (you may buy a high-resolution print HERE) on Mary’s behalf mentioned that he hadn’t seen her for “above a half year.”  

As for Greenfield, from the records, it sounds like he was kept in Plymouth prison for another two or three weeks, into December. Finally, a Sandwich resident testified that Greenfield owned a property there, so it could be levied for fines and Greenfield released.

Readers of my second book, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, know how I interpreted these two events, the solar eclipse and Mary’s arrest. The eclipse was surely seen as a message from God, the Creator. In that era, natural events and disasters were all attributed to God: they just needed interpretation.

Back to the Salem almanac: “An eclipse of the sun began ‘presently after seven o’clock in the morning, continued till half past nine; digits eclipsed nine.’” Not being an astronomer, and the furthest creature from a mathematician, I reasoned that nine digits might mean nine fingers on two hands, held up from the morning horizon against the sun’s position. Or it might mean that at Salem there was a 90% obscuration of the sun’s light during the peak of the eclipse.

This photo of reflections of the May 20, 2012 eclipse in Phoenix, Arizona
appeared in Photographer unknown.

Only a few weeks before my research, a total annular eclipse had tracked across the afternoon skies on May 20, 2012, from Texas to Japan. The totality was observed at the Grand Canyon and southern Utah, about 200 miles from my home in northwest Phoenix. Here, the obscuration of the sun was 83%. The 2012 eclipse was in the hot early evening, but the 1659 eclipse was in a chilly autumn morning. I had previously imagined that in a partial eclipse, the sky would be twilight, but I saw that because of the sun's corona, the sky was still very bright. If you glanced for half a second at the sun, it appeared to be as bright as usual, and there was no indication of the moon obscuring the sun--it was still too bright to look at. But instead of straight-edge shadows, they were indistinct crescent-shaped bright areas. Looking at the projection through a pinpoint cardboard, I saw crescent-moon shapes! The points of sunlight shining through a bush and onto a wall were crescents, too. We were seeing the eclipse in the negative.
83% eclipsed sun made crescents
 instead of circles on a wall.
Photo by Christy K Robinson

If the Salem version of the eclipse was near 90%, as I guessed from the almanac, what would it have been in Plymouth, 73 miles south?

To learn more, I called the Kitt Peak Observatory here in Arizona, and spoke with an astronomer who referred me to a familiar name whose byline or expert commentary I'd seen in popular science magazines and websites, including PBS Nature, National Geographic, Earth Observatory, and others. He was Dr. Jay Pasachoff, professor, astronomy department chair, and Hopkins Observatory director at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I was about to converse with a world-famous astronomer! I did as much homework as it was possible for me to understand before I emailed him.
Dr. Jay Pasachoff writes about the Aug. 21, 2017 total eclipse crossing the United States.  
 and the Los Angeles Times discusses it here:
Dr. Jay Pasachoff observing a total eclipse in Argentina,
February 2017.
Photo by Pasachoff, via the Los Angeles Times

Dr. Pasachoff’s reply was to give me the link to an eclipse projection for that 1659 date. He said, “If you click on the position of Salem on the map, you get details of the eclipse at any location. It shows an 87% coverage of the diameter by the Moon [magnitude at maximum], so that is close to 90%, which is probably what is referred to.  The eclipse was in the early morning, with the maximum about one palm's width above the horizon and the end about two palm's width (each palm width is about 10°).” 

Screenshot of the eclipse path of the November 1659 eclipse, via Dr. Pasachoff. The total eclipse crossed Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and into Hudson's Bay. South of the path of totality, in Maine and Massachusetts, the eclipse was partial.

In other words, something like I’d guessed: fingers (digits) and percentages. (Oh, how this non-mathematician's heart beat faster with pride!)

Next, I zoomed in and clicked the map position for Plymouth and Sandwich, which said that Sandwich had a maximum eclipse of 82% on that 1659 morning. How do you like that? I had observed an 83% annular eclipse, and Mary had observed an 82% annular eclipse.

I had the gratification of a guess being confirmed (and much expanded!) by a world-famous scientist. I knew what the crescent shadows looked like, and the brassy color of the sky, slightly darker in the opposite direction of the sun. I knew the religious symbolism of the sun and moon. And I could write the chapter to be as real as if I were standing there in November 1659: the morning eclipse, followed by Mary's arrest.

Professor Jay Pasachoff died, aged 79, on November 20, 2022. I was honored that such a luminary in astronomy took the time to help me with my research. Rest in peace, Dr Pasachoff. 
Read the Dyer trilogy by Christy K Robinson, available in paperback and Kindle. Books 1 and 2 are written as a narrative, through the eyes of Mary and William Dyer, John Winthrop, and Anne Hutchinson. Book 3 is a nonfiction companion book to the biographical novels.

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. Hi, just stumbled across this post via a link from the Partnership of the HIstoric Bostons. In his book "Darkness at Noon," about the 1806 total eclipse viewable from Boston, Andrew Newell defines a digit, saying, "A Digit is the twelfth part of the diameter of the sun or moon."

    Nine digits is 75%, so they slightly underestimated the 83% occlusion that NASA calculates.

  2. Facebook comments on why Mary Dyer committed civil disobedience to get herself arrested in Plymouth Colony:

    Lea Mitchell (in New England Genealogy group): Because she was Stupid?

    Christy K Robinson: You obviously didn't read the article, with a flippant guess like that.

    Lea Mitchell: No, I did not. But I Like Flippant. My ancestor North was A witch !

    Christy K Robinson: Mary Dyer repeatedly committed civil disobedience leading to her death--so Americans could have religious freedom and the right to worship (or not) according to their conscience. That included the right to be a Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, Wiccan--whatever. She believed that government married to religion was oppressive and deadly. And that is EXACTLY why the Salem women, who were never witches, were hanged: government religion (theocracy) accused innocent people of being heretics.

    Lea Mitchell: Do u think I really didn't know all this? I have been doing my family genealogy for over 50 years. I thank you for your history lesson. And being as North was My ancestor I can call her a Witch. I would LOVE to have a witch ancestor. Maybe I inherited her powers and can Flip off my enemies!


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