Sunday, October 27, 2019

#OnThisDay, 27 Oct 1659, Mary Dyer’s friends were hanged

© 2019 Christy K Robinson

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Perhaps because Mary Dyer had countless descendants in North America, her sacrifice for religious liberty is better known than the Quakers who were hanged as she stood nearby with a noose around her neck. Even in this website that features the friends and enemies and culture surrounding William and Mary Dyer, there’s been scant mention of the two innocent young men who went to the gallows on Oct. 27, 1659.
Photo: Lancashire Telegraph

William Robinson (no relation to this author) and Marmaduke Stevenson were men who left their comfortable, happy lives in England to come to New England because they believed God asked them to share their faith and endure persecution or even death to secure justice, security, and peace for others. Knowing that Massachusetts Bay Colony had viciously persecuted Baptists and Quakers, and had begun to write laws about beating, imprisoning, banishing, and executing for religious reasons, these men set their faces toward Boston to commit civil disobedience and call attention to religious barbarism.

One might say that had they stayed in England another few years, they faced prison, beatings, epidemic plagues, and the Great Fire of London anyway. But to people of the seventeenth century, life was short, difficult, and uncertain, but it could be borne bravely with faith; and eternal life was both a state of mind and a future certainty to be eagerly grasped.

William Robinson was a London merchant, a young man of education, successful in his affairs, and possessed of a fine and lofty spirit, ready to endure to the death for his soul’s vision of truth. Died by hanging with Yorkshire plowman, Marmaduke Stephenson, October 27, 1659, at Boston.

Robinson had been one of the first Quaker missionaries to come to America, having sailed on the Woodhouse in 1657 with at least 11 or 12 others, for the purpose of evangelizing the American colonies. As you see from his letter below, he traveled and preached in Virginia and Maryland before focusing efforts on the zealously Puritan New England.

While a prisoner in Boston’s “common jail,” William Robinson wrote a letter to George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, in England. The letter was dated 12 July 1659.
George Fox, Quaker founder, as a
young man.

G. F.
Oh! beloved of God, and highly honored and esteemed among the children of the Lord, who has made you a father unto thousands; and has given you the spirit of wisdom and of understanding. I was refreshed when I was constrained to write, to give you an account of our travels and labors in these countries. I who am one of the least among my brethren, having been for some time in Virginia with Robert Hodgson and Christopher Holder, where there are many people convinced; and some that are brought into the sense and feeling of Truth in several places. We left Thomas Thurston a prisoner in a place called Maryland; his sentence was to be kept a year and a day.

We came lately to Rhode Island where we met with two of our brethren, named Peter Pearson and Marmaduke Stevenson, in whom we were refreshed. Friends on the island were glad to see us, and the honest-hearted were refreshed.

Peter Pearson and one William Leddra, are prisoners in this country, at a town called Plymouth, as I did understand by a letter I received from my brother Christopher Holder, who was in service at a town called Salem, last week, some fifteen miles from Boston, where I am now a prisoner, (with my brother Marmaduke Stevenson) for the testimony of Jesus.

Soon after I came to Rhode Island, the Lord commanded me to pass to Boston, to bear my testimony against their persecution and to try their bloody law which they have made, with laying down of my life, if they have power to take it from me. For truly I am given up in my spirit into the hand of the Lord to do with me as He sees fit; for verily, my life is laid down, and my spirit is freely given up for the service of God, where he has called me.

The rulers, priests, and people, boast much in their hearts, that they have caused some to flee, for they have banished six Friends upon threat of death from their outward homes, which was at Salem, and they have stooped to them in fleeing the cross in their departures. Three of them have gone towards Barbados, and intend for England, it may be for London, whose names are Samuel Shattock, Nicholas Phelps, and Josiah Southwick; Josiah's father and mother [Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick] are passed to a place called Shelter Island, which belongs to a Friend, one Nathaniel Silvester, who is a fine, noble man; and the other of the six have gone to Rhode Island.

Oh! God knows how near this went to me, when I heard that they had departed, and the Lord soon laid it upon me to try their law; yes, on the same day that I heard of their departure was I constrained, and soon made willing to give up my life in order to try Boston's bloody laws. I was given up frequently in my spirit into the Lord's will, even to finish my testimony for the Lord, against the town of Boston. I was not aware of any Friend to go with me at that time, but the Lord had compassion on me, seeing how willingly I was given up to do his will, not counting my life dear to me, so that I might finish my course with joy; and on the day following, the Lord constrained my brother, Marmaduke Stevenson, to go along with me to Boston, who is freely given up to suffer with me for the seed's sake, who does dearly salute you.

Oh! my dearly beloved, you who are endued with power from on High; who are of a quick discerning in the fear of our God; Oh! remember us—let your prayers be put up unto the Lord God for us, that his power and strength may rest with us and upon us; that, faithful, we may be preserved to the end. Amen.

William Robinson
From the Common Jail in Boston, the 12th of the Fifth Mo. 1659 [12 July 1659].

Robinson wrote a paper to the Boston court which he was not allowed to read, though he left his paper on a table there. In a letter he wrote to his Quaker Friends, he said,

The streams of my Father's love run daily through me, from the Holy Fountain of Life, to the seed throughout the whole creation. I am overcome with love, for it is my life and length of my days; it is my glory and my daily strength.— "

I am full of the quickening power of the Lord Jesus Christ, and my lamp is filled with pure oil, so that it gives a clear light and pleasant smell; and I shall enter with my beloved into eternal rest and peace, and I shall depart with everlasting joy in my heart, and praises in my mouth, singing hallelujah unto the Lord, who has redeemed me by his living power from among kindreds, tongues, and nations. And now the day of my departure draws near. I have fought a good fight. I have kept the holy faith. I have near finished my course; my travailing is near at an end. My testimony is near to be finished, and an eternal crown is laid up for me, and for all whose feet are shod with righteousness, and the preparation of peace, even such whose names are written in the book of life, wherein I live and rejoice with all the faithful for evermore.

Written by a servant of Jesus Christ,
William Robinson
The 23rd of the Eighth Month (October 23], 1659.

Marmaduke Stevenson was a plowman from Shipton, Yorkshire, about five miles northwest of York. He became “convinced” of the Quaker ideology, and left his family (his “dear and loving wife and tender children”) to the care of the Lord. He followed the call to go first to Barbados in June 1658, and then to Massachusetts to share the Light. Only 16 months later, he would die on the Boston gallows, but joyfully, as an ordained “prophet to the nations.”

This is his “manifesto” letter, probably dictated to William Robinson in the Boston jail:

In the beginning of the year 1655, I was at the plough, in the east parts of Yorkshire, in Old England, near the place where my outward being was, and as I walked after the plough, I was filled with the love and presence of the living God, which did ravish my heart when I felt it; for it did increase and abound in me like a living stream, so did the love and life of God run through me like precious ointment, giving a pleasant smell, which made me to stand still; and as I stood a little still, with my heart and mind stayed on the Lord, the word of the Lord came to me in a still small voice, which I did hear perfectly, saying to me in the secret of my heart and conscience,—I have ordained you a prophet unto the nations.—And at the hearing of the word of the Lord, I was put to a stand, being that I was but a child for such a weighty matter.

So at the time appointed, Barbados was set before me, unto which I was required of the Lord to go, and leave my dear and loving wife, and tender children; for the Lord said unto me immediately by his Spirit, that he would be as a husband to my wife, and as a father to my children, and they should not want in my absence, for he would provide for them when I was gone. And I believed that the Lord would perform what he had spoken, because I was made willing to give up myself to his work and service, to leave all and follow him, whose presence and life is with me, where I rest in peace and quietness of spirit, (with my dear brother), under the shadow of his wings, who has made us willing to lay down our lives for his own name sake, if unmerciful men are allowed to take them from us; and if they do, we know we shall have peace and rest with the Lord forever in his holy habitation, when they shall have torment night and day. So, in obedience to the living God, I made preparation to pass to Barbados in the Fourth month [June], 1658.

So, after I bad been some time on the said island in the service of God, I heard that New England had made a law to put the servants of the living God to death, if they returned after they were sentenced away, which did come near me at that time; and as I considered the thing, and pondered it in my heart, immediately came the word of the Lord unto me, saying, “You know not but that you may go there." But I kept this word in my heart, and did not declare it to any until the time appointed.

So, after that, a vessel was made ready for Rhode Island, which I passed in. So, after a little time that I had been there, visiting the seed [other Quakers] which the Lord has blessed, the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 'Go to Boston with your brother William Robinson.' And at his command I was obedient, and gave up myself to do his will, that so his work and service may be accomplished: for he has said unto me, that he has a great work for me to do; which is now come to pass. For yielding obedience to, and obeying the voice and command of, the ever-living God, who created heaven and earth, and the fountains of waters, do I, with my dear brother, suffer outward bonds unto our death.

And this is given forth to be upon record, that all people may know, who hear it, that we came not in our own wills, but in the will of God. Given forth by me, who am known to men by the name of

Marmaduke Stevenson, 
But having a new name given me, which the world knows not of, written in the Book of Life.
Written in Boston prison, in the 8th Month [October], 1659.

By the words and tone of their letters, you can see that Robinson and Stevenson were kind and loving people, whose devotion to God and commitment to their cause (pushback against the theocratic laws about Quakers) was bone-deep. As is often the case, persecution brings about a sense of pity in on-lookers, and an examination of why the persecuted people are so willing to be flogged, fined, imprisoned, and even killed. The persecution of Quakers was driving interest in their faith and their ability to patiently endure suffering. See my article, They delight to be persecuted, in this site.

Robinson, Stevenson, and Mary Dyer had been arrested and imprisoned more than once, and through the advocacy of Mary's husband William, they'd been released with a sentence of banishment-on-pain-of-death if they returned to the colony. They defied that sentence, knowing their deaths could be the catalyst of religious freedom for others, and conspicuously returned to Boston. 

The day of the execution
According to a Quaker prisoner, on the morning of Thursday, October 27, the execution day, a large crowd assembled at the prison where Robinson and Stevenson (and numerous other Quakers) were being held. Robinson preached through his barred window, encouraging Quakers and exhorting Puritans. Captain Oliver, in charge of public security, could not control the crowd outside, so he went inside the prison, yanked Robinson and Stevenson down, and threw them into a “hole,” presumably a tiny and remote dungeon cell. Mary Dyer was collected from the House of Correction, a separate prison from where many of the other Quakers were held. See my article, Boston's prison during the Dyer years.

Pikes (long spears) and muskets.
Photo by Colin Howley on Flickr  Licensing by Creative Commons
Once order was restored, with more than a hundred pikemen and musketeers (militia with spears and muskets) guarding them, the three prisoners were marched over the rough ground of the Common (an animal pasture at the time—not a lovely park like it is today) because the streets were clogged with people who potentially could free the prisoners or harm the officials in a riot. They walked “with drums and colors, and halberds, guns, swords and pikes, besides many horsemen.'' (Interesting site about pike warfare HERE.)

Drums beat loudly to drown the voices of the Quakers as they walked the mile from the center of the town to the gallows at the narrow isthmus outside the Boston town gate. In a show of mutual support, Mary took the hands of Robinson and Stevenson as they walked, something she had done in 1638 in Boston, when her friend and mentor, Anne Hutchinson, had been declared a heretic and banished from the colony. Again, Mary Dyer was reviled for her support, and for the intimacy of physical touch, by the marshal.

"Are you not ashamed to walk thus between two young men?" (Mary was about 48 years old, a respectable wife and mother of six, and the young men were probably in their twenties.) "No,” answered Mary, "This is to me an hour of the greatest joy I ever had in this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and the refreshments of the Spirit of the Lord, which I now feel."

Notice the two posts and crossbeam gallows on the far left of the image.
That's the execution site outside the fortified gate to Boston, on Boston Neck.
Orange Street was the north-south road between Boston and Roxbury.
When the parade of militia, condemned prisoners, magistrates and ministers reached the gallows, Rev. John Wilson, senior minister of Boston First Church, taunted the Quakers, and by his words and actions there, almost danced with excitement. One historian noted that Wilson made a song about the two dead Quakers.

As many followers of this site know, Mary Dyer was reprieved of her death sentence after standing on the gallows ladder with her hands and feet bound and the noose on her neck, and she was returned to the jail.

Robinson’s and Stevenson’s bodies were cut down from the high crossbeam, and they fell to the ground below, where Robinson’s skull was fractured on impact. In the custom of the time, their bodies were stripped naked and they were thrown into a pit to decompose or be torn by animals or birds. One of the Quakers left back at the prison had brought fabric for shrouds, but this dignity was not afforded the hanged men. The land of Boston Neck being only a few feet above sea level and surrounded by marshes, the pit filled with tidewater, which hastened decomposition. The public display of their nude bodies was meant to be a warning and lesson to travelers who passed by, that sedition and heresy were not tolerated in the Holy City.

When the crowd of thousands returned to their homes after the grisly spectacle, they passed over a drawbridge to the north of Boston. I discovered in a court record that some months earlier, the infrastructure of roads and bridges was reported to be in dangerous condition, but the Boston magistrates refused to fund the repairs. Instead, they awarded land grants to some of their members. (Not to be too political, but this still happens today!)

On that day, October 27, as a large crowd of people were walking on the drawbridge,
“one end of it fell upon some, and several were hurt, especially a wicked woman, who had reviled both Quakers that were hung; but now she was so bruised, that her flesh rotted from her bones, which made such a noisome stink, that people could not endure to be with her; in which miserable condition she remained till she died. But the magistrates, instead of taking notice of this, grew more hardened.”

Despite all the persecution, oppression, and torture the early Quakers endured (and sometimes sought, to clear the way for others), Quaker historian William Sewel wrote:
For the more you strive with the Lord, and oppress his People, the more will they multiply and grow stronger and stronger, and you shall wax weaker and weaker, and your Works all be your heavy Burden,  for Life and Immortality is risen, and the Power of God is stirring in  the Hearts of Thousands, and Light, Understanding (the excellent Spirit which was in Daniel) is breaking forth like the Lightning.

Jones, Rufus M., The Quakers in the American Colonies, London 1911. 
Bowden, James, The History of the Society of Friends in America, London 1850. 
Sewel, William, The history of the rise, increase, and progress, of the Christian people called Quakers: intermixed with several remarkable occurrences, Philadelphia 1728.

Christy K Robinson, wearing a scarf
she had made from an image of
of Mary Dyer's handwriting
from Oct. 26, 1659.
Christy K Robinson is author of these books:
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)


  1. Enjoyed reading your articles. Cannot help myself from asking if you know whether the above described William Robinson might have been related to the illustrious Reverend John Robinson, pastor to those aboard The Mayflower? Historical records of Plymouth Colony describe his son, Isaac Robinson, as having been sympathetic to the Quakers. IMHO, It sad to read stories describing the intolerance of Puritans towards other people who also fled persecution. With appreciation for your efforts to reveal the truth about America's earliest immigrants. - Doug

    1. Thank you for your comment, Doug. I'm directly descended from Rev. John Robinson via his son Isaac Robinson. Please see my life sketch of Isaac Robinson at another of my history blogs:

      No, William Robinson was no relation to Rev. John Robinson. Robinson is an extremely common name in the British Isles now as it was then.


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