Mary Barrett Dyer was an English Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.
Tradition has it that Dyer, born circa 1611 was the daughter of Lady Arbella Stuart and Sir William Seymour, but since her maiden name was Barrett, this is doubtful. As a child, she was an occasional guest of the royal court of King Charles I. The ball gown worn for these visits was brought with her to Colonial America and pieces are said to be in the possession of her descendants.
Mary Dyer being led to the gallows in Boston by Howard Pyle, 1905, published in McClure’s 1907. From the collection of the Newport Historical Society.
She married William Dyer, a fishmonger and milliner in the New Exchange, as well as a Puritan, in London on October 27, 1633. She gave birth to a total of eight children, two of whom died in infancy.
In late 1634 or early 1635, the Dyers emigrated to Massachusetts, where William Dyer took the Oath of a Freeman at the General Court in Boston on March 3, 1635 (or 1636). They were admitted to the Boston Church on December 13, 1635.
In 1637, the Dyers became open supporters of Anne Hutchinson, who preached that God “spoke directly to individuals” rather than only through the clergy. Dyer joined Hutchinson and the Rev. John Wheelwright during the “antinomian heresy” period, in which they worked to organize groups of women and men to study the Bible in contravention of the theocratic law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Mary also followed Hutchinson to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
Dyer gave birth on October 11, 1637, to a deformed stillborn baby, who was buried privately. After Hutchinson was tried and the Hutchinsons and Dyers banished from Massachusetts in January 1637, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth”, and Governor John Winthrop had the baby’s corpse exhumed in March 1638, before a large crowd. He described it thus:
“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.”
Winthrop sent descriptions to numerous correspondents, and accounts were published in England in 1642 and 1644. The deformed birth was considered evidence of the heresies and errors of antinomianism.
In 1638, the Dyers were banished from the colony, and followed Hutchinson to Rhode Island. On the advice of Roger Williams, the group moved to Portsmouth, where William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact in March 1638 along with 18 other men. The Dyers ultimately settled in Newport, where by 1640, William had acquired 87 acres of land. He flourished in Rhode Island, serving as Secretary for the towns of Portsmouth and Newport from 1640 to 1647, General Recorder, and ultimately Attorney General from 1650 to 1653.
Mary was dissatisfied with Rhode Island life, and traveled alone to England in 1650, where she joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder, George Fox. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.
William briefly joined her but returned alone to Rhode Island in 1652; Mary remained in England another five years. Her 1657 return to New England was ill-timed; John Endicott had succeeded Winthrop as Governor in 1649, and was far more intolerant of religious dissension. When Mary’s ship landed in Boston, she was immediately arrested. Her husband secured her release nearly three months later, on account of his prominent social status in Rhode Island, on the condition that William “give his honor” that Mary would never return to Massachusetts.
Dyer continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 and expelled from New Haven, Connecticut for preaching “inner light” and the notion that women and men stood on equal ground in church worship and organization. After her release, she illegally returned to Massachusetts to visit two imprisoned English Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. When she traveled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, she was arrested and sentenced to death. After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but Dyer was spared at the last minute because her son interceded on her behalf against her wishes.
She was forced to return to Rhode Island, and traveled to Long Island, New York to preach, but her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in April 1660 to “desire the repeal of that wicked [anti-Quaker] law against God’s people and offer up her life there.” Despite her husband’s and family’s pleas, she refused to repent, and was again convicted and sentenced to death on June 1, 1660.
The next day, as she was escorted to the gallows by Captain John Evered of the Boston military company, Evered said to her “…that she had, previously been found guilty of the same charge, and been banished, that she now had one last chance to repent and be banished again.” Dyer refused and was then hanged.
“The Quaker”Mary Dyer led to execution on Boston Common, 1 June 1660, by an unknown 19th century artist. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.
Her execution is described by Edward Burrough in A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God (1661).
“ Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent. ”
—Mary Dyer’s last words
After her death a member of the General Court, Humphrey Atherton, is reputed to have said, “She did hang as a flag for others to take example by.” She was buried on Boston Common in an unmarked grave.
A bronze statue of Dyer by Quaker sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson stands in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston; a copy stands in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.
Photograph of the Anne Hutchinson-Mary Dyer Memorial Herb garden at Founders’ Brook Park, Boyd Lane, Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Photograph taken September 1, 2009, by Michael Steven Ford .
In Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Mary Dyer, the Quaker Martyr, and her friend, Anne Hutchinson, have been remembered at scenic Founders Brook Park with the Anne Hutchinson/Mary Dyer Memorial Herb Garden, an educational botanical garden, set by a scenic waterfall and historical site of the early colony of Portsmouth. The garden was created by artist and herbalist Michael Steven Ford, a descendant of both women.
Notable descendants of Dyer include Rhode Island Governors Elisha Dyer and Elisha Dyer, Jr., and U.S. Senator Jonathan Chace and University of Georgia archivist Jill Robin Severn.
- Her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article says “of whom all that is known of her parentage is her maiden name”. It is reasonable to surmise that her date of birth was around 1611.
- Rogers, Horatio, 2009. Mary Dyer of Rhode Island: The Quaker Martyr That Was Hanged on Boston Common pp. 1–2. BiblioBazaar
- “Notable american women: a biographical dictionary”, Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James. Harvard University Press, 1974. ISBN 0-674-62734-2, ISBN 978-0-674-62734-5. p. 536
- “Character Counts: The Power of Personal Integrity”, Charles H. Dyer. Moody Publishers, 2010. ISBN 0-8024-3909-8, ISBN 978-0-8024-3909-3. p. 208
- “Mary Dyer: biography of a rebel Quaker”, Ruth Talbot Plimpton. Branden Books, 1994. ISBN 0-8283-1964-2, ISBN 978-0-8283-1964-5. p. 12
- “Mary Dyer: biography of a rebel Quaker”, Ruth Talbot Plimpton. Branden Books, 1994. ISBN 0-8283-1964-2, ISBN 978-0-8283-1964-5. p. 13, 16
- Anderson, Robert Charles; Sanborn, George F. Jr.; Sanborn, Melinde L. (2001). The Great Migration, Immigrants to New England 1634–1635. Vol. II C-F. Boston, p. 379-381: New England Historic Genealogical Society
- The Journal of John Winthrop 1630–1649, Dunn, Savage, Yeandle, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1996, p. 255
- ODNB article by Catie Gill, “Dyer , Mary (d. 1660)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 
- The Journal of John Winthrop 1630–1649 [Cambridge, 1996], p. 254
- Bicknell, Thomas Williams (1920). The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Vol.3. The American Historical Society. p. 992
- Austin, John Osborne (1887). Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island. J. Munsell’s Sons. p. 290
- Ancestry.com: Biography of Mary Barrett Dyer
- Mayo, Lawrence. John Endecott. Harvard University Press (1936). p. 243
- Ancestry.com: Biography of Mary Barrett Dyer
- Quaker Book of Discipline, 1927 printing, p. 32