Mary Barrett Dyer (1611–1660), an English Puritan turned Quaker, was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony. She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.
Mary Barrett’s marriage to William Dyer, was recorded in church records at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 27 October 1633. William Dyer took the Freeman’s oath at the General Court in Boston on March 3, 1635 or 1636. In 1637 Mary Dyer supported Anne Hutchinson,who preached that God “spoke directly to individuals” rather than only through the clergy. Dyer joined with Hutchinson and became involved in what was called the “Antinomian heresy,” where 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 had given birth on October 17, 1637 to a deformed stillborn baby, which was buried privately. After Anne Hutchinson was tried and the Hutchinsons and Dyers banished from Massachusetts in January 1637-8, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth,” and Governor Winthrop had it 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, Mary Dyer and her husband William were banished from the colony along with Hutchinson. On the advice of Roger Williams the group that included Hutchinson and the Dyers moved to Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island. William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact along with 18 other men.
Mary Dyer and her husband travelled to England with Roger Williams and John Clarke in 1652, where Mary Dyer joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder George Fox and feeling that it was in agreement with the ideas that she and Hutchinson held years earlier. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.
William Dyer returned to Rhode Island in 1652. Mary Dyer remained in England until 1657. The next year she travelled to Boston to protest the new law banning Quakers, and she was arrested and expelled from the colony. (Her husband, who had not become a Quaker, was not arrested.)
Mary Dyer continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 in New Haven, Connecticut. After her release, she returned to Massachusetts to visit two English Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been arrested. She was also arrested and then permanently banished from the colony. She travelled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, and was again arrested, and sentenced to death. After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but because her husband was a friend of Governor John Winthrop he secured a last-minute reprieve—against her wishes, for she had refused to repent and disavow her Quaker faith.
She was forced to return to Rhode Island, from where she travelled to Long Island, New York to preach. However her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in 1660 to defy the anti-Quaker law. Despite the pleas of her husband and family, she again refused to repent, and she was again convicted and sentenced to death on May 31. The next day Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. She died a martyr. 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).
Her last words were:
“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.”
After her death a member of the General Court uttered one of those bitter scoffs which prove the truest of all epitaphs, “She did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”
A bronze statue of her by Quaker sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson stands in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston; a copy stands in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.