The Execution of Mary Dyer
June 1 is a sad anniversary in New England history. On that day in 1660 Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for defying the Puritan government’s order of banishment on pain of death. What events led to the execution of that highly respected woman, and what does Mary Dyer have to do with my favorite Rhode Island obsession, Herodias Long?
Some quick background on what the Puritans were thinking when they hanged Mary. Decades earlier they had watched political, financial, and religious harassment by King Charles I and the Church of England escalate. Then the Pilgrims, a Puritan sect who had fled first to Holland, settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.
Governor John Winthrop
Backed by the Massachusetts Bay Company, Governor John Winthrop led over 700 men, women, and children in search of a place where they could worship freely. They settled on a Massachusetts Bay peninsula in 1630.
The Puritans’ stated purpose was to be a “city upon a hill.” The world would watch a Godly community prosper and the Wampanoag Indians flock to convert to Christianity. They would also trade for furs with said Wampanoags, scout for gold and minerals, and repay their backers.
Lord Henry Vane
The Puritans briefly lost the governor’s seat to Lord Henry Vane in 1637. Their response was to purge their community of a liberal, perhaps heretical faction of voters.
The men who voted Harry Vane into power sought a more liberal flavor in their Puritanism. Anne Hutchinson held meetings in her home to critique Puritan sermons. Soon 80 people were crowding to hear her, and even more were noted to be discontent. Anne was banished as a heretic, but not before 142 men were ordered to turn in their arms, and then to recant or to leave. 84 men took their families and departed, most of them to Rhode Island in winter-spring, 1638.
William and Mary Dyer and their young son were among the families who began farming on the north end of Rhode Island (then called Aquidneck). A year later, discontent over leadership led the Dyers to follow William Coddington southward to establish Newport.
Herodias Long, then Hicks, her husband, and their children arrived in Newport in the same year. John Hicks was not accused of supporting Anne Hutchinson, yet perhaps the Hickses were sympathetic enough to leave Puritan Massachusetts for Newport in summer, 1639.
Quaker Flogging, 1670
With Anne and her malcontents gone, the Puritans continued to purge their colony of undesirables. Criminals and suspected heretics were banished. Catholics and free-thinkers like Roger Williams were told to leave. Baptists were jailed and flogged. Quakers began to arrive in Boston in 1656. The first two women were stripped and searched for witches’ marks, then jailed. Then more Quakers arrived. Mary Dyer, who had become a Quaker in England, was jailed in Boston for over two months as the Puritans wrote even harsher laws. Soon Quaker missionaries were being severely flogged.
The Puritans were defensive about their laws. Aren’t they the same as locks on a man’s door to keep intruders out? Besides, the Quakers had plenty of warning, and were guilty of their own deaths. Their ministers concurred, saying that the Quakers were under Satan’s influence, and little more than witches.
You are thinking, “What has this got to do with Herodias Long?” Well, Mary Dyer brought her Quaker faith to Newport in June, 1657. Quaker literature tells us that in May, 1658 ‘Horred’ Gardner shouldered her nursing infant. With a girl to assist her, they walked 50 through the wilderness to Weymouth, Massachusetts to protest Puritan cruelties done to Quakers.
Herod and her maid were arrested, marched to Boston, where they were both stripped to the waist in public, and then whipped. Herod sheltered her baby in her arms, and afterward prayed that God would forgive the Puritans.
It seems that Herodias Long and Mary Dyer must have been close friends. After all, Herod walked 60 miles to defend the Quakers a year after Mary brought that faith to Newport. I can’t prove from contemporary writings that the two were friends, but the two young mothers brought their families to the very small, very new town of Newport at the same time. They attended the same church, and their husbands served in the same government. Of course Herod and Mary knew each other, and well.
Herod’s conversion to Quakerism, if it happened at all, was brief. She never appears in Quaker writings after her whipping, as other Quaker martyrs did. Her name is not seen in the records of Quaker meetings which became established near Herod’s homes. I believe that Herod was a woman of conscience who spoke out against Puritan abuse, but I don’t believe she was a Quaker.
What of Mary? She was jailed several times in Boston, but was not whipped, probably because she once lived in Boston, and perhaps because she was a woman of some means. Rumors abound that Mary was of noble birth, but no researcher has turned up her roots.
In 1659 Mary was led to the gallows. She watched two male Quakers hang, and then stepped willingly onto the ladder herself. The executioner snugged the noose around her neck and hooded her face, but then she was reprieved and sent back to Rhode Island. Once more the court’s sentence was ‘banishment on pain of death’ should she return to Boston.
Mary Dyer Statue
Mary Dyer did exactly that in May, 1660. She never preached a word against Puritan ministers or government, as other Quakers did. She disturbed no meetings, nor the peace of the marketplace. Mary came to Boston to visit jailed Quakers, and to defy that order of banishment. If the Puritans hanged her – and they did – maybe witnesses would speak out too, and eventually those bloody laws would be rescinded.
King Charles II
In 1661 King Charles II was horrified when he read of Mary’s death, and ordered the hangings to end. Charles also read of Herod’s flogging. The friends’ sacrifices of blood and life were not in vain, for they helped to stir a monarch’s heart, and to end the killing.
What did Herod do when she heard that her friend faced the Puritans’ gallows? The record is mute, but I drew on the friendship and sacrifices of Mary Dyer and Herodias Long for my historical novel
The Reputed Wife. I hope you’re curious enough to find out what happened…
Jo Ann Butler is a 11th-generation descendant of Herodias Long. She has tapped her work as a genealogist and colonial archeologist for her compelling tale of our colonial grandmothers and the founding of Rhode Island.