Photo: Mary Dyer statue
Courtesy of WGBH Gavel-to-Gavel

Sculptor: Sylvia Shaw Judson

Created: 1959

When Anne Hutchinson was banished for her spiritual beliefs in 1638, one person came to her side in support, Mary Dyer. She and her husband William had emigrated to Boston just three years earlier, and like many Pilgrims in Boston they had become interested in Hutchinson's spiritual thinking.

Some of Hutchinson's supporters, including the Dyers, decided to move with her to Roger Williams' colony in Rhode Island. In 1650 the Dyers went to London to advocate that Rhode Island receive a royal charter. While there, they attended Quaker meetings and returned practicing a new faith.

Massachusetts Puritan leadership saw the Quaker faith as a far more threatening influence than an individual heretic like Hutchinson. In 1658 they enacted laws to punish anyone who aided a Quaker, and to torture or kill those who professed that belief.

Two of Mary Dyer's friends, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson had been arrested for heresy in Boston. When Dyer went to visit them in jail, she was arrested for aiding them. All three were exiled and warned not to return.

Photo: Mary Dyer painting

Within a few weeks, they did return to Boston to protest the repression on conscience. They were arrested and tried again.

This time they were sentenced to hang. On October 27th, 1659 the three were paraded across the Boston Common to the gallows by two hundred guards. The Quakers tried to call out to the crowd, but were drowned out by the beating of drums. Robinson and Stevenson professed their beliefs as they died. Next Mary Dyer stood with a noose tightened around her neck, facing the crowd, as her husband begged for her life.

Governor John Endicott stayed her execution and exiled her again with a final warning to be gone. Seven months later she returned to face the law; the middle-aged mother of six was finally executed on June 1st, 1660.

As a result, her husband William returned to the King of England, who pressured Massachusetts to end the martyring of Quakers. He also agreed to the Lively Experiment, which made Rhode Island the first place where citizens were insured a right to freely practice any religion.

Though the brutal Puritan laws inspired fear and submission, the convictions of protesters like Mary Dyer were stronger still. The faith of Mary Dyer inspired a new tolerance, which was enshrined in Massachusetts Constitution, which later became the model for the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.