On June 1, 1660, Boston’s Puritan patriarchs, minds snapped shut like oyster shells, executed Mary Dyer. They had come to the New World in search of the freedom to impose their own intolerant theocracy. Dyer had a wider vision, a New World of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience.
THIRD IN LINE AT THE HANGING ELM
Puritan fathers, lips stiff as church pews, arrived in the New World with worthy dreams. They would build a shining city on the hill, a New Jerusalem of parks, libraries, and schools, and tend lovingly to the poor and ill.
But along with new dreams, the Puritans brought Old World tools — hellfire and damnation, branding irons and prison cells. Before long, they claimed a tree in the center of their Eden as the Hanging Elm. By the mid-1650s, Quakers were outlawed in the Massachusetts colony, their books burned, their bodies whipped and branded, their tongues mutilated.
Repeatedly throughout 1659, Mary Dyer and other Quakers disobeyed the law by entering Boston, pitting their belief in the “Inner Light” against the Puritan’s “wrath of God.” For this act of civil disobedience, they were imprisoned. In mid-October, they were found guilty of breaking the laws of Quaker banishment and sentenced to hang from the tree at Boston Neck. Upon hearing this judgement, Mary cried out defiantly, “Yea, and joyfully I go!” as if it were her decision, her choice, her moral triumph over unjust laws.
On October 27, the three Quakers walked hand-in-hand to the Hanging Elm, Mary in the middle. They tried to address the crowd, but drummers had been ordered to maintain a steady beat and drown out their voices.
Dyer stood stoically, third in line. She watched one friend hanged, then the other. Then Mary herself was led to the tree, up a ladder, and a noose put around her neck. How furious the theocrats must have been that she acquiesced so calmly, as if she were waiting in line for strawberries at the market.
At the last minute, her execution was cancelled. The noose was removed from her neck, and she was sent back into exile, devastated, to her husband’s custody.
DYER’S DEATH, A TURNING POINT
Mary Dyer waited out the long winter on Shelter Island, no doubt grieving the friends she’d watched die before her. And then one day in May, she returned to Boston clothed, as it were, in disobedience, once again defying the law of “Quaker banishment.”
Some say she came back carrying her own shroud. Certainly this was true metaphorically, if not literally. Committed, body and soul, to upholding the right to freedom of conscience, she knew what she had to do. As she put it, “My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth.”
The next morning, she was paraded through the streets once again, this time alone. At the tree, she was given a chance to repent and save herself, but she refused, believing that her death would heighten public awareness of the “unrighteous and unjust law of banishment.”
When her neck snapped, many wept. One of the officers, moved by the sight of Dyer’s slight body swaying in the breeze, became a Quaker convert.
Back in England, King Charles II was, finally, shocked into action and used his power to put an end to the execution of Quakers, although persecution (imprisonment and torture) by Puritans continued for more than a decade.
No one remembers the executioners who carried out the orders, but today in Boston, Philadelphia, and at Earlham College in Indiana there are statues of Mary Dyer, who is remembered for her courage in the fight for freedom of religion.
TO GO DEEPER
“Top 10 Things You May Not Know About Mary Dyer” by Christy K. Robinson (Excellent information and fun to read, written by a Mary Dyer scholar.)
This Day In History, June 1 (53 seconds)