Friday, June 01, 2007

June 1

The kindly Puritans of colonial Massachusetts strung Mary Dyer from an elm tree on this date in 1660. Her crime, for which she had already been banished from the colony, was her membership in the Society of Friends and her willingness to show her face in Boston in defiance of the law.

An early emigrant to Massachusetts Bay, Dyer was the subject of religious controversy when she participated in Anne Hutchinson’s unorthodox meetings during the late 1630s. Hutchinson promoted “antinomianism,” the heretical view that individuals could acquire salvation and understanding without the assistance of the formal clergy. When the authorities banished Hutchinson from the colony in 1637, Dyer and her husband followed her to Rhode Island, where the law tolerated their beliefs.

After Dyer left the colony, Governor John Winthrop ordered the exhumation of her stillborn infant, to which Dyer had given birth in October 1637. Winthrop’s journal described the child’s “monstrous” body as final evidence that God disapproved of Dyer’s peculiar ideas.:
[I]t 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, 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’s description was published throughout Massachusetts as well as in England.

After converting to Quakerism during a trip to England in 1652, Dyer returned to the colonies -- and to Massachusetts, where in 1658 she and several colleagues were arrested and sentenced to die for violating the anti-Quaker ban instituted two years before. While her two friends were hanged, Dyer’s life was spared for the time being, and she was banished from the colony. Two years later, in May 1660, she returned and was immediately arrested, tried and convicted.

Offered the opportunity to apologize and vow to leave Massachusetts forever, Dyer refused to save her own life. “Nay, man,” she explained, “I am not now to repent.” These were her final words.

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