sylvia shaw judson

On this day in 1660, Mary Dyer was executed on the Boston Common for defying her banishment from Boston. Mary’s execution is one story in a larger narrative of frequent clashes between Quakers and Puritans. Her death is often linked to the easing of anti-Quaker laws in Boston.

Mary Dyer was born in England and emigrated to Boston with her husband in about 1635. The Dyers were part of a flood of religious dissidents fleeing persecution in England. Shortly after arriving in the Massachusetts colony, the Dyers joined the church in Boston.  Less than a year later, the Dyers became embroiled in a theological controversy called antinomianism that engulfed the Boston church between 1636 and 1638. This controversy tore apart the Boston church. When Mary Dyer gave birth to a severely deformed stillborn child, the leaders of Boston’s church exhumed the grave and declared the child’s deformities both a sign and result of Mary’s deformed religious beliefs. Shortly after the exhumation, the Dyers left Boston for Rhode Island with other antinomians, including Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright.  

In the early 1650s, Mary Dyer returned to England where she was introduced to the Society of Friends, widely known as the Quakers, and became a devoted follower of the movement.  Boston’s Puritan establishment did not tolerate Quaker proselytism, and when Dyer returned to Boston in 1657, she was immediately imprisoned and then banished for her Quaker beliefs and her attempts to spread them.  She defied the banishment order and returned to Boston with the intention of spreading her religion. She was again  banished, and threatened with execution if she returned. She broke the banishment order a third time, traveling to Boston in October of 1659 where she was immediately sentenced to death. On the date of her execution, however, she was pulled from the gallows and given a reprieve. She left Boston, but returned again in the spring of 1660, was sentenced to execution, and did not receive a reprieve.

On the day of her execution, Mary was given a chance to recant her beliefs and escape execution. She stated, “ Nay, I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in his will I abide faithful to the death.”

This bronze state of Mary Dyer by Quaker sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson stands in front of the Massachusetts State House, and was photographed by Peter Dyer in 1976.