Who is buried in Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb? Is the Pope Catholic? Who wrote Mary Dyer’s last letter?
In previous books about Mary Dyer, in internet genealogy sites that copy from one another, and going all the way back to the 17th-century Quaker chroniclers, we are told that Mary Dyer (known as the “Quaker Martyr”) wrote two letters in late October 1659: the night before her death sentence was to be executed, and again, after her reprieve. Those writers give us the text content of the letters. The inscription on the Mary Dyer sculpture in Boston is taken from the text of the second letter.
While researching my novels on the Dyers, I tracked down original documents to see what the penmanship was like. (I didn't attempt graphological analysis.) Were there cross-outs, ink blots, even margins, evidence of a bumpy surface on which the paper was placed, or did the text flow freely from mind to the page? Many men who were fairly high in colonial government could only make marks instead of signatures. William Dyer was a businessman, clerk, and eventually a colonial official (first attorney general in all of America)—was he measured in his phrasing, did he cram his handwriting to save space at the end of a line, did he write in even planes or slant it up or down, and did he use standard spellings of his day or write phonetically?
Of course, I had similar questions about Mary’s writing. Many women could read their Bibles, at least, but not every man or woman could also write (print or cursive), and if they did, it looked like chicken scratches.
So I set about looking for these original holographs. After many hours of research, I found two of William’s letters regarding Mary (the ones transcribed accurately on several websites), and one of Mary’s letters, in the Massachusetts Archive and its state library.
|Fragmentary image of Mary Dyer's letter to the Boston court, |
26 October 1659.
Image courtesy of Massachusetts Archive
As soon as I read Mary’s letter, I noticed that it bore little resemblance to the text she’s supposed to have written the night before she expected to die.
First lines of the letter everyone thinks Mary wrote:
Whereas I am by many charged with the Guiltiness of my own Blood: if you mean in my Coming to Boston, I am therein clear, and justified by the Lord, in whose Will I came, who will require my Blood of you, be sure, who have made a Law to take away the Lives of the Innocent Servants of God, if they come among you who are called by you, 'Cursed Quakers,' altho I say, and am a Living Witness for them and the Lord, that he hath blessed them, and sent them unto you: Therefore, be not found Fighters against God, but let my Counsel and Request be accepted with you, To repeal all such Laws, that the Truth and Servants of the Lord, may have free Passage among you and you be kept from shedding innocent Blood, which I know there are many among you would not do, if they knew it so to be: Nor can the Enemy that stirreth you up thus to destroy this holy Seed, in any Measure contervail, the great Damage that you will by thus doing procure: Therefeore, seeing the Lord hath not hid it from me, it lyeth upon me, in Love to your Souls, thus to persuade you: I have no Self Ends, the Lord knoweth, for if my Life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me, nor could I expect it of you,…
First lines of the letter Mary actually wrote (line breaks follow Mary’s line breaks in the original holograph):
from marie dire to the generall court now this present 26th of the 8 moth 59assembled in the towne of boston in new Ingland greetings of grace mercyand peace to every soul that doth well : tribulation anguish and wrath to all that doth evellWhereas it is said by many of you that I am guilty of mine owne death by mycoming as you cal it voluntarily to boston: I therefore declare unto every onethat hath an eare to hear: that in the fear peace and love of god I came and in weldoingdid and stil doth commit my soul and body to him as unto a faithful creatorand for this very end hath preserved my life until now through many trialls andtemptations having held out his royal scepter unto mee by wch I have accesseinto his presence and have found such favoure in his sight as to offer up mylife freely for his truth and peoples sakes :
So what accounts for the huge difference in the two versions? The short answer is that somehow, Quaker minister and writer Edward Burrough received a copy of Mary’s original letter, and created his own letter, putting Mary’s name to it for persuasiveness and authority. And for 350 years, everyone has thought Burrough’s letter was Mary’s.
But it’s not.
Why would Burrough do that? His purpose was not to preserve Mary’s words, but to put an end to the Quaker persecutions raging in England and New England by writing a pamphlet to King Charles II, refuting the defensive pamphlet written by the Boston magistrates after Mary’s unpopular execution in June 1660. Burroughs’ efforts succeeded, and the king ordered Governor Endecott to stop executions and refer any capital cases to England for trial.
|Cover page of Burrough's 1660 pamphlet|
My training and career have been focused on writing and editing magazines, books, and websites for nonprofit organizations, religious entities, and universities. It’s the practical, workhorse side of public relations and marketing. It was my job to mold (and often rewrite) the words of the CEO or other executives to more precisely fit the mission and message of the organization. If I may project backward by 350 years, I suspect that immediately after Mary’s execution in 1660, someone in Boston stole and copied Mary’s letter(s) to the General Court, and sent the copy to Burrough in England. It was his purpose to craft an image for the new Quaker movement, and do to King Charles what Mary had already done to the people of Massachusetts:
1. create outrage that the Boston authorities were out of control,
2. that they’d gone too far by killing a high-status woman who was innocent of a capital offense, and
3. that they must stop the persecution of people who were only obeying God.
But Mary’s letter(s) contained words meant only for the Boston magistrates—words of softer persuasion, that they would listen to God’s voice in their hearts and stop the torture and killings of God’s people, the Quakers. So Burrough rewrote or ghost-wrote the letter in fiery, angry language to fit his agenda, presented the pamphlet (containing only the first letter) to the king in audience in winter 1661, and obtained the desired writ. Only one more Quaker was hanged after Mary, because of the delay in trans-Atlantic travel. Another Quaker who had been condemned to die was reprieved and banished because the writ came in time to save him.
Then in 1662, Burrough, a Quaker preacher and political advocate, was arrested for holding illegal religious meetings in his home. He was sent to Newgate Prison, and despite a release order from the king (which was ignored, probably by anti-royal Puritan rebels left over from the Cromwell days). Burrough remained in prison and died there at age 29 in February 1663. Prison conditions were extreme: starvation, filth, vermin, and disease killed many prisoners, and unheated dungeons in freezing winters would certainly hasten death.
With Mary Dyer and Edward Burrough dead and Quaker persecutions surging again, no one remained to think about or argue who wrote the letters. Somehow, Mary’s letter was returned to the General Court files kept by the malevolent Edward Rawson, secretary, and that’s the letter that remains in the archive vaults to this day. A second letter—if it ever existed—is not preserved, though someone wrote a letter that purports to be Mary’s, for which we have no holograph. It’s as strongly worded as the other letter’s Burrough version, so perhaps he wrote the second letter and didn’t use it in his pamphlet.
If Mary’s first letter was changed so radically, we have to assume that the second letter was also altered significantly. But we have no original with which to compare.
I used the text of Mary’s original first letter, making it more modern with paragraph breaks and conventional spellings, in my second novel, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. I used phrases from the second letter (whether written by Mary and edited or rewritten by Burrough) in dialog, but chose not to reproduce the second letter.
Someday, when my fantasy of all of this intricate and fascinating Great Migration-era story becomes a TV series on PBS and BBC, it would be fun to explore or invent who purloined Mary’s letters and sent copies to England.
Was there a Quaker mole in the midst of the Boston wolves?
The letter in Mary Dyer’s hand
Mary came to the end of the large sheet of paper, and turned it over to write six more lines, the ghost image you see behind the words in the middle of this fragment. On the right vertical edge of the paper are water stains which smeared the ink. Perhaps it was raining when the messenger carried her letter from the jail to the Massachusetts General Court, presided over by Governor John Endecott. The letter was folded at some point, and the paper has flaked away at some folds and edges, but for the most part, it's legible, even after more than 350 years!
|Front of the Oct. 26, 1659 letter that |
Mary Dyer wrote in prison.
Paper was a luxury commodity in seventeenth-century New England because it had to be imported. In Europe, paper was milled from macerated hemp, flax, and linen or cotton rags. (Wood pulp was not used until 1843.) Important documents like royal charters were written on vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep or goat skin).
William Dyer, Mary’s husband, would have had a ready supply of paper for his work as clerk, recorder, secretary, attorney general, and solicitor to the colonial assembly. His penmanship is fine, and contains few corrections, which means the documents were copied from draft notes, or that he was confident of his writing and reporting abilities and got it right the first time.
As I mentioned before, Mary Dyer was among the privileged few women who could both read and write. And judging from the even, consistent appearance of her handwriting, she had plenty of practice. Perhaps Mary kept a journal that was lost or burned, or wrote letters to friends that have been lost to the ages. In my novels, I suggested that Mary kept farm and business accounts for the family, and during her time in England, kept a journal and wrote letters. Keeping ledgers was common among merchant-class women, and in England the aristocratic women kept journals and wrote letters and books.
The letter she wrote to the General Court while in prison was very legible, but she had more words to write than she had paper, so she had to turn the paper over and write six more lines on the back, which most writers did not do because the ink could bleed through. She probably had to buy the sheet of paper and use of a quill pen and ink from the jailer, as Quakers were not allowed any books or writing materials in the prison—upon conviction, the law required that those items be burned to prevent them from proselytizing, journaling, or fomenting more rebellion.
(Of course, burning Quaker possessions also destroyed evidence that might have been used against them, but the Governor and assistants didn’t seem to have thought of that—nor had they ever watched CSI or Law and Order. I find it amusing that one of the Plymouth Colony Quakers used the lack of evidence because his books were burned, to successfully to defend himself.)
All of New England’s paper was imported from England at this time. There, all the paper for books, broadsheets, pamphlets, government and private use, was made by one or two companies who held a monopoly on the process. Mary’s paper’s finish was a horizontal “laid,” which is a fine texture of parallel lines rolled onto the paper when it’s still wet. Cheaper paper of the era, made at most paper mills in England, was a coarse gray, but this paper’s original color may have been a white or cream, which browned with age. Its content was probably 100 percent linen rag. It appears it was a quality sheet of paper, perhaps obtained from the office of Edward Rawson, MassBay Colony secretary, and is the same type of paper that William Dyer used for Rhode Island business and the letters he sent to the Boston court on behalf of his wife.
I wondered if Mary had written the letter in a prison cell, or if she was in a room with a table and some light. There’s no evidence of an uneven or rough surface under the writing, so I think a table was used. In comparison to William’s fine-tipped pen which perhaps had a metal nib, Mary’s writing is much more thick or bold, so the pen might have been of low quality or needed trimming. But she had enough light to keep her lines and letters even. She didn’t write words that she scribbled over. And if she made a mistake, perhaps she was able to scrape off the ink and rewrite a word, but I can’t tell from a computer screen.
In the text she wrote, Mary Dyer cast herself in the role of biblical Queen Esther, a Jewess who threw herself on the mercy of the Babylonian King Ahasuerus to save her people from slaughter. No one approached the totalitarian, oft-drunken monarch Ahasuerus and lived unless the king held out his scepter in acceptance, which he did for Esther. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, had told her that it was her destiny to persuade the king to stop the persecution and genocide, saying that God had brought Esther to her role “for such a time as this.” And Esther was successful in saving her people.
Mary saw herself as called by God to take a stand before the ultra-fundamentalist government of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, at “such a time as this,” the height of Puritan-on-Quaker persecution, by saying that they were persecuting Christ’s children, and therefore, Christ himself. She asked them to search themselves for any spark of the Light of Christ within them, and warned them of eternal damnation if they persisted in their policies and attitudes.
|Mary Dyer: "but to me to live is Christ and to die is gaine"|
At the page turn, Mary asked that Quakers be allowed to attend the execution and clothe the bodies of her Friends Stevenson and Robinson (and herself) with shrouds. The aftermath of the death penalty was to strip the bodies after death and throw them naked into an open pit near the road where birds, tidewater, and nature would decompose them and serve as a warning and crime deterrent to passersby. There was a fence around the pit to prevent the bodies being taken away.
Boston court records do not show if Mary’s letter was read in court, or if they denied or accepted her request. Many letters of the time, in England and New England, show the date they were read and recorded. They say “endorsed” or “denied” and are dated. There was no such notation on her letter, although there’s a scrap of paper taped to the letter which states that it’s from Mary Dyer, with the date she wrote it. It’s not in Mary’s hand, though. It seems to be a file note.
Perhaps there was no resolution noted on the letter because nine days before the October execution, her fate had already been decided by the court.
Did Mary’s letter have any effect, then, on stopping Governor Endecott and Reverends John Norton and John Wilson from their bloody persecution and death penalties? Probably not.
But her death itself, seven months later, did cause considerable outrage amongst even the non-Quaker populace, and of course Edward Burrough used Mary’s letter as a model for his successful pamphlet.
The unintended effect of Mary Dyer’s letter is that 350 years later, we gain insight into the real story and intimate details behind the legend.
Christy K Robinson is the author of three books set in the 17th century: the biographical novels Mary Dyer Illuminated, and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, and (nonfiction) The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport. For more information: http://marybarrettdyer.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html