When I was 11 years old and in the 4th grade, I had a teacher who was obsessed with genealogy. She would regularly come in and tell my class about the new things she had found through her research. Eventually, as a graded project, she had us go home and start our own family tree. She gave us some pointers on how to get started and gave us two weeks to see what we could find. I still wonder if she had any idea the monster she created when she gave me that assignment.
Being as young as I was, I couldn’t drive to town halls and the internet wasn’t around like it is today. So, most of my research was done through phone calls and visits with my grandparents. During those conversations and visits, I learned about my great grandfather who was born in Italy and another who was born in Nova Scotia. I also learned that I came from a line of strong willed women. One of which, who’s story was so interesting, caught the attention of this history loving nerd and is responsible for my obsession with genealogy.
Mary Dyer was one of several women my grandmother (my Dad’s mother) had told me about. At the time, all she could tell me was Mary was hanged for being a witch in Boston. She was unable to tell me how we were related to her, however she said that her mother used to have a family bible that outlined the connection. She also told me that the tree Mary had been hanged from had been cut down and from it; plaques were made and given to descendants. My great grandmother had one of these plaques. However, when my great grandmother died, the bible and the plaque were two of several things that disappeared from her house. Due to my own curiosity and wanting to solve the puzzle for my grandmother; it then became my goal to track down my family’s connection to Mary Dyer.
Mary Dyer came over to Boston in the 1630’s from England with her husband William. Together they had several children and were very active within the small community. Along the way she made friends with another strong willed woman, Anne Hutchinson. Anne Hutchinson was known for holding her own religious meetings and had a good following. Since it was uncommon for women at that time, Anne became a target and was eventually banished to Rhode Island with her family. During that time, Mary had become a Quaker. Quakers were very unpopular in Boston, which was lead by Puritans. Some of the local leaders disliked Mary and her religion so much, when she gave birth to a stillborn baby they spread rumors about it being badly deformed. They said that it had horns and scales and that it was obviously the outcome of her dealings with the devil. These leaders labeled her as a witch and decided to banish her from the city.
Although she was banished she returned to Boston to bring clothing and food to other imprisoned Quakers. When she was caught, they were going to have her hanged until her husband was able to get her released under the condition he swore they would never return to the city. Mary stayed away for a short time before returning to Boston again to support her Quaker friends. This would be the 3rd and final stand she would take against the city for her religion.
Mary was hanged June 1, 1660 on the Boston Common in front of a whole mob of people. She was then buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the Common. Mary’s son Samuel eventually married Anne Hutchinson’s granddaughter, Anne Hutchinson and this is the line I descend from. Today a statue of both Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson stand in front of the Boston State House over looking the site of Mary’s hanging.
Having not grown up in a church, I did not understand dying for a religion. However, I did understand the importance of standing up for what you believe in and the importance of knowing right from wrong. Her refusal to back down, while others may have seen it as stubborn or foolish due to the consequences at the time, helped shape the country we know and love today.