February 15, 2016

A Monster and A Martyr in Puritan Boston

The English writer John Josselyn visited New England for fifteen months in the 1630s. In September of 1639, while he was staying on one of the Boston harbor islands, the following occurred:

… The next day a grave and sober person described the Monster to me, that was born at Boston of one Mrs. Dyer a great Sectarie (sectarian), the nine and twentieth of June, it was (it should seem) without a head, but having horns like a Beast, and ears, scales on a rough skin like a fish called a Thornback, legs and claw like a Hawke, and in other respects as a Woman-Child (An Account of Two Voyages to New England, 1674). 

Josselyn is often called a credulous writer because his books are full of tall-tales, folklore, and monsters. But in this case, he was writing about one of the most famous monsters of 17th century New England. But was the monster real? Perhaps, although he had its birthday wrong...

The story begins with Mary Dyer, a devout Puritan who came to Boston from England with her husband William (a hat-maker) in 1635. For a while things went well for the Dyers in their new homeland, but they soon found themselves embroiled in a religious controversy.

The controversy initially focused on two groups of Boston ministers who had different theological ideas about God's relationship to men. The more conservative ministers felt that God established certain laws and would grant salvation only to people who followed those laws. This viewpoint is sometimes called the "covenant of works." The more radical ministers believed that God would save anyone who had faith in Christ, a viewpoint called the "covenant of grace." This controversy was called the Antinomian Controversy, from a Greek work meaning "opposed to laws."

Theology is kind of a dry subject, so I think it's hard for modern New Englanders to understand how divisive this controversy was to 17th century Boston. But think about it this way: Boston was a theocratic society founded by fundamentalist religious radicals who had fled England. The Antinomian Controversy pitted one group of fundamentalists against other fundamentalists who were even more radical than they were.

Ann Hutchinson's house stood at this spot on the corner of School and Washington streets in Boston.
The controversy nearly split Boston apart. Aside from the various ministers, one of the leading figures of the "covenant of grace" group was Anne Hutchinson, a wealthy and successful midwife. She was quite influential among the colony's women, and would often share her theological insights with dozens of women (and their husbands) in her large Boston house.

Mary and William Dyer were among those who attended the older, wealthier Hutchinson's talks and Mary soon became one of her most ardent supporters.

The controversy ended abruptly in 1637 when John Winthrop became the colony's new governor. The previous governor, who was more lenient, went back to England. One of the radical ministers was banished from Massachusetts, and several of his supporters lost their political positions. A new, less tolerant tone was set in Boston. Things didn't look good for Hutchinson and her friends.

It was in this political atmosphere that Mary Dyer gave birth on October 11, 1637. Anne Hutchinson and one other midwife were in attendance. Unfortunately the baby was stillborn and deformed. Unusual births among humans and animals were called "prodigies" at that time, and were seen as omens and warnings from God. Hutchinson and Dyer both understood their enemies would use the dead infant's strange appearance as a weapon against them and quickly buried it.

For several months Dyer's baby remained a secret from the authorities. In the spring of 1638 Governor Winthrop exiled Ann Hutchinson from Boston, and at the same time he learned about the Dyer's child. Along with a large group of ministers and magistrates Winthrop exhumed the infant's corpse. He described it in the following language:

...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 … all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback … 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 is essentially describing a demon. European manuscripts of the time were full of illustrations of demons, who were usually depicted as a hideous mix of the human and animal. Winthrop's message was clear: God punishes religious dissenters by making them give birth to monsters.

An illustration of a demon.

Before I bring this story to its unpleasant conclusion, let me just say that while I love stories about monsters and scary creatures, Mary Dyer's story isn't really about a monster. It's about politics, religion, and the role of women in society. While Dyer's baby was indeed sadly deformed, historians agree that Winthrop exaggerated the nature of those deformities to make a political point. The authorities in Boston felt threatened by the Antinomians, and they felt threatened by women like Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who believed they were as qualified to talk about theology as any man. It's disturbing to look back and see how Governor Winthrop used the Dyer's tragedy as a tool in a political struggle.

Mary and William Dyer followed Ann Hutchinson into exile and eventually helped found Newport, Rhode Island. But Mary Dyer didn't give up the fight. It seems like Winthrop's abuse of her tragedy just fueled her fervor. She became even more religiously radical, converting to Quakerism, whose tenets include the beliefs that anyone can hear God's voice and that men and women are equals in the church. Quakers were the most heretical sect in New England at the time and their presence was forbidden in Boston.

In 1657 Mary Dyer came back to Boston. The authorities imprisoned her as a Quaker and then sent her back to Rhode Island. She didn't give up. Determined that the authorities should repeal the law against Quakers she came back to Boston twice more. The second time she was sentenced to be hanged, but a last-minute reprieve was issued as she stood at the gallows. She was exiled again, with a threat that if she ever returned to Boston she would be executed.

Dyer came back to Boston again in 1660, the following year. She was quickly arrested and sentenced to hang on Boston Neck (now Washington Street in the South End*). On June 1 she was hanged. On the gallows a minister asked if she wanted the church elders to pray for her. Dyer replied "I never knew an elder here."

Dyer died as a martyr, and her death had the effect that she wanted. Many people who witnessed her execution were quite moved, and news of her death spread through the colonies. Dyer's story eventually reached the king of England, who issued an edict banning the execution of Quaker's.

Times have certainly changed. The Puritans are long gone. Massachusetts has a female senator in Washington. There's now a Quaker meeting house on Beacon Hill, and a statue of Mary Dyer sits in front of the Massachusetts State House. And no one calls stillborn babies monsters anymore.

 *A popular restaurant ironically called The Gallows is located there.


Steven E. Belanger said...

Thanks for increasing my knowledge of Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson, who, along with Coddington and others who signed the Compact, founded Portsmouth, RI (not Newport). She later left New England entirely and moved to what is now The Bronx, where she and her youngest daughters were massacred by members of the Siwanoy tribe. Incredibly active both at home (she gave birth to 15 children and is an ancestor of many famous people, including Mitt Romney and both Bush presidents), philosophically and politically, she was a fascinating woman who deserved better.

Peter Muise said...

Someone should make a movie about Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson - they lived incredible lives. It's amazing to think that the Bronx used to be a frontier settlement!