Mary Dyer’s Grave

The burial place of Mary Dyer is frequently given as an unmarked grave somewhere on Boston Common, where the four martyred Quakers were presumed hanged. But this notion is surely wrong and there is substantial evidence—although not unequivocal— that her body was allowed to be removed from the gallows by family and friends for burial on the Dyre farm in Newport.

The earliest indication of the burial place of Dyer is a memorandum entered in the records of the Newport Friends that she was “put to death at the Town of Boston … and there buried upon the 31 day (sic) of the 3rd mo 1660.”1 This record is bolstered by clear, contemporary evidence that the two Quakers who preceded Dyer in martyrdom, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, were both buried in rude graves near the gallows on Boston Neck (not on Boston Common, as is commonly reported).2

In general, Friends (as Quakers are formally known) have been quite careful in maintaining their records, so even though the record book quoted above was not begun until 1672, one might expect that local Friends, recalling such a significant event in such recent memory would know where Dyer was buried—even if they were off by one day for the date of her execution (June 1, not May [third month, Quaker style] 31). But other evidence, although of later date and circumstantial, points to the Dyre farm.

To begin, it is notable that while several of the early Quaker historians told of the rough burial of Robinson and Stevenson near the gallows, they made no mention of Dyer’s burial at all.3 So it is likely that Dyer’s body was exempted from the abuse suffered by Robinson and Stephenson, probably out of regard for her sex, her husband’s influential position in Rhode Island politics, and the force of her character.

While on a trip to New England in 1791, Caleb Cresson, a prominent Philadelphia Quaker, made a close examination of the site where the Quakers were hanged and received a detailed report from a local Friend, Ebenezer Pope, who had conducted his own inquiry. In speaking of the Quaker graves, Cresson pauses in his diary to explain that he speaks now only of the graves of Robinson and Stevenson, since Friends were permitted to remove the bodies of Dyer and William Leddra, the fourth and last Quaker martyr.4

In 1839, Daniel Wheeler wrote in his journal that “Before reaching Providence, the site of the dwelling, and burying place of Mary Dyer was shown me.”5 Wheeler’s note makes it clear that Dyer was buried at the same site where she lived and, since he was travelling north from Newport and had not yet reached Providence, the house and burial site must have been on the old Dyre farm, just north of the city.

Newport’s common burial ground was not laid out until 1681 and up until then all burials were on private property. Moreover, through the eighteenth century, almost every long-held farm had a small family burial plot and the Dyre farm was no exception. The earliest mention of that family cemetery is noted in the 1709 will of Charles Dyre, Mary’s son and in possession of his parents’ farm, as “The piece of ground now called the Burying Ground … to be fenced in by my son Samuel.”6

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Mary Dyer’s great grandson supported the British cause during the American revolution and thereupon fell into insolvency after the war, losing the Dyre farm piece by piece, until the last 20 acres came to Robert Maitland in 1852. A visitor to what was long called the Maitland estate reported in 1886 that he viewed the old Dyer burying ground, noting that “Mary Dyer was undoubtedly buried there, although there is no stone visible bearing her name.”7 The absence of a stone is not unusual among early Quakers, since they eschewed earthly vanity. More evidence was provided by a local amateur historian, Maud Stevens, who noted in 1918 that “A grave on the Dyre farm . . . was long pointed out as that of Mary Dyre.”8 But if there was no stone for Mary, it is not clear what exactly was being pointed out.

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In 1889 the former Maitland estate was broken up for development. While laying out a cross street, the workmen came across seven graves, whose stones and remains were moved to the Farewell cemetery where they can be found today. These include the two graves of Mary’s sons Henry Dyer (died February 1690) and Charles Dyre (died 1709), and the five graves of later Dyres: Mercy (died 1741, wife of William Dyre of South Kingstown), Desire (died September 3, 1760, age 69, wife of Captain Samuel Dyre), Mary (died 1766, daughter of Captain Samuel Dyre), Captain Samuel Dyre (died September 15, 1767, age 80), and Desire (died 1767, daughter of William Dyre). A lithograph (drawn about 1860) of the old Maitland estate by John Perry Newell and held at the Newport Historical Society provides a distant view of the original location of these gravestones. Of note, the view looks south to Newport and the Maitland house is not visible, so the graves must have been south of the house. And the nearest cross street south of the Maitland house was Cypress.

In 1908 the Navy selected the Maitland estate for the site of a new naval hospital. The stately Maitland house was moved from the site where the naval hospital now stands to Bayside and Sycamore streets. There it was used as a hotel and boarding house until it fell into disrepair and was razed to make way for the Newport bridge.

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1Record of the Death of Friends and their Children. Newport .

2 For strong evidence that the Quakers (and most others) were hanged on Boston Neck, see Michael Joseph Canavan, “Where Were the Quakers Hanged in Boston?” Proceedings of the Bostonian Society, Boston, 1911, 37-49.

3George Bishop, New England Judged, 203-04.

4Caleb Cresson, Diary of Caleb Cresson, 1791-1792, Philadelphia, 1877, 72.

5The Friends’ Library, Volume 7, 1843, 300.

6 Jane Fletcher Fiske, Gleanings from Newport Court Files, 1659-1783, Boxford, Massachusetts, 1998, item 28.

7 C. C. Hussey, writing in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, 16 October 1886.

8Maud Stevens, “The Romance of Newport,” Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, (January 1918), 15.