October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day, dating to the execution this date in 1659 of Quakers Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson on Boston Commons. They were two of the four Boston Martyrs, Quakers whose necks were stretched in Massachusetts for failing to either keep quiet or stay out of town.
(Fellow Quaker Mary Dyer, perhaps the more famous martyr, was led out to execution with Stephenson and Robinson but reprieved at the last moment. Her time was still some months away.)
In June, 1659, William Robinson, a merchant of London, and Marmaduke Stephenson, a countryman of the east pan of Yorkshire, “were moved by the Lord,” in Quaker phrase, to go from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to bear witness against the persecuting spirit existing there; and with them went Nicholas Davis of Plymouth Colony, and Patience Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, a girl of about eleven years of age … During their incarceration Mary Dyer was moved of the Lord to go from Rhode Island to visit the prisoners, and she too was arrested and imprisoned. On September 12, 1659, the Court banished the four adults from Massachusetts upon pain of death
… On October 8, within thirty days of her banishment, Mary Dyer with other Rhode Island Quakers went to Boston, …where she was again arrested and held for the action of the authorities. Five days later William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been travelling about spreading their doctrines through Massachusetts and Rhode Island since their release from prison, also went to Boston to look the bloody laws in the face, in the words of the Quaker chronicler; and they too were arrested and cast into prison. …
The issue was now clearly made between Quaker and Puritan. The Quaker defied the unjust Puritan laws, and dared martyrdom. Dare the Puritan authorities inflict it?
On October 19 the three prisoners were brought before Governor Endicott and the Assistants, and demand having been made of them — Why they came again into that jurisdiction after having been banished from it upon pain of death if they returned? — they severally declared that the cause of their coming was of the Lord and in obedience to him. The next day they were again brought before the magistrates, when the Governor called to the keeper of the prison to pull off their hats, which having been done, he addressed them substantially as follows: “We have made many laws and endeavored in several ways to keep you from among us, but neither whipping nor imprisonment, nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death, will keep you from among us. We desire not your death.” Notwithstanding which, he immediately added: “Hearken now to your sentence of death.” … When the Governor ceased speaking, however, Stephenson lifted up his voice in this wise: “Give ear, ye magistrates, and all who are guilty, for this the Lord hath said concerning you, who will perform this promise upon you, that the same day that you put his servants to death shall the day of your visitation pass over your heads, and you shall be cursed forevermore, the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it; therefore in love to you all take warning before it be too late, that so the curse might be removed; for assuredly if you put us to death, you will bring innocent blood upon your own heads, and swift destruction will come upon you.” …
Great influence was brought to bear to prevent the execution of the sentences. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut appeared before the Massachusetts authorities, urging that the condemned be not put to death. He said that he would beg it of them on his bare knees that they would not do it. … Governor Endicott, the Rev. John Wilson, and the whole pack of persecutors, however, seemed to thirst for blood; and it was determined that somebody must die.
The 27th of October, 1659, was fixed for the triple execution and elaborate preparations, for those days, were made for it. Popular excitement ran high, and the people resorted to the prison windows to hold communication with the condemned, so male prisoners were put in irons, and a force was detailed, in words of the order, “to watch with great care the towne, especially the prison.”…
The eventful day having arrived, Captain Oliver and his military guard attended to receive the prisoners. The marshal and the jailer brought them forth, the men from the jail, and Mary Dyer from the House of Correction. They parted from their friends at the prison full of joy, thanking the Lord that he accounted them worthy to suffer for his name and had kept them faithful to the end. The condemned came forth hand in hand, Mary Dyer between the other two, and when the marshal asked, “Whether she was not ashamed to walk hand in hand between two young men,” for her companions were much younger than she, she replied, “It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy.” The concourse of people was immense, the guard was strong and strict, and when the prisoners sought to speak the drums were caused to be beaten.
The method of execution was extremely simple in those days. A great elm upon Boston Common constituted the gallows. The halter having been adjusted round the prisoner’s neck, he was forced to ascend a ladder affording an approach to the limb to be used for the fatal purpose, to which limb the other end of the halter was attached. Then the ladder was pulled away, and the execution, though rude, was complete.
The prisoners took a tender leave of one another, and William Robinson, who was the first to suffer, said, as he was about to be turned off by the executioner, ‘I suffer for Christ, in whom I lived, and for whom I will die.” Marmaduke Stephenson came next, and, being on the ladder, he said to the people, “Be it known unto all this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience sake.”
Next came Mary Dyer’s turn. Expecting immediate death, she had been forced to wait at the foot of the fatal tree, with a rope about her neck, and witness the violent taking off of her friends. With their lifeless bodies hanging before her, she was made ready to be suspended beside them. Her arms and legs were bound, and her skirts secured about her feet; her face was covered with a handkerchief which the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who had been her pastor when she lived in Boston, had loaned the hangman. And there, made ready for death, with the halter round her neck, she stood upon the fatal ladder in calm serenity, expecting to die….
Just then an order for a reprieve, upon the petition of her son all unknown to her, arrives. The halter is loosed from her neck and she is unbound and told to come down the ladder. She neither answered nor moved. In the words of the Quaker chronicler, “she was waiting on the Lord to know his pleasure in so sudden a change, having given herself up to dye.” The people cried, “Pull her down.” So earnest were they that she tried to prevail upon them to wait a little whilst she might consider and know of the Lord what to do. The people were pulling her and the ladder down together, when they were stopped, and the marshal took her down in his arms, and she was carried back to prison. . .
It was a mere prearranged scheme, for before she set forth from the prison it had been determined that she was not to be executed, as shown by the reprieve itself, which reads as follows: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme; and it is further ordered, that she shall he carrjed to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke, till the rest be executed, and then to returne to the prison and remajne as aforesaid.“
Mary Dyer once again returned from exile the following year, and was hanged in June 1660.
The hours were numbered, however, for New England Puritans in their most cartoonishly obnoxious form. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in the mother country, an edict forbidding the death penalty for Quakerism closed the doors to the Boston Martyrs club.
An Account of the Sufferings of Marmaduke Stephenson is available free on Google books.