Will the Real Moll Dyer Please Stand Up?
This question is often asked in light of the resurgence of interest in Moll’s story. This is illustrated by the recent Weather Channel’s broadcast, several books attempting to narrow the search for her historically, as well as my own historical fiction novel about her. All provide interesting and speculative insights to the life and times of our infamous witch.
For All Saints’ Day, I’d like to share my thoughts about her. I’ve been a resident of St. Mary’s County since 1957. Moll and I share that commonality about our residence. I’ve actively researched her life since I first heard her tale- sometime around 1967. But how does one research a legendary figure? One with no historical proof of her existence? True we have the road named after her, and likewise a small stream. There’s the rock purported to be where she breathed her last. Most researchers miss the colonial letter describing her “countenance” in an unfavorable manner, but we’re mostly left with legends. Oral tradition- once the only historical record, and the basis of the old truism “where there’s smoke, there’s fire. How apt is that for Moll’s tale?
My research has included dozens of interviews with local families- families resident to the area since the time of Moll Dyer. I discovered that each had their own version of Moll’s life, with minimal variations. As there is a dearth of historical records, it is toward these legends we must focus our efforts. (According to the Archives of Maryland, the 1st loss of St. Mary’s County records was in 1768 when records kept at the home of Owen Alien (Allen?) were burned. The Archive notes this only as an FYI as “every surviving court record of the period (colonial) was destroyed in the fire of March 8, 1831”). To add to the confusion and speculative nature of the search, Ancestry.com lists five pages of Dyers on passenger lists arriving in the United States during the period, a minimum of six Mary or Margaret Dyers. It goes on to state that “lists were not kept for every ship” and many have been lost. (The endearment “Moll,” by the way, was most commonly used as a nickname for Mary, but was also occasionally seen for any “M” feminine name including, but not limited to, Margaret, Martha, Martina and Melinda, etc.).
What can we derive from the legends associated with Moll Dyer? Although there are some small deviations to the legend, the majority of local families’ oral traditions agree: she was an herbal healer and hermit. Most state her origin was Ireland, although she likely arrived on a passenger ship from England. She arrived on our shores single and unaccompanied and never married. She preferred the company of the Native Americans to her European neighbors. She dressed in a manner of lost affluence (threadbare clothes originally made from the finest materials). She froze to death on the coldest night of 1697 after a citizen’s mob burned her small cabin to the ground. (FYI, with this information, in “Sister Witch, The Life of Moll Dyer,” I also added every variation of the story that was related to me. I didn’t feel it would be faithful to her legend and her life to have done otherwise.)
So then, who is/was Moll Dyer? I won’t fabricate a correlation between any segment of the legend and other past lives lived here. It’s unnecessary to make her story more real. Her tragedy speaks to its own truth and …perhaps that’s enough. My answer to the question is Moll’s truth, even if intangible. Moll Dyer is everyone who’s faced injustice or been mocked for being different; those scorned for their beliefs and tormented for living a life true to themselves. She is anyone condemned at the court of public opinion and castigated for their lack of popularity or political correctness. She’s the embodiment of Sarah Goode of Salem fame, Anne Frank, John the Baptist, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, Rosa Parks and…the list goes on and on! Moll could be the patron saint of them all.
In conclusion, I believe Moll Dyer would be proud of her legacy, and that she’d feel some measure of peace and exoneration from the tales being told of her today. She was once used as a cautionary tale- a warning to little children to behave, but no longer. Now we remember Moll whenever we’re bullied, accused without cause or feeling friendless. Perhaps she gives us a twinge of conscience when we are the ones doing the bullying? It warms my heart to think so- that some good is our final inheritance from the tragedy of Moll Dyer.