It was a particularly brutal winter for Leonardtown, Maryland. In 1697, or 1698 depending on who you ask, disease outbreaks, death, crop failures, and a harsh cold plagued the area. Word of the Salem witch trials a few years earlier had made its way south. Superstition and fear found fertile ground in the desperation.
That fear arrived at the doorstep of Moll Dyer, an older English immigrant who lived in a hut just south of Leonardtown. The townspeople decided that Dyer was the source of their misfortune. They labeled the single woman a “witch” and said that she must have cursed the town. They descended upon her hut on a frigid night, torches in hand, and set her home ablaze.
Dyer escaped the flames, running off into the nearby woods as torch-wielding colonists followed her. The snow fell more forcefully, the winds blew harder, and suddenly, Dyer was deep in the woods in the midst of a blizzard. She had lost those chasing her, but she was alone. She soon found a large boulder and rested her hand and knee upon it.
It was too cold. There was no way she’d survive the night. In her final moments, she stretched out an arm, raising it to the heavens to curse Leonardtown and her persecutors for eternity. A few days later she was found frozen to death on that very boulder.
At least, that’s how the legend goes. It’s a story that has been passed down from generation to generation. Ask anyone in town and they know all about Moll Dyer. Today, the place where Dyer’s hut is said to have stood is called Moll Dyer Road, and the stream that runs parallel to it is called Moll Dyer’s Run. In 1972, the local National Guard removed an 875-pound boulder from the woods and put it downtown, smack in front of what is now the Old Jail Museum, as a makeshift memorial. The boulder is believed to be the one Dyer froze to death upon, and her hand and knee prints are supposedly still visible.
But is any of this true? Did a Moll Dyer even exist? One Leonardtown resident, 71-year-old Lynn Buonviri, decided she was going to answer these questions. The legend has given Buonviri an entirely new life, one in which she gives public talks on the topic, and offers walking tours in Leonardtown. She has been researching Dyer intensely for the past three years.
“Moll and I have been together for quite a while,” Buonviri jokes. “I’m getting to be known as Moll Dyer’s friend.”
One of Buonviri’s friends had the maiden name Dyer, and she was curious as to whether there was a connection. She visited the St. Mary’s County Historical Society and asked them to tell her everything they knew about Dyer, the so-called “witch in the woods.”
Buonviri says the Historical Society staff told her they didn’t even know for sure if Dyer existed. They knew the legend, but had no proof. Buonviri was shocked. She asked them to give her every article written about the subject and attempted to connect the dots. She looked through genealogical records, searching for a single woman who immigrated to the area in the 1600s with the last name Dyer. When she finally found a woman who fit the bill, it was Mary Dyer who came from Devon, England. Moll could be a nickname for Mary.
Buonviri wholeheartedly believes that this is the Moll Dyer. Whether or not she performed witchcraft may be impossible to find out, but she does believe that Dyer probably practiced some type of herbal medicine, leading people to label her as an enchantress.
“You have to take a leap of faith,” she says. “But this legend has lived for more than 300 years. If something lasts that long, it has to have some sort of basis in fact.”
Her own experience with the Moll Dyer rock solidified her faith. One fall day a few years ago, Buonviri, who suffers from a lung disease that causes her to cough up a little bit of blood, was downtown near the rock with her husband. She took a couple pictures and decided to put her hands on the rock. It was cold, she says, and she removed her hands and began to walk away. Within 30 seconds, she started coughing up blood non-stop. She coughed up a cup of blood in 45 minutes—the most she’s ever coughed.
She won’t be touching the rock again. She will, however, be writing a book about Dyer. Currently, she’s also trying to organize a movement for Leonardtown to officially make the rock a memorial with a full explanation of who Moll Dyer was.
“It’s speculation and it’s a legend, and it brings people to town, especially around Halloween,” she says, laughing. “And we really owe it to her.”