To get to the rock that a witch froze to death on, you head south on Route 5 toward Leonardtown, Md., then turn right at the sign that reads “Religious Freedom,” next to the Neighborhood CBD Store (“No RX needed”).
You can’t miss the dead witch’s rock. It’s ovoid, about the size of an ottoman and up on a raised wooden platform. Above it is a thick plexiglass shield that protects the weathered stone from the elements.
On Friday, about 100 people gathered around the rock to celebrate its fancy new enclosure. The mayor spoke. A message from Sen. Chris Van Hollen was read aloud. Visitors posed for photos at the rock, though hardly anyone touched it. Supposedly the rock is cursed.
Here is the story: In 1698, St. Mary’s County was gripped by a severe winter and a deadly flu epidemic. Livestock and people were dying. Some villagers blamed an old woman who lived alone in a simple shack in the forest and was considered by many to be a witch: Moll Dyer.
A group of them went to the shack. It was empty — Dyer had fled into the woods — so the mob burned down her house. A few days later, Dyer was found dead of hypothermia. Her right hand was frozen to a rock, her left was up in the air, raised in a curse.
This, supposedly, is that rock.
Moll Dyer Rock was lost for centuries, until 1968, when a writer for the Washington Evening Star named Philip H. Love read about the legend in a historical journal and went in search of it. With the help of a grocer who lived nearby and had known about the rock since he was a boy, Love found it at the edge of a ravine.
In 1972, the 875-pound fieldstone rock was dragged out by the National Guard and set up outside the historic jail. It sat there — a handprint-shaped depression in the stone still visible — until last week, when the boulder was ensconced with much fanfare outside Tudor Hall, home to the St. Mary’s County Historical Society.
The rock is a legend: part ghost story, part tourist attraction. In 2013, Lynn Buonviri, a retired database administrator and docent at the Samuel Mudd House, decided to do some proper research.
“I thought, this is a story that’s been around for over 300 years, passed down from generation to generation,” she told me. “That wouldn’t happen in my opinion if there weren’t some truth to it.”
Buonviri traced genealogical records and land records. She looked at 17th-century weather reports and mortality reports. And she found Moll Dyer.
Mary Dyer was born in 1634 in Devon, England. In 1669, she sailed with a brother to St. Kitts in the West Indies and served eight years as an indentured servant. Around 1677, she relocated to Maryland.
Buonviri said it’s likely St. Mary’s would have welcomed Dyer’s knowledge of herbs, poultices and the like. She may have learned African rituals from the enslaved people of St. Kitts.
“She was a single woman who took care of people and used herbal medicine and spells and things that she learned along the way,” said Buonviri, who tells the story in her 2019 book, “Moll Dyer and Other Witch Tales of Southern Maryland.”
Mary Dyer may have been considered odd, but for 30 years she was left alone.
“She had been practicing for a long time,” Buonviri said. “Just when everything went south, everything collapsed.”
Buonviri researched the families that owned the land near Dyer’s hut, figuring they would probably have been the ones bearing torches. Their descendants still live in the area.
“I’m related to one of them,” she said. “My 14th great uncle, Arthur Thompson, was one of the ones that could have done it.”
None of Friday’s proclamations included an official apology, but Buonviri — who paid for the rock’s new setting with proceeds from her book — said, “I think this recognition has relieved the guilt. I think Moll’s happier. . . . She was an old woman and she didn’t deserve what she got.”
Jillian Amodio drove from Annapolis to honor Moll Dyer. She’d brought a small, string-wrapped bundle of cedar to lay before the stone. Cedar has a cleansing energy, she said.
“We’re all a little odd,” said Amodio, “and we shouldn’t be ostracized for that.”
It’s hard to look at the Moll Dyer Rock and not think of our current situation, of the coronavirus pandemic, of how people become scapegoats, of how women are harassed and killed for being women, of how people are harassed and killed for being different.
As I was getting ready to leave, Joseph C. Gay asked if I wanted to see where Moll Dyer’s shack had been. Gay’s family goes back generations in these parts. He’s 76 and said in times of drought farmers used to blame “that damn witch” for how the tobacco and wheat were shriveling in their fields.
Gay said he could show me where Moll Dyer once lived.
But the wind had suddenly turned cold and I had to get back home. Another time, I said.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.