By Kim H. Carrell
In Boston Harbor at Longitude 42° 19' 47.9" North and Latitude 70° 56' 43.9" West sits a shoal known as Nix's Mate. A rocky mass that was once a 12 acre island, Nix's Mate is now nothing more than a 200 square foot mini-island marked by a black and white "day beacon" to aid in ship navigation. But Nix's Mate is also a historical remnant of Boston's piratical past, decades before the American Revolution and perhaps it is even the victim of a pirate's curse.
A harbor pilot named John Gallop was granted the deed to the island in 1636, and used to graze his sheep there. We know that rock was quarried from the island starting in the 1600's to be used as ship's ballast - the weight placed in the lowest portion of the hull to help balance the tall ships of the time. Slate was also quarried in the 1700's, often for use as gravestones in Boston's burying grounds. But it was in 1726 that the island earned it's most lasting fame, as the spot where the body of pirate William Fly was gibbeted.
The practice of gibbeting pirates was a common one, intended to frighten sailors into not joining the "brethren of the coast". In many major port cities in England, Europe, the Caribbean Islands and the American Colonies, a condemned pirate's body would be suspended in chains after his execution - displayed in a spot where the sight could not be avoided by ships entering and leaving the harbor. The pirate now served as a grisly warning to all seamen considering chasing their fortunes in the same way. (In the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" Captain Jack Sparrow receives just such a welcome as he sails his sinking skiff into Port Royal, Jamaica - past the remains of three gibbeted pirates). The real-life pirate Captain William Fly joined the ranks of those executed for piracy when he was hanged in Boston in 1726 along with two of his crew. But much to the anger of the Royal Court of Admirality, Fly would make no apologies for his life as a "gentleman of fortune". A newspaper of the day, the Boston News-Letter reported that Fly laughed and joked with the crowd gathered at the gallows and "advised Masters of vessels not to be severe and barbarous to their men, which might be a reason why so many turned pirates". When the hangman - new at his job - placed the noose around Fly's neck, Fly said to the nervous executioner "you, Sir, do not know your own trade". Fly then helped the executioner tie the knot correctly - and then placed the noose around his own neck. The Boston News-Letter goes on to state that "their bodies were carried in a boat to a small island called Nick's Mate, about two leagues from the town, where the said Fly was hung up in irons as a spectacle for the warning of others, especially seafaring men".
However, centuries-old legends among Boston seafaring men also tell of an earlier gibbeting on the island. In 1698 a pirate whose name is now forgotten was condemned to hang, having been the first mate on a pirate vessel commanded by a Captain Nix. The first mate protested that he was innocent of piracy, having been forced, or "impressed" into service on the pirate ship. He continued to protest his innocence by telling the court that if his body were gibbeted on the island, it would sink. And to all appearances, it began to do exactly that. Shortly after the unknown pirate's execution, the tide began to rise higher and higher on the island and more and more of its rocks remained under water at low tides. Today's 200 square foot rock is all that remains of what was once a 12 acre-island. Did all the quarrying of slate and ballast rock in the 1600's and 1700's reduce the island to its current size? Or did the unknown pirate's curse come to pass? Perhaps the only way to know is to sail out to Nix's Mate after sunset on a calm night to see if the laughter of William Fly and his mates can be heard on the wind.
Cahill, Robert Ellis: Pirates and Lost Treasures (1987, Chandler - Smith Publishing, Peabody MA)
Rediker, Marcus: Villains of All Nations (2004, Verso Books, London, England UK)
Boston Harbor Islands website: www.bostonislands.org