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Early American Criminals: William Fly’s Revenge

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To this vile Crue you may the PIRATE add
Who puts to Sea the Merchant to invade,
And reaps the Profit of another’s Trade.
He sculks behind some Rock, or swiftly flies
From Creek to Creek, rich Vessels to surprise.
By this ungodly Course the Robber gains,
And lays up so much Wealth, that he disdains
And mocks the poor, unprofitable Toil,
Of those, who plant the Vine, or till the Soil.

–Sir Richard Blackmore, from “A Paraphrase on the Book of Job,” which opens Cotton Mather’s The Vial Poured Out Upon the SEA.

When Cotton Mather learned that on June 27, 1726 William Atkinson had sailed into Boston Harbor with the captured pirate William Fly, he knew there would be a flashy trial, a well-attended execution, and yet another occasion to publish a popular criminal account to further his Puritan religious agenda.

Mather was the minister at the North Church in Boston, and in this position he often prepared criminals on death row for their ultimate judgment by God by lecturing them about the importance of confessing their sins and repenting their crimes. Mather soon discovered that published accounts of his interactions with these criminals were popular with the reading public–especially if they included a detailed description of the crime committed by the criminal–and through these publications he could reach a much wider audience than from the pulpit.

So every execution in Boston became an opportunity for Mather to dramatize the doctrines that informed his sermons and to demonstrate the futility of sin through the example of an ultimate sinner. But in order to make this formula work, he needed the cooperation of the criminal. He spent long hours preaching to the condemned, and he even coached them on how to behave in front of the crowd on execution day. But he was unprepared for the challenge that awaited him when he entered the prison cell to meet the pirate William Fly.

On the Elizabeth

Back on May 27, 1726 at one o’clock in the morning, the boatswain, William Fly, and another sailor, Alexander Mitchel, crept into the cabin of Captain John Green. Fly seized Green’s arms and held them down while Mitchel beat him. The two then dragged Green up to the main deck of the Elizabeth, and when Green realized that the seamen intended to throw him over the side of the ship, he begged, “For the Lord’s Sake, don’t throw me overboard; For if you do, you throw me into Hell immediately.” Clearly, Green believed he had sins to repent.

(Prints and Photographs Division - Library of Congress)

Fly showed no mercy and told Green that he would be better off using his final words to plead, “Lord, Have Mercy on my Soul” than trying to convince Fly not to follow through on his plan. Green grabbed a mainsheet and held on to it or dear life, but another sailor picked up the cooper’s broadax and chopped off Green’s hand. The mutineers then threw the captain into the ocean.

Fly and Mitchel now went after the captain’s mate, Thomas Jenkins. With the help of Samuel Cole, they pulled Jenkins up on deck with the intention that he “should go after the Master.” The group tossed Jenkins overboard as well, but not before one of them used the broadax again to cut through the mate’s shoulder. Jenkins cried out from the water to the doctor of the ship, “For the Lord’s Sake, fling me a Rope,” but Fly prevented the doctor from doing so and confined him in irons along with the gunner and the carpenter.

Fly later said that their actions were motivated by revenge for the officers’ “Bad Usage” of the crew. No published account of the mutiny provides any details about how the sailors were mistreated, but the Elizabeth was a slaving ship, and the officers of such ships were notorious for their rough treatment of cargo and crew alike.

After the mutiny, the crew elected Fly captain of the ship. They rechristened it Fames’ Revenge, sewed a skull and crossbones onto a black flag, and redirected the ship from its original course eastward from Jamaica to Guinea and instead headed north.

Gentlemen of Fortune

On June 3, the pirates came across a sloop commanded by Captain Fulker anchored off the coast of Cape Hattaras in North Carolina. Fulker assumed that the approaching ship needed directions, so he rowed over to offer his services. To the captain’s surprise, Fly informed him that they were “Gentlemen of Fortune” and that they intended to trade ships with Fulker if it was advantageous for them to do so. But as the pirates tried to sail the new ship out to sea against the countervailing winds, it hit a sand bar, filled with water, and sank. In frustration the pirates attempted to set the stranded ship on fire, but the flames never took, so they imprisoned Fulker and his crew on their own ship and moved on.

The next day the pirates spotted another ship in the distance, and when they finally caught up with it the following day, they raised their black flag and easily captured it after only firing several guns. They seized some sails, clothes, and arms from the ship and let Fulker and his men go. But they kept William Atkinson, who had experience navigating the coast of New England, and made him a pilot by threatening to “blow his Brains out” if he refused. With such a threat hanging over his head, Atkinson pledged his allegiance to the pirate crew.

News of Fly

Around June 20, Captain Samuel Harris arrived in Philadelphia and reported that five leagues east of Cape May he and his crew were captured by a pirate named William Fly. He said Fly commanded about 23 men, and the ship was carrying rum, sugar, corn, beans, and a large quantity of small arms. The pirates held him and his crew for 24 hours, but then let them go after confiscating all of their clothes and some goods worth a total of 100 pounds. Harris also said that Fly intended to sail to Block Island, RI. When the news hit New York, two ships immediately set sail to try to catch the pirates, but they returned from Block Island empty handed.

Meanwhile, William Atkinson was secretly plotting to strip command of the ship from Fly. It was a bold plan, because someone else had already tried and was now suffering the consequences. Samuel Cole, who had helped with the original mutiny, was being held in irons because Fly suspected him of putting a plan together to challenge his authority. In addition to keeping Cole in chains, Fly also subjected him to 100 lashes every day. Apparently, Fly did not treat his crew any better than Green, the original captain, did.

(Prints and Photographs Division - Library of Congress)

Fly ordered Atkinson to take the ship to Martha’s Vineyard for water, but Atkinson purposely sailed right by it. Fly was furious when he learned that they had missed their mark, but his anger subsided when they came across a band of fishing schooners. The pirates captured one of the ships, and Atkinson convinced Fly to use it to go after the other ships in the fleet. After Fly transferred most of his crew to the other ship, only three other pirates and 15 prisoners remained on the Elizabeth, and one of the three pirates was in irons.

Once the fishing schooner sailed off with most of the pirate crew, Atkinson called Fly over to take a look at another set of sails that he claimed to have spotted in the distance. As Fly put his eye to the telescope, Atkinson gave a signal to two other prisoners, and the three men seized the pirate and secured him in irons. Now joined by the carpenter, the group easily captured the other two pirates. In less than a month, Fly’s piratical reign came to an end.

On June 27, Atkinson and the four captured pirates landed in Boston Harbor. As a matter of formality, all sixteen people on board the ship were charged with piracy and quickly brought to trial in front of a Special Court of Admiralty. Only the four pirates were found guilty, and each of them received a sentence of death.

Mather’s First Visit

On July 6, 1726, Cotton Mather visited the four pirates in prison for the first time. Upon entering their cell, Mather announced that he was there to show them the path that could lead to the salvation of their souls. The pirates eagerly listened to what he had to say, and as Mather delivered his long-winded speech, admonishing them for their horrid crimes and speaking of God’s mercy, the pirates regularly chimed in with their admissions and approval.

(Prints and Photograph Division - Library of Congress)

“It is a most hideous Article in the Heap of Guilt lying on you,” Mather proclaimed, “that an Horrible Murder is charged upon you; There is a cry of Blood going up to Heaven against you.”

At this point, Fly could not take any more and broke in, “I can’t charge my self with Murder. I did not strike and wound the Master or Mate! It was Mitchel did it!

The other pirates countered Fly by saying that even if they did not have a direct hand in the murder of the captain and the mate, they assisted in the deed and are therefore guilty.

Mather added, “Fly, I am astonished at your stupidity. I cannot understand you. I am sure, you don’t understand yourself. I shall be better able, another time to reason with you.”

Fly replied, “It is very strange another should know more of me, than I do of myself. There are False Oathes ta-gainst me.

Fly continued to raise objections, but Mather proceeded undaunted with the private sermon. When Mather came to the subject of forgiveness, he turned to Fly and asked, “Are there any in the world, which you don’t wish well to[?]”

Yes;” Fly answered, “There is one Man, that I don’t, and I can’t wish well to! It is a Vain Thing to ly, If I should say, that I forgive that Man, and that I wish him well, I should ly against my Conscience, and add Sin to Sin.” Fly was referring to Atkinson, in whom he had invested his trust after the pilot had taken an oath to join the pirate crew.

Mather tried to convince Fly to let go of his grudge, but to no avail, so he concluded his discussion with the pirates and left.

Mather’s Second Visit

Mather returned to the prison cell three days later and continued where he had left off: “now, Fly; I hope, you are come to a Better Frame, than what I lately left you in.”

I am where I was, Fly replied.

Not only did Fly continue to wish ill upon Atkinson, but he stood fast in maintaining his innocence in the murder, “I can’t Charge myself, Fly railed, “—I shan’t own myself Guilty of any Murder,—Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs. But the poor Sailors—-

The back and forth between Mather and Fly became so heated that Cole interrupted, “I desire to be removed out of the Room; I can’t bear to stay and hear, my Guilty Companion, so stand upon his Innocence. He and we are all verily Guilty. And there’s Blood of the Captain yet in the Cabin, crying against me.

At this point, Mather gave up trying to reason with Fly. He ignored the former pirate captain–as well as Cole’s request to leave the room–and ended the meeting with a few more long recitations.

Fly’s resistance to authority went beyond not cooperating with the minister. Mather reported that as Fly sat in prison, the “Sullen and Raging Mood, into which he fell, . . . caused him to break forth into furious Execrations, and Blasphemies too hideous to be mention’d.” He refused to eat and subsisted only on drinking a small amount. He also refused to attend religious services, because “he would not have the Mob to gaze upon him.”

The Execution Scene

Not surprisingly, Mather also failed in his attempt to orchestrate Fly’s exit from the world. As the four pirates were paraded on July 12 through the streets of Boston to the gallows, Fly waved and bowed to the crowd with a nosegay in his hand. When they arrived at the site of execution, Fly jumped up onto the platform with a smile on his face and proceeded to examine the noose that was to hang him. He reprimanded the hangman for his work in tying the knot and readjusted it, using his seaman’s skill in tying rope.

At the last minute, one of the pirates received a reprieve, because he was deemed to be feeble of mind and not responsible for his actions. Cole and the other remaining pirate dutifully played their part in front of the gallows by showing repentance and warning those in the crowd against repeating the sins that they committed.

But when it was Fly’s turn to speak, he used it as an opportunity to warn “Masters of Vessels to carry it well to their Men, lest they should be put upon doing as he had done.” As the other two pirates requested a second and then a third prayer from the attending ministers, Fly “look’d about him unconcerned.”

Nixes Mate (National Park Service)

Fly may not have followed Mather’s execution script, but Mather exacted his own revenge by using his pen to control the account of Fly’s final minutes on earth. Mather maintained that “in the Midst of all his affected Bravery, a very sensible Trembling attended him; His hands and his Knees were plainly seen to Tremble.—And so we must leave him for the Judgment to come.”

The three pirates were executed at 3 p.m., and their bodies were afterward taken in a small boat out to Nixes Mate, a small island about two leagues from shore at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Two of the pirates were buried there, but Fly was hung up in chains “as a Spectacle for the Warning of others, especially Sea faring Men.”

Sources

  • “1726: William Fly, Unrepentant Pirate.” ExecutedToday.com. July 12, 2008. Website: http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/07/12/1726-william-fly-pirate-boston/
  • “Boston.” Boston News-Letter, Thursday, July 14, 1726, issue 1172, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, July 7.” Boston News-Letter, Thursday, July 7, 1726, issue 1171, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, July 2.” American Weekly Mercury, Thursday, July 14, 1726, issue 342, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Boston News-Letter, Thursday, June 30, 1726, issue 1170, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Colman, Benjamin. It Is a Fearful Thing. Boston: John Phillips and Thomas Hancock, 1726. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Mather, Cotton. The Vial Poured Out Upon the SEA. Boston: T. Fleet, 1726. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New York, June 20.” Boston Gazette, Monday, June 27, 1726, issue 343, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New York, June 27.” American Weekly Mercury, Thursday, June 30, 1726, issue 340, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Philadelphia, June 23.” American Weekly Mercury, Thursday, June 23, 1726, issue 339, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
  • The Tryals of Sixteen Persons for Piracy. Boston: Joseph Edwards, 1726. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1993.
  • —. “Puritans and Pirates: A Confrontation between Cotton Mather and William Fly in 1726.” Early American Literature 22:3 (1987), 233-251.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Some questions about the readings | raptnrent.me on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 9:51 am

    […] What does that mean? The phrase comes from the Book of Revelation. Fly & crew reportedly rechristened the ship Fame’s Revenge. What might that mean? I asked my wife what she thought the title Fame’s Revenge suggested, […]

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