In July of 1726, William Fry stood trial in Boston for murdering a ship’s captain and embarking on a month-long piracy spree. The trial lasted but two days, and Fry was convicted. Within days, he would be paraded to the gallows and hanged.
But he didn’t go as most did, remorseful and tearful. Rather, when the cart was brought to haul him off he jumped up and enjoyed the parade, waving flowers in one hand. When asked for his final words, he sought no forgiveness. Rather, he warned other ship captains to treat their crews well if they wanted to avoid being killed at sea.
And as the hangman dropped a poorly made noose over his head, Fry scoffed at the man, informing him: ‘You do not know your trade.” Fry adjusted the noose and slipped it into place before dropping to his death.
The flamboyant Fry’s body would soon be placed at the mouth of Boston Harbor on Nixes Mate, a small island in the outer harbor near Long Island that serves as a navigational aid to sailors.
Fry’s story elicited tremendous public interest, as did all cases involving pirates. The prolific minister Cotton Mather had tried desperately to coax a confession and repentance from Fry. Mather took pride in his reputation as a minister who could convert hardened criminals to religion as they headed to the gallows.
His sermons preached at hangings were well attended, and he tried to serve up a cautionary tale for young people at these events. He would often furnish the condemned men with prayers to recite as they went to the gallows.
In Fry, however, he met his match. Fry had a history as a boxer in Jamaica and, though he had sailed with pirates before, he signed on the Elizabeth Snow as a legitimate boatswain. It’s not precisely clear what caused him to turn pirate and lead a mutiny, but the facts were quite clear as presented at trial. He and two other men seized control of the ship.
They offered the captain a chance to jump overboard, but when he pleaded for his life, Fry and his compatriots shoved him over and as the struggling captain grabbed at a line to save himself, one of the attackers cleaved off his hand with an ax, sending him to his death.
The mate fared no better. When he fought for his life, he was struck with the ax across the shoulder and sent tumbling into the sea.
Fry was a remarkably poor pirate. After seizing the Elizabeth Snow in May, he attempted to seize another vessel, but ran it aground off North Carolina. He seized a second vessel, but was outsmarted by the pilot on board. The pilot deliberately sailed past Martha’s Vineyard, claiming he didn’t know where he was. Then, as the vessel neared Boston, he overpowered Fry and with the help of other captives sailed the ship into Boston Harbor, setting Fry’s appointment with the noose.
Fry’s standoff with Cotton Mather was equally fruitless. Though he never buckled on the gallows, Mather publicized his case in a pamphlet and made him look every bit a dunce. Though Fry insisted he had suffered “bad usage” at the hands of the captain of the Elizabeth Snow, Mather never publicized his complaints. Some historians have noted that the vessel was a slave ship, and the captains of such ships were often ruthless with their crew. Others note that many sailors who turned pirate were impressed into service, inspiring their decision to step outside the law.
Regardless, Mather had his own uses for Fry’s story. He used it to highlight the end that comes to depraved, wicked and stupid people. The town officials had an even more gruesome use for the pirate. Gibbeting was the practice of stringing up a corpse and hanging it in the harbor as a warning to other would-be pirates. And that’s exactly what happened to Fry, on the island Nixes Mate. (Then called Nick’s Mate.) His bones rattled in the winds for many months.
The island itself, now part of the Boston Harbor Islands owned by the National Park Service, has a curious history. It was granted to harbor pilot John Gallop in 1636, and he used it for grazing sheep. At that time it was reported to be 12 acres in area. Over time, however, the island has been reduced dramatically in size to its present area of about 200-square feet, upon which stands a granite base and a wooden pyramid that acts as daymarker for sailors trying to navigate into the harbor.
Legend says the island was named for a Captain Nix or Nick, who was murdered by his first mate. The mate was tried and hanged on the island, and his final words were a protest that he was innocent. If he was hanged, he warned, the island would sink into the sea as testament to the wrong that was done to him.
He was hanged and the island did disappear. A more likely cause of the disappearance is the practice of quarrying the island for rocks to be used as ballast in sailing ships, and the actual origins of the name remain lost.