Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror on the High Seas: Nix's Mate

Out in Boston Harbor there sits a tiny speck of an island that, at first glance, almost appears to be man made. Known from about 1636 as Nix’s or Nixes Mate, the island is the site of a pyramid beacon run by the Coast Guard and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

In the 17th century, the island was large enough to mine for ship’s ballast, graze sheep and unload smuggled goods for reloading onto less suspicious vessels. Probably because of its continued use by smugglers and pirates, the place became notorious; from the time the island was granted to John Gallop in 1636, the good folk of Boston used it as a place of execution for those who committed crimes on the high seas.

Many legends have grown up around the fascination with piratical doings and the demise of scurvy seadogs on the island. One of the most popular stories explains the name of the island as well as why it is now just a speck of earth in Nubble Channel.

It seems that one Captain Nix put out to sea and was killed mysteriously one night in a violent storm. The next morning, the crew found their First Lieutenant – Nix’s mate – soundly sleeping with blood on his shirt. Assuming the worst, they clapped the man in irons despite his protests of innocence, and turned back toward Boston. The First Lieutenant was tried and found guilty, although he continued to tell anyone that would listen that he had not done the bloody deed. He was rowed out to the island and led to the gallows. There he made a promise to the people of Boston about the place where his corpse would hang as a warning. The island, he said, would be washed away to nearly nothing by the sea as proof of his innocence. With that warning on his lips, he died. Within a decade, the Lieutenant’s prophecy had come true and the people of Boston named the little island Nix’s Mate in his honor.

In fact, this story first appeared in 1883 in a purported historical entitled King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor by M.F. Sweetser. It is a charming tale, of course, but probably pure fiction. No one seems quite sure why the island is called Nix’s Mate and the continued use of its rock for ship’s ballast throughout the 17th century insured that it would errode with wind and tide to its present size.

The most famous pirate to swing in the sea breeze on Nix’s Mate was William Fly, whose story is curious enough to deserve a post of its own. Hanged in July of 1726, Fly went to his death with such steadfast obduration that he impressed that bitter witch hunter Cotton Mather himself.

Local legend has it that Fly’s spirit continues to cling to the place where he proclaimed not his innocence but his conviction that piracy was born of the harsh treatments allotted men in the merchant service. Treatments Fly referred to as “bad usage”. It is said that blue lights are seen hovering over the little pyramid beacon at Nix’s Mate on warm summer nights. They dance about in the dark air but disappear when a vessel pulls in for a closer look, flying up like embers out of a fire.

True or no, all sailors love a good ghost story and they are always so much more believable when the mate in question was put to “bad usage”.

Header: Nix’s Mate by Joe McGurl


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think we need to make a "WARNING: BAD USAGE" sign for the house...

Pauline said...

Hey yeah! William Fly is an interesting character who has been unfortunately coopted by OWS types as an example of how corporate greed turns men to crime. I will call that over-simplification (yet again) but that's another story for another time.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Some say Master Fly went to the gallows and observed the noose was tied improperly.... chastised the Hangman, and re-tied it properly. Damn, that is legendary!

Pauline said...

That's the story, and a good one too; legendary indeed. More on that in another post.