Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
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 – (Mather, 21)
William Fly spoke these words to the Reverend Cotton Mather in 1726 during the Puritan minister’s second visit to Boston Gaol to counsel the condemned pirates.1 He hoped to save their lost souls, but Fly remained unrepentant. His defiant lack of remorse earned him eternal infamy. When Mather penned his execution sermon, he likened Fly to a cockatrice – a comparison their god-fearing contemporaries would readily understand. This half-bird, half-reptile creature
Pirates of the Spanish Main series for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, circa 1888
Designed by George S Harris & Sons (Wikimedia Commons)
could kill the largest animal and split asunder the biggest boulder with a single glance from its deadly eyes. Its noxious breath withered the sturdiest tree or bush and permanently poisoned any stream or river from which it drank . . . . It could cause birds flying overhead to drop lifeless to the ground, simply by spitting its envenomed saliva up into the air. And any fertile land through which this abhorrent beast travelled became an arid, lifeless desert. (Shuker, 96)
Photo of Transom at Belvedere Castle by Leonard G (Wikimedia Commons)
Fly, who prowled the sea for only for thirty days, proved equally deadly.
According to an article in the January 2014 issue of Sea Classics, he “was an imposing young man with a rakish beard, long flowing blonde hair, devilishly deep piercing eyes, and a bawdy broad grin. He took orders well, got along with the men, and knew his trade better than most ships’ officers. . . . he could tell a tale well, and dance and sing with enviable gusto.” (Gault, 15) But little is actually known of him until after he signed on as boatswain of the Elizabeth. The brig (also described as a snow) set sail from Jamaica in April 1726, bound for Guinea and laden with hemp. He might have remained unknown, if not for what transpired on 27 May.
Morrice Cundon, who steered the ship that night, later testified that Fly approached him and said, “Damn you, you Dog, if you stir Hand or Foot, or speak a Word, I’ll blow your Brains out.” (Tryals, 3:249) Thereafter,
Fly went into the Cabbin, where Captain Green was in Bed, and Alexander Mitchell follow’d him, and while they were there, the Deponent heard the said Captain Green Cry out, what’s the matter? and they soon hawled him upon Deck, and were about to throw him into the Sea, when . . . Green . . . [said], For God’s sake, Boatswain, don’t throw me overboard, for if you do I shall go to Hell . . .” (Tryals, 3:249)
Fly bid him say after him these words, “Lord have mercy upon my soul; and away they hurried the poor surpris’d and astonish’d man overboard. It is affirmed that he caught hold of a rope and held for his life, which when one of the wrenches saw he cut off his hand with an ax; and so he dropt into Eternity. (Colman, 4:328)
While Fly and Mitchell attacked the captain, others went after the mate, Thomas Jenkins. Ship’s carpenter Thomas Streaton, who was in his bunk, recalled hearing Samuel Cole say, “‘Come out of your Cabin, you dog![’] And presently he was hawl’d out, and told ‘that he should go overboard after his Captain.’ When he was in the Sea he was heard calling earnestly to the Doctor to hand him a rope. But the Doctor was by this time himself putting into Irons.” (Colman, 4:329)
With the murders ended and the pirates in control of Elizabeth, they renamed her Fames Revenge and elected Fly captain. They had aboard sufficient “Powder, and Rum and Provisions,” but desired a “better Vessel” and so set sail to find one. (Colman, 4:329) Their voyage took them to Carolina’s coastal waters, where William Atkinson recounted what happened in his deposition of 28 June 1726.
. . . he left [his former ship] at North-Carolina, and took his Passage in the Sloop whereof Capt. John Fulker was Master, bound from Carolina aforesaid to Boston; And on the 3d of June Instant, as the said Sloop lay at Anchor off Cape-Hadderas Bar, they discovered a Snow standing in for the Harbour of Carolina; the said Capt. Fulker, his Mate, and the Declarant with one other Passenger, and a Boy, took the Sloops Boat, and went on Board the Snow, supposing that the Master of her wanted a Pilot. When they came on Board, [they] was sent for by the Captain of the said Snow, whose Name was William Fly; and who entertained [them] civilly; but after some short time the said Atkinson heard the said Captain Fly say they, viz. (he and his Company) were Gentlemen of Fortune (meaning they were Pirates as the Declarant understood) . . . Fly told Capt. Fulker they must have his Sloop if she sailed better than the Snow; and accordingly the said Fly sent the said Fulker with five or six of [the pirates] on Board the Sloop in her Boat, in order to fetch her along-side the Snow; but the Wind being contrary they could not bring her off, which Fly perceiving in a great passion, he Swore he would burn her, if they did not bring her out. He ordered Capt. Fulker to the Geers, and caus’d him to be whip’d severely. (Tryals, 3:253-254)2When Atkinson, Fulker, and their companions tried to leave, Fly refused, but “promised them they should have Liberty the first Vessel they took, and not before.” (Tryals, 3:254) Such a chance came on 6 June when the John and Betty was sighted. The pirates pursued, but their prey managed to keep ahead of them. Fly chased them into the next morning, at which time “he hoisted the Black Flagg, and fired several Guns.” (Tryals, 3:254) Little wind forced Master John Gale to surrender.
Fly’s crew went on Board . . . with their Muskets, Pistols, and Cutlasses, and having made the Men prisoners sent them to Capt. Fly . . . after they had robbed the Ship of several of her Sails, and some Cloaths and Small Arms, and detained ’em about two days. (Tryals, 3:254)At that time, Fly released the new prisoners. He also kept his promise and permitted Captain Fulker, Mr. Ruth, and Captain Green’s doctor to accompany Captain Gale. But William Atkinson was forced to remain aboard the pirate snow. He would serve as their pilot because of his knowledge of New England coastal waters. If he refused, Fly threatened to “blow his Brains out.” (Tryals: 3:254)
The pirates seized their next prize in the Delaware Bay off Cape May, New Jersey. This sloop, commanded by Samuel Harris, surrendered as soon as the Jolly Roger was raised. On her way to Pennsylvania, she carried “about Fifty Irish and Scots Passengers”; the pirates held them for only twenty-four hours. (Tryals, 3:254) While three pirates seized goods valued at £100 and robbed Harris and his passengers of all their attire, Atkinson was forced to sail her beside the snow. One of the men was forced to join the pirates, but the rest were let go.
Their next stop was to be Martha’s Vineyard to pick up wood and refill their casks of water, but Atkinson purposely sailed beyond the island. Fly flew into a rage and threatened to murder him. Off Plymouth, Massachusetts on 23 June, they happened upon a fishing schooner. Fly threatened to sink her if they didn’t send over their boat. “Fly told the Master he must have the Schooner, unless he could tell him where he might get another that would Sail better,” which the schooner’s master did and around noon, Fly
sent . . . six Pirates, and one George Tasker, after the Scooner . . . Fly with Three more Pirates (one of them being in Irons for Mutiny) remained on Board the Snow, with fifteen others, who were taken and detained by the said Fly, viz. the said Declarant, and Capt. Fulker’s Mate, and two of his Boys, the Carpenter, and Gunner of Capt. Green, six of Capt. Gale’s Men, the aforesaid Benbrooke, who belonged to Capt. Harris, and three of the Fisher-men belonging to the Scooner. (Tryals, 3:255)Ever since his capture, Atkinson had thought about how he might escape his predicament. He took two men, Samuel Walker and Thomas Streaton, into his confidence, and, in turn, Walker talked to James Benbrook. They decided to put their plan into action should the opportunity arise. To gain the pirates’ trust, Atkinson set about
to ingratiate himself, as far as he honestly and with a good conscience could, with Fly and his Pirates . . . . [S]ome of the Pirates, the Captain especially, began to think friendly of him and to hearken to his Advice . . . . (Colman, 4:331)With six of the pirates aboard the fishing schooner pursuing another vessel, there were more prisoners than pirates aboard the snow, and Atkinson took advantage of the situation. First, he needed to get Fly away from his weapons on the quarterdeck.
WITHIN a little while Atkinson spied a sail a head to the Leeward, and informed Fly of it. And presently after he pretended to discover two or three more sail, and told him he would have a fleet of prizes. But Fly with his glass could see but one. Why said Atkinson, if you were but here, Sir, with your glass, a-head, you would easily see them all. On a sudden Fly forgat his caution, and comes off the quarter-deck, where his arms lay, and sets him down-a-head to spy the Sails spoken of. Then Atkinson gave the sign to his friends, and Walker follow’d by Benbrook came up, pretending at first to direct the Captain to look a point or two on such a side, while Atkinson (a spare and slender man) pass’d aft toward the Arms, and in the instant that Walker laid hold of Fly he took the firearms, and returned pointing the gun to the Pirate’s breast, and telling him “He was a dead man if he did not immediately submit himself his prisoner. The wicked Fly earnestly begg’d for his life, and now found that mercy which he had so barbarously denied to his innocent Captain. (Colman, 4:332-333)Two of the three remaining pirates, Greenville and Condick, were also quickly taken; the third pirate, Cole, was already in irons for trying to wrest command of the snow from Fly two days earlier. Placed in chains and confined below, Fly “fell at times into the most desperate ragings, cursing himself and her that bare him, and the Day wherein he was born, cursing the very heavens & in effect the God that judged him; Cursing all rovers that should ever give quarter again to an Englishman; and wishing all the devils of hell would come and fly away with the Ship . . . .” (Colman, 4:333-334)
Atkinson sailed for Boston, where the snow docked on 29 June.3 He and the other forced men turned themselves and their captives over to the authorities. Only an admiralty court could declare anyone innocent of piracy, so each of the sixteen men had to stand trial.
William Atkinson was the first to stand trial on 4 July 1726. The Honorable Samuel Sewall, Esquire, served as Chief Justice and John Meinzies, Esquire, was the Court of Vice-Admiralty Judge. The prosecutor was Robert Auchtmuty. Atkinson pleaded not guilty to the charges, and after hearing testimony from several witnesses, he was judged not guilty.
The second trial was for Samuel Walker and Thomas Streaton, who faced the same charges that Atkinson had. They, too, pleaded not guilty. This time Atkinson testified as the Crown’s witness “that Thomas Streaton . . . was in his Hammock, when the Fact was committed, and no ways consenting to the Murther . . . and was by the Crew out in Irons, and that he, together with . . . Samuel Walker . . . were treated as forced Men by the Pirates . . . .” (3:241) Three other witnesses concurred, adding that Walker and Streaton had assisted in taking down the pirates. They were also found not guilty.
The same charges were given at the third trial. The defendants this time were John Cole, John Browne, Robert Dauling, John Daw, James Blair, Edward Laurence, Edward Apthorp, and James Benbrooke, who all pleaded not guilty. The witnesses again testified that these men had not participated in piratical acts, and one related how James Blair had seized Fly’s sword and broken it. Again, the court found them innocent and they were released.
Only one man stood before the bench at the fourth trial – Morrice Cundon – and he was charged with piracy, murder, and imprisoning Jason Benbrooke and two others. As occurred at the previous trials, this defendant pleaded not guilty. Atkinson, Walker, and Streaton testified that Cundon had been “at Helm when Capt. Green, and his Mate, were thrown over-board by William Fly . . . [and] when the said Snow was taken by Capt. Atkinson, and others, the said Cundon exprest his Joy thereat.” (3:245) The court agreed and freed him.
At nine o’clock the next morning, William Fly was brought before the court and charged on six counts. Like those who had come before him, Fly swore he was innocent of the charges. Then prosecutor Robert Auchmuty opened his case, saying that Fly was culpable of
. . . Acts of Piracy, Murder, Felony, and Robbery, committed upon the High Seas . . . the Nature of Piracy, a Crime of the first Magnitude in the Catalogue of Capital Offences. . . . What I conceive necessary to offer, is the Consideration of that Hackney Defence made by every Pirate upon Trial, namely, That he was a forced Man, and in order to Strike the Passions they represent in moving terms, what dangers they encounter’d, as the Risque of having their Brains blow’d, and what Severities they underwent, as Sweating & the like, before they departed from their Native Integrity.” (Tryals, 3:248)He likened such a defense as merely an attempt at self-preservation and he hoped the judges would be swayed not by this claim, but by the evidence he would put forth and judge “him Guilty.” (Tryals, 3:48) Cundon and Streaton were the Crown’s main witnesses and they testified that Fly, indeed, had committed all the crimes of which he was charged. Fly, on the other hand, denied “any hand in the Murther, and several other Facts Sworn to by the King’s Witnesses.” (Tryals, 3:249) His avowal of innocence fell on deaf ears. Lieutenant Governor William Dummer, president of the court, declared him guilty and said, “You William Fly are to go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution, there to be Hang’d up by the Neck until you be Dead, And the Lord have Mercy upon your soul.” (3:249)
The final trial convened saw Samuel Cole, George Condick, and Henry Greenville facing the same charges as their captain. They also pleaded not guilty, but the King’s Witnesses offered testimony that showed the opposite was so. The court found Cole guilty of four of the charges, Condick of five, and Greenville of all of them. They, too, were sentenced to hang, although Condick was given a last-minute reprieve of twelve months because he had spent much of his time on the snow drunk.4
The Reverend Mather visited the condemned men in jail twice. He described them as “William Fly, the upstart Captain, who was a Young man, about Seven and twenty years of old; Henry Greenville, a married Man about forty seven years of Age; Samuel Cole, about Thirty seven years of Age, having a Wife and seven Children; And, George Condick, a Youth of Twenty, or thereabouts.” (Mather, 5) Mather also said of Fly that 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.” (Vaver) He never touched the food served him and only drank small amounts of water.
Their date of execution was set for Tuesday, 12 July 1726. “Fly briskly and in a way of bravery jumpt up into the Cart, with a nose gay in his hand, bowing with much unconcern to the Spectators as he pass’d along, and at the Gallows he behaved still obstinately and boldly till his face was covered for death; but Greenvill and Cole behaved piously and penitently in a judgment of charity.” (Colman, 4:335)
Before the executioner put the noose around his neck, Fly inspected it. Finding it not to his liking, he admonished the poor fellow and then retied the knot himself before donning his rope collar. When asked if he had any final words to say, Fly said, “[I] advise the Masters of Vessels to carry it well to their Men, lest they should be put upon doing as [I did].” (Mather, 48)
When the Boston News-Letter for 7 July through 14 July was printed, it ran the following notice:
On Tuesday, the 12th Instant, about 3 p.m. were executed for Piracy, Murder, etc., three of the Condemned Persons mentioned in our Last viz. William Fly, Capt., Samuel Cole, Quarter-Master, and Henry Greenville . . . Fly behaved himself very unbecoming even to the last. Their Bodies were carried in a Boat to a small Island calle’d Nick’s-Mate, about 2 Leagues from the town, where the above said Fly was hung up in Irons, as a spectacle for the warning of others, especially sea-faring men; the other Two were buried there. (Mofford, 184)
1. No record exists to explain why Fly and others mutinied and went on the account, although this quote suggests the ship’s officers’ abuse might be the reason. In this time period, mariners had no legal means of redress for such treatment. At sea, the captain was the law and could punish men as he saw fit. Legislation, enacted in 1700, equated mutiny with piracy, which meant that any mutineer who was caught and convicted would be hanged as a pirate. Gault suggests that Fly’s “quixotic bent to his nature . . . could see him quickly spring from an easygoing manner to that of a raging tyrant with the slightest provocation.” (15)
2. The winches and rigging on a vessel’s main deck were called geers.
3. According to the appendix in Reverend Colman’s published execution sermon, It Is a Fearful Thing, the schooner with the other pirates initially pursued the snow, but sometime after dark, Atkinson “altered their course and lost her.” (Colman, 4:335)
4. It would be up to the king to decide whether or not Condick would be hanged, but there is no record available that says what eventually happened to him.
For additional information, please see the following resources:
“Colman, It Is a Fearful Thing,” in British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer volume 4. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 293-340.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dow, George Francis, and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. Dover, 1996.
Fleming, Gregory N. At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, & Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton. ForeEdge, 2014.
Gault, Owen. “The Misadventures of Captain Fly,” Sea Classics 47:1 (January 2014), 14-17.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who: Giving Particulars of the Lives & Deaths of the Pirates & Buccaneers. Rio Grande Press, date unknown.
Mather, Cotton. The Vial Poured Out Upon the Sea: A Remarkable Relation of Certain Pirates Brought unto a Tragical and Untimely End. T. Fleet, 1726.
Mofford, Juliet Haines. “The Devil Made Me Do It!”: Crime & Punishment in Early New England. Globe Pequot, 2012.
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Beacon Press, 2004.
Seitz, Don C. Under the Black Flag: Exploits of the Most Notorious Pirates. Dover, 2002.
Shuker, Karl. Dragons: A Natural History. Élan Press, 1995.
Snow, Edward Rowe. Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Commonwealth Editions, 2004.
“The Tryals of Sixteen Persons for Piracy” in British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer, volume 3. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 231-259.
Vaver, Anthony. “Early American Criminals: William Fly’s Revenge,” Early American Crime (8 February 2012).
Walton, Geri. “The Pirate, William Fly,” Geri Walton (10 July 2015)
Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison House, 1993.
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