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Cotton Mather, Preacher to the Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

Cotton MatherOn 12 July 1726, William Fly mounted the gallows to meet the hangman. Unlike other condemned pirates, he did not seek forgiveness or confess. This defiant act would forever link his name to a staunch Puritan minister who fought daily against sin. That preacher’s name was Cotton Mather. He and other Boston ministers had tried to get Fly to repent, but he cared more about his final moments than his soul. In doing so, he compelled Mather to use the pirate as an example for others who followed such a sinful path. “[T]hrough careful presentation and description [Mather] could render the pirate more foolish than courageous, more damned than defiant.” (Williams, “Puritans,” 234)

His design to publish an account of what transpired, from Fly’s arrest until his hanging, was not new. Mather had done so several times. In Pillars of Salt (1699), he wrote, “It hath been Thought, that the Dying Speeches of such as have been Executed among us, might be of singular Use, to Correct and Reform, The Crimes, wherein too many do Live; and it is wish’d, that at Least, some Fragments of those Dying Speeches, might be preserved and published.” (Williams, Pillars, 4) He saw this collection as evidence that those who committed evil received their just reward. “Behold, an History of Criminals, whom the Terrible Judgments of God have Thunder struck, into PILLARS OF SALT.” The publication included the final words of those convicted of murder, mutiny, adultery, and rape.

Since their duties were to save men’s souls, ministers often visited the condemned, including pirates. Cotton Mather did so frequently to pray with them and to counsel them. Yet this work was not easy. “God know the Prayers, the Pains, the Tears, and the Agonies that have been Employ’d for them,” he wrote in An Account of the Behaviours and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates (1704), which recounted the final days and words of John Quelch and those who died with him. A diary entry in April 1699 read:

After the other public Services of the Day were over, I visited the Prison. A great Number of Pyrates being there committed, besides other Malefactors, I went and pray’d with them, and preach’d to them. The Text, in which the Lord helped mee to Discourse, was Jer. 2. 26. The Thief is ashamed, when hee is found. I hope, I shall have some good Fruit of these Endeavours.
Sometimes Mather preached an execution sermon, not only for the pirates, but also his congregation. After John Phillips and his cohorts were arrested, some were brought to Boston for trial. They eventually requested that Mather preach the last sermon they would hear.
The Pyrates now strangely fallen into the Hands of Justice here, make me the first Man, whose Visits and Counsils and Prayers they beg for. Some of them under Sentence of Death, chuse to hear from me, the last Sermon they hear in the World. (Diary entry, 31 May 1724)
He later wrote, “these Poor Men…Dyed with such Expressions of Repentance, as were greatly to the Satisfaction of the Spectators.” (Williams, “Puritans,” 237) Published in 1724, this narrative was entitled The Converted Sinner. The Nature of a Conversion to Real and Vital Piety, and the Manner in which it is to be Pray’d and Striv’n for.

One of his earliest published sermons aimed at piracy was delivered on 22 April 1704. It was published two months later, after John Quelch and his cohorts were captured and tried for piracy. In the conclusion of his lecture, which appeared under the title of Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgments, Mather said:

There has been a Time, when some have come and Seduced and Enchanted several of our Young Men, to Piratical Courses; and there were some Unhappy Advantages, which the Sinners took to shelter themselves in the Prosecution of their Piracies. But the Government of New England will by a severe Procedure of Justice, forever make it an Unjust thing, to Reflect on the Countrey, as if such dangerous Criminals might hope ever to be lately Nested here.
Pirates – enemies of mankind, villains of all nations – were not welcome in New England, and all they could expect if captured, was quick and severe justice. In spite of this, Mather believed that anyone who wished to repent and truly did, might find everlasting peace after death. This was why he visited the pirates in jail. This was why he preached to them before their hangings.

Increase MatherBut who was Cotton Mather, this leading citizen of Puritan society who ministered to such vile men? Born to the Reverend Increase Mather and Maria Cotton Mather on 12 February 1663, their eldest son was given the names of two of New England’s most esteemed families. Not only was his father a minister, but so were both of his grandfathers and five uncles. At the time of his birth, Boston had a population of 3,000, making it the largest city in North America.

As a boy, he grew up to believe in hard work and living a godly life, but sometimes serving “for the glory of God” and coming to terms with the historical events happening in the world perplexed him. Living by God’s word served as the guiding principle throughout his life. He was taught at an early age to pray several times a day, a practice he continued as an adult. His father, Increase, was God’s spokesman, but even this Calvinist minister recognized that he wasn’t the perfect father.

Cotton immersed himself in religious education. He read daily from the Bible, five chapters in the morning, five at noontime, and five at night. On Sundays, twice daily, he listened to or intoned a pastoral prayer that lasted anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes, then came the sermon, which lasted one to two hours.

He was not, however, merely a preacher. Before his teenage years, he learned to speak and read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Science intrigued him to such a degree that in 1713 he became the first person born in America to become a member of The Royal Society in England. He often corresponded with the leading scientists of his day, although he believed devils, angels, and witches were as real as the force of gravity, yet he saw no incongruity in such thinking. His interest in scientific study came about at an early age because he began to stammer. At age eleven, he was the youngest person admitted to Harvard College, but his father feared “the Hesitancy in his speech should make him uncapable of improvement in the work of the ministry, whereunto I had designed him.” (Silverman, 15) So he studied medicine and theology, setting aside his desire to become a minister until Elijah Corlet, a teacher, suggested that Cotton try “a very deliberate way of speaking; a drawling that shall be little short of singing.” (Levin, 38)

Two years after he graduated in 1678, Cotton Mather delivered his first sermon in Dorchester at Grandfather Richard Mather’s church. In 1686 he visited his first condemned prisoner, a man named James Morgan, who had stabbed Joseph Johnson in the stomach with a spit during a drunken quarrel. Mather also preached his first execution sermon on 7 March. Those forty pages of written text, entitled The Call of the Gospel, became his first published execution sermon.

Such sermons, which began to appear in the 1670s, were done at the behest of the condemned. The ministers usually delivered these homilies in church on the Sunday or Thursday prior to the hanging. In chains and under guard, the prisoners aroused the interest of the local parishioners.

In his sermons, Cotton Mather focused primarily on human nature, for each person was responsible for his actions, rather than on the social and political aspects of piracy. His message, delivered in three sections, began with a passage from the Bible, which he then restated as a fundamental belief. Next he proposed a series of ideas that backed up that doctrine both morally and spiritually. Finally, he provided his listeners ways in which they could integrate those ideas into their lives so they turned away from sin. Following a righteous path led to salvation, whereas evil befell those who ignored God’s lessons.

One sermon, published in Useful Remarks: An Essay upon Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men, demonstrated this formula. The inspiration for this message came from the execution of twenty-six pirates at Newport, Rhode Island on 19 July 1723. Mather selected Job 23:15 for his biblical passage.

Hast thou marked the Old Way, which Wicked Men have trodden?
His doctrine, or fundamental belief, was that “If we Mark the Ways of Wicked men, which is indeed, an old Way, we shall find in it some things that are truly Remarkable.” (British, 4: 162) He then set forth nine propositions to demonstrate their “Sinful ways” and used Bible verses to show God’s just punishment. Each begins with the words, “There is this to be Marked in the way that wicked men have trodden….
1. Sin has been around for a long time: “We read, Joh. 8 44 It was from the Beginning…. Tis no New Thing for men to Sin against God…. The Way of Sin…was trodden…long before the Flood.” And though old it may be, “wicked men” do not escape punishment: “You will have your Souls gathered with Cain, and the Monsters of the old World; with the Sodomites…and with Judas, and with the Wretches that a Great while ago, walked in that way of Sin that you have chosen.”

2. To follow the path of evil is not an easy way. It’s fraught with trouble. “We read, Prov. 13 15. The way of Transgressors is hard…. Tis a Grievous Way…. You may Mark this, Wicked men find their Lusts perpetually Enslaving of them; their Passions throwing them into perpetual Disorders; their Idols, by the Justice of God, made their Sorrows; & for there are many Sorrows to the wicked. And you may Mark this, Wicked men carry about also a Guilty Conscience with them…a Conscience continually Scourging of them, & roaring in their Ears, The Great God will one day dreadfully Punish thee for these Miscarriages.”

3. When one allies himself with evil, he hastens his downfall. “He runs down to the Chambers of Death, more eagerly, than any Christian runs in the Race which ends in the Heavenly Mansions…. He will waste his Estate, he will ruine his Health, he will venture his Life, & all that he may be the sooner & the deeper drowned in an horrible Perdition.”

4. Sinning is a deceitful vocation. “A wicked man is drawn into his way, with many Promises which the Tempters make unto him The Promises deceive him; his Temptations have imposed upon him; he meets with Disappointments of all his Expectations…. He is Promised, that he shall find Contentment in his way; but his way never, never brings him to it." To follow such a path is to deceive oneself, which will only result in death. While he may think it’s easy to seek forgiveness, that is only a dream. "The Dream is anon found, a most fearful Delusion, The Chains of Darkness anon laid upon him, Undeceive him.”

5. Committing a sin only leads one to greater sins. “Thus, in a Bad Way, the Inclinations and Resolutions of Wickedness, these grow Stronger & Stronger. Sin gains more Strength, by being persisted in…. At first the Heart of the Sinner will Smite him, for a lesser Transgression. He Conquers, he Smothers, he keeps under, he gets over, the Reluctancies…. He goes on to greater & greater Degrees of Impiety. At length, he Mocks at Fear, and like an Horse rushing into the Battel, he rushes upon the Grossest Abominations.” These include swearing and cursing, singing bawdy tunes, gambling, visiting brothels, and abstaining from going to church. “They are now almost Ripened for a Terrible Destruction from God…. The Vengeance of God now quickly seises on them.”

6. Once facing justice, sinners claim to repent, but they’re not sincere in doing so. “Some Uncommon Dispensation of God, it may be, awakens him to Consider his Ways…. Now, he begins to wish, O! That I might lead a better Life! He Bewails his former Follies. He Cries out of them as Cursed Follies. He Resolves that he will no more abandon himself to such Follies. He makes his Vows to God, & says, I will no more Transgress!” But the sinner’s promise soon falls by the wayside. “His Vices get Head again. He quickly becomes as Vicious as he was before.”

7. Too much wickedness insures an early demise. “They are so far gone in Wickedness, that they have Out-sinned the Day of Divine Patience. TheLong-suffering God will now bear no longer with them. The wicked ones bid intolerable Defiances to Heaven in their Blasphemies. Monstrous Undutifulness to their Superiors is expressed by them. They Mock the Ministers and Messengers of God, with outrageous Insolencies. They grow so dangerous to Humane Society, that there is no Enduring of them.”

8. Evil though one may be, God knows all sins the wicked commit. “[T]here are many things done, for which they flatter themselves with an Eternal Secrecy…. But the Crimes of wicked Ones are not Concealed from God…. And the Glorious God has astonishing Ways to bring out the Secret Wickedness in which wicked Men do indulge themselves. God fulfils that word upon them, Numb 32,23. Be sure your Sin shall find you out. He makes the Accomplices of Wicked ones, to bring out one another.”

9. Sooner or later, all sinners must face their just punishments. “Sinners, You are warned of God; Prov 13 21 Evil pursueth Sinners. The Warning that God has given you, is, The wicked shall not go Unpunished.”

Once Cotton Mather shared these lessons with his parishioners, he expounded on how to ignore temptations and avoid straying from God. He began with general suggestions before providing specific examples, entreating all to pay heed lest they follow in the steps of those pirates so recently executed.
…there are now to Come unto you Twenty Six in a Crue together from the Dead, who with an Hoarse but Loud Voice, terribly call upon you, to Repent of your Sins & not Persist in such Crimes as have brought them to what they are now come unto. If you will not hear the Warnings of your Faithful Pastors, hear the Roarings of Twenty Six terrible Preachers, that in a Ghastly Apparition, are now from the Dead, calling upon you to Turn & Live unto GOD.
One way to do this was to honor one’s parents. As Mather pointed out, “Among the dolorous Ejulations of the Dying Pirates, how often do you hear them Confessing; My Grieving & Leaving & Scorning of my Parents, has been that which has brought the dreadful Vengeance of GOD upon me!” Other initiatives that kept one following the straight and narrow path included:
1. Keep the Sabbath. “How many of the Dying Pirates do you hear Crying out, My Prophanation of the Lords-Day, was the Inlet of all the Wickedness that has brought me to this Evil Day!”

2. Abstain from temptation. “How many of the Dying Pirates have you seen Mourning at the Last, because of their giving themselves up to the Vice, about which you are forewarned of GOD, At the last it will bite like a Serpent & sting like an Adder?”

3. Remain chaste. “How many of the Dying Pirates have you seen wringing their Impure, Filthy, Unchast Hands at their Death, & with an Unutterable Dolour declaring that they found the Stings, which the Abominations of Unchastity left upon their Souls, to be More Bitter than Death?”

4. Refrain from uttering profanity. “When the Pirates have been going to draw their last breath, with what Remorse have they look’d back on the Oathes which they had in their Impious Breath belch’d out, with a Contempt & Challenge of their Maker? …Have not their Last Speeches most sadly Bewailed the Vile Speeches, with which they have discovered Souls full of Rottenness?”

Mather closed his sermon with reassuring words from Jeremiah 31:20 to those who truly repent. “I will Surely have Mercy on them, Saith the Lord.” His intent in delivering this message was to make his listeners “consider, not the differences, but the similarities between themselves and those awaiting death.” If they truly sought deliverance, they would heed the lessons taught and live a godly life.

Unlike the other sermons Mather delivered, this particular one, originally entitled “Remarks on the Way & End of the Wicked,” was not an execution sermon. It was a message for his congregation in Boston. Of the thirty-seven pirates captured by a British warship on 10 June 1723, and taken to Rhode Island, one died from natural causes, eight were found innocent of all charges, and twenty-eight were found guilty and sentenced to die. Two of the latter received reprieves. Mather shared with his readers that most sought religious counseling. “And they were told, that If they did believe in the Glorious Redeemer unto the Saving of their Souls & the pardon of all their Sins…they would be willing to warn other Sinners to Keep clear from those Paths of Destruction, that had brought them so far into Ruine.” Some agreed, and he included these last speeches with his sermon in Useful Remarks. As one pirate said, “Remember, they are the Words, of a Dying person, Seal’d with his Life, & ought to make a great Impression in your Hearts.”

Such warnings, shaped by the ministers but spoken by the condemned, were a critical aspect of the ritual of punishing pirates. To do so provided further evidence that they truly wished to atone for their sins. Their words often reiterated the steps outlined in Mather’s sermon on how not to follow the ways of wicked men. John Brown, a twenty-nine-year-old man from County Derham in England, said:

The first Counsel which I offer unto you (especially unto Youths) is, Seek the Lord Early, while He may be found; spend not your blooming Years in such things as gratify the sinful Flesh; Let God be your first Monitor…. Oh that this sad Example & dismal Execution which you see upon us poor condemned & dying Sinners this Day, may be sanctified unto you all; especially in the first Place, that you mayn’t resist...God’s Holy Spirit…. Secondly, Do not Prophane the Holy Name of your God…. Thirdly, Do not Prophane his holy Sabbaths…. Fourthly, Let not loose the Reins of your Lusts to gratify the Flesh…. Fifthly, I beseech you…to mind the Admonitions & sweet Instructions of your natural Parents…. Sixthly, Covet not any thing appertaining or belonging to your Neighbour….
Mather also included several letters written on behalf of the pirates to family members. One pirate cautioned his brother against “neglecting Prayer to God, Prophane Swearing & Cursing, Hard-Drinking, & Sabbath-Breaking. I am not without Hopes, that after all I shall enter into a happy State at Death for the sake of Christ.” Another pirate wrote to his mother, “I hope I shall receive from GOD the Pardon of all my Sins…. I pray GOD to help me to believe in Christ, Repent of all my Sins & fit for Death.”

The presence of a minister at an execution verified the rightness of the judgment to be delivered. For those who repented, it was also a time to rejoice in God’s mercy. On Friday, 20 June 1704, Cotton Mather and another minister, as well as “Forty Musketeers, Constables of the Town, the Provost Marshall and his Oficers,” accompanied the condemned pirates to the place of execution. In An Account of the Behaviour and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates, he wrote:

Being allowed to walk on Foot through the Town, to Scarlets wharf, where the Silver Oar being carried before them; they went by Water to the Place of Execution being Crowded and thronged on all sides with Multitudes of Spectators.
He reminded the pirates of all the ministers had told them and done for them. Now, “We can do no more, but leave you in His Merciful Hands!” Once the condemned mounted the “Stage,” either Mather or the other preacher said a prayer. The final segment of this account of a pirate hanging ended with the final words and appearances of the pirates. Some heeded the counsel of the ministers, some did not.
I. Capt. John Quelch…when on the Stage first he pulled off his Hat, and bowed to the Spectators, and not Concerned, nor behaving himself so much like a Dying Man as some would have done…. Gentlemen, ‘Tis but little I have to Speak: What I have to say is this, I desire to be informed for what I am here, I am Condemned only upon Circumstances. I forgive all the World; So the Lord be Merciful to my Soul.

II. John Lambert. He appeared much hardened, and pleaded much on his Innocency: He desired all men to beware of Bad Company; he seem’d in a great Agony near his Execution: he called much and frequently on Christ, for Pardon of Sin that God Almighty would Save his innocent Soul: he desired to forgive all the World: his last words were, Lord, forgive my Soul! Oh, receive me into Eternity! blessed Name of Christ receive my Soul.

John Miller’s last words were “Lord! What shall I do to be Saved!” Erasmus Peterson had made peace with God and said to the executioner, “he was a strong man, and Prayed to be put out of misery as soon as possible.” Christopher Scudamore was also penitent, but Peter Roach “seem’d little concerned, and said but little or nothing at all.” The final pirate, Francis King, didn’t die with his fellow pirates. At the last minute, he was pardoned.

Samuel SewallFor New Englanders, religion was an essential aspect of such gatherings, oftentimes of greater significance than the trial itself. And the ministers took their roles seriously, dedicating themselves to preparing the condemned for death and praying they would provide true evidence of their remorse before the hangman’s noose tightened around their necks. Samuel Sewall, a judge who had participated in the trial of John Quelch, penned this in his diary in 1704.

After Diner, about 3. p. m. I went to see the Execution. Many were the people that saw upon Broughton’s Hill. But when I came to see how the River was cover’d with People I was amazed: Some say there were 100 Boats. 150 Boats and Canoes… When the scaffold was hoisted to a due height, the seven Malefactors went up; Mr. Mather pray’d for them standing upon the Boat. Ropes were all fasten’d to the Gallows (save King, who was Reprieved). When the Scaffold was let to sink, there was such a Screech of the Women…. (British, 2:259)
Mather published his sermons after a pirate’s demise to reach a wider audience. He carefully chose his words and laced them with vivid descriptions to heighten the sensationalism. A devout diarist, he wrote in 1717 after six pirates danced the hempen jig, “May not I do well to give the Bookseller, something that may render the Condition of the Pirates, lately executed, profitable?” (Diary entry, 21 November) In his eyes he was doing God’s work, rather than making a monetary profit from his writings. The resulting publication was entitled Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead. This was the sermon he preached to six of the nine survivors of Samuel Bellamy’s crew of 146 men. The pirate ship Whydah had gone down off the coast of Cape Cod during a nor’easter – a deed brought about by God as vengeance for their sins.

Mather opened the sermon by comparing these pirates to those who had plagued the Mediterranean in Roman times. Then he summarized what had brought about these particular pirates’ downfall.

About the latter end of April, there came upon the Coast a Ship called, The Whido, whereof one Bellamy was Commander: A Pirate Ship, of about 130 Men and 23 Guns. These Pirates, after many other Depraedations, took a Vessel which had Wines aboard; and put Seven of their Crew on Board, with Orders to Steer after the Whido. The seven Pirates being pretty free with the Liquor, got so Drunk, that the Captive who had the Steering of the Vessel, took the opportunity of the Night, now to run her ashore, on the backside of Eastham.

A Storm was now raised and raging; and the Whido ignorantly following the Light of her Stranded Prize, perished in a Shipwreck, and the whole Crew were every on of them drowned, except only one Englishman, and one Indian, that were cast on Shore alive.

They slew their prisoners once they reached shore so these victims would not testify against them. The pirates didn’t elude capture, though, and were tried in Boston by a Special Court of Admiralty. Six were found guilty and sentenced to death: John Brown of Jamaica, Thomas Baker and Hendrick Quintor of the Netherlands; Peter Cornelius Hoof of Sweden; John Shaun of France; and Simon Van Vorst of New York. Carpenters Thomas South and Thomas Davis, who was tried separately, were deemed not guilty because they had been forced to join the pirates. John Julian, a sixteen-year-old Miskito Indian, wasn’t brought to trial, but was sold into slavery.

After assuring the congregation that he and other Boston ministers had done what they could to minister to and pray with the condemned, Mather shared his final conversations with the prisoners as they stood on the scaffold. He firmly believed that Baker, Brown, Hoof, Quintor, and Shaun sought God’s grace, but not so Van Vorst.

‘Tis a Good and Great Speech; But such as I have heard uttered by some, who after a Reprieve (which you cannot have) have returned unto their Crimes. I must now Leave you, in the Hands of Him who Searches the Heart; and beg of Him, Oh! May there be such an Heart in you!
During the prayer that followed, the minister included a “Supplication” for seafarers.
That they may more generally Turn and Live unto GOD; That they may not fall into the hands of Pirates; That such as are fallen into their Hands, may not fall into their Wayes; That the poor Captives may with Cries to GOD that shall pierce the Heavens, procure His Good Providence to work for their Deliverance; And That the Pirates now infesting the Seas, may have a Remarkable Blast from Heaven following of them; the Sea-monsters, of all the most cruel, be Extinguished; and that the Methods now taking by the British Crown for the Suppression of these Mischiefs may be prospered.
Cotton Mather ended his account with the words, “Behold, Reader! The End of Piracy!” Yet six years later in 1723, he published an account of twenty-six pirates, members of Edward Low’s crew, executed in Rhode Island. Useful Remarks: An Essay upon Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men included not only a sermon to his parishioners, but also “letters, confessions, prayers, scaffold warnings, and eyewitness accounts.” (Williams, “Puritans,” 236)

For Cotton Mather to do what he did, one must understand that he believed any sinner, regardless of his transgressions (and we’re all sinners), could repent. The sinner still had to face whatever punishment he was given, but he would receive God’s grace. The redemption of murderous pirates who repented demonstrated to one and all that even they could be forgiven if truly believed.

The Vial Poured out upon the Sea opened with a brutal, but factual, description of the mutiny Bosun Fly led aboard the slaver Elizabeth on 27 May 1726. Both the captain and mate were murdered. Fly and Alexander Mitchel, entered the master’s cabin, and while the former “held his Hands,” the latter “wounded him. Then they hawled him up; who perceiving their Intention to throw him overboard, beg’d, For the Lord’s sake, don’t throw me overboard; For if you do, you throw me into Hell immediately…. And when he seized the Mainsheets with his Hand, to prolong his Time, the merciless Monsters, with a Cooper’s Broad-axe, cut off his Hand, and threw him over-board.” As for the mate, “…having first cut him down the Shoulder with a Broad-axe, they threw him over, just before the Main Shrouds.”

Thereafter the mutineers turned pirates – or as Fly liked to refer to himself, “Gentlemen of Fortune” – and seized goods and hostages from ships they encountered. Mather went into some detail as to what transpired, before recounting what happened once they captured a passenger named William Atkinson, a sea captain bound for home. Atkinson feigned an eagerness to join Fly and his cohorts, and when the opportunity presented itself, Atkinson took advantage of it.

While the Pirates were gone upon their chase, there appeared in Sight several other Fishing-Vessels; and Atkinson by telling Fly what he saw, drew him forward, from his two Loaden Guns, and Sword, which he had with him; and while Fly satt on the Windlace with his Prospective-Glass, Benbrook and Walker…upon the Direction from Atkinson, secured Fly, and put him in Irons; and Atkinson struck another of the Pirates; and with the Help of the Carpenter, soon confined the other Two. Thus they made themselves Masters of the Snoe; the rest of the Prisoners all the while standing unactive, not being made acquainted with the Design, which was now managing for their Deliverance.
Thereafter Atkinson sailed the Elizabeth to Boston and the pirates were imprisoned. A speedy trial followed with the Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor William Dummer presiding. Mather described the condemned 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 then described two meetings he had with the convicted pirates. Their first conference took place six days before their executions. Although doomed men, Mather assured them they could still be saved – “Tho’ you have been so wicked overmuch, that the Sword of Justice can do no other, than Cause you to Dy before your Time, yet there is Mercy with GOD for you, if you Return to Him.” After all, the Lord was the one who had brought them to this place and time expressly to give them this final opportunity to repent.

…the great God is Angry with you…. You are within a very few Days, to be thrown into those Hands, which if you dy in Ill Terms with Heaven, you will find it a fearful thing to fall into. Now, tis only in the Way of REPENTANCE…that you can be saved from the inconceivable Miseries….
But there was a price to pay to receive that grace. The pirates had to rid themselves of all their sins, to subjugate themselves to following God’s path. “You must cast yourselves in the Dust before the Lord, and weep to Him with unspeakable Agony….” Without confession, there was only damnation. Fly refused to confess. “I can’t charge my self with Murder. I did not strike and wound the Master or Mate! It was Mitchel did it!” Surprised, Mather answered, “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.”

During the second meeting, Mather attempted to again convince Fly to show remorse for his crimes.

I can’t Charge myself, — 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—
With no legal means of redress against ill use by the ship’s officers, Fly felt he and his fellow seamen had had no alternative. It was a common complaint among mariners, but mutiny wasn’t the answer. In this place and time submission to authority was paramount. Try as Cotton Mather did, he failed to turn Fly toward God.

The sermon Mather preached to the condemned pirates was based on Job 4:21: “They Dy even without Wisdom.” Since Fly refused to attend the service or seek redemption, he sealed his fate.

...he had been all along, a most uncommon and amazing Instance of Impenitency and Stupidity, and what Spectacles of Obduration the Wicked will be, when they have by a course of Wickedness under and against Warnings, provoked GOD of Heaven to withold His Influences from them. The Sullen and Raging Mood, into which he fell, upon his being first Imprison’d, caused him to break forth into furious Execrations, and Blasphemies too hideous to be mention’d; and not eat one morsel of any thing, but subsist only upon a little Drinking, for almost all the remaining part of his Life. He declined appearing in the Public Assemblies, on the Lords-day, with the other Prisoners, to be under the appointed means of Grace, because, forsooth, he would not have the Mob gaze upon him. He seem’d all along ambitious to have it said, That he died a brave fellow! He pass’d along to the place of Execution, with a Nosegay in his hand, and making his Complements, where he thought he saw occasion. Arriving there, he nimbly mounted the Stage, and would fain would have put on a Smiling Aspect. He reproached the Hangman, for not understanding his Trade, and with his own Hands rectified matters, to render all things more Convenient and Effectual.
Mather was well versed in the Old Testament. He, and other ministers, saw the sea as a mighty vastness that represented God. Most seamen realized the power and awesomeness of God when at sea, and if they failed in this, these men of the cloth reasoned that those mariners, such as pirates, were demonic monsters warring against everyone else. The violence they perpetrated was “Instigated by the Devil.” Men like Cotton Mather, who resided in seaports and numbered sailors among their congregants, constantly reminded people of this through such examples from the Bible as Psalms 29:3: “The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundreth.: the LORD is upon many waters” or Psalms 107: 23-30.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Then they are glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
Those who followed the sea needed to respect it and maintain a righteous path. Not only did the ministers favor passages from Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, but also Proverbs, and passage 1:11-14 seemed aimed directly at pirates.
…they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause. Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit. We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil. Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse…
Yet the very nature of crime in turn brought vengeance down upon sinners. Whether in this world or the next, each would pay the price for turning away from God. Cotton Mather believed that when sinful outrages became intolerable, the Lord intervened to right the situation.

Dancing the Hempen JigThe final segment of The Vial Poured out upon the Sea involved the execution. Mather bid Fly “to Speak, what he should judge proper to be spoken on that sad occasion….” Instead of confessing or warning others not to tread the path he had, Fly said, “he would advise the Masters of Vessels to carry it well to their Men, lest they should be put upon doing as he had done.” Remaining defiant to the end, Fly died on 11 July 1726, at the age of twenty-seven, and his “Carcase hanged in Chains, on an Island, at the Entrance into Boston-Harbour.”

Cotton Mather was sixty-three when he counseled William Fly. The Vial Poured out upon the Sea was his last narrative that focused on condemned criminals. He took seriously his job of ministering to sinners before they departed this life. He wrote:

The Ministers of Boston...[bestowed] all possible Instructions upon the Condemned Criminals; Often Pray’d with them; Often Preached to them; Often Examined them, and Exhorted them; and presented them with Books of Piety, suitable to their Condition…. [P]erhaps, there is not that Place upon the face of the Earth, where more pains are taken for the Spiritual and Eternal Good of Condemned Prisoners. (British, 4: x)
His work entailed showing these men and women how to achieve salvation and guiding them in their final words – their testimony of rebirth and advice to the living from the dead. A truly penitent pirate, in facing the horrific reality of his crime, experienced trepidation and anguish. Once he demonstrated “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart,” Mather gave the pirate hope. (British, 4: x)

Hope and an abiding faith in God helped the staunch Calvinist deal with the struggles he encountered throughout his life. Three years after Cotton became the minister of Boston’s Old North Meeting House in 1683, he married Abigail Phillips, whom he called his “lovely Consort.” He loved children. Their first, named after her mother, was born in 1687, but died eleven days later. Between the birth of their second daughter, Katherine, in 1689, and wife Abigail’s death following a long illness in 1702, they had seven more children, only four of whom survived.

When Cotton remarried in August of 1703, his wife, Elizabeth Clark, was twelve years younger. She became mother to his four children: Katherine, Abigail (a second daughter of that name), Hannah, and Increase Mather, Jr. Together they had six sons and daughters, two of whom were twins, Martha and Eleazar, born on 30 October 1713. That winter a terrible killer visited New England – measles. The epidemic was the worst to ever strike the colonies. Thousands became infected, and in the space of two months 160 people died. Among them were Cotton’s wife, the twins, and his two-year-old daughter, Jerusha.

His mother, Maria, died in 1714. The next year, Cotton wed for a third time, but Lydia George suffered bouts of insanity, which Cotton called “Satanic paroxysms.” Two years later, his eldest daughter, Katherine, died of consumption and Increase, Jr. was accused of impregnating a prostitute. In 1721 someone tried to assassinate Cotton, but the grenade was a dud. Lydia finally left him in 1723. She had harangued him all day long, accusing “me with Crimes, which obliged me to rebuke her lying Tongue….” Her abuse consisted of “a thousand unrepeatable Invectives.”

At midnight Mather got out of bed and retired to his study to pour out his soul to God. But Lydia would not let him escape. She arose also, and in a ‘horrid Rage,’ said she would never stay with him or live with him. In the dead of night…she left the house. As she had gone to lodge with a neighbor, Mather feared the scandal she might enflame by telling ‘numberless Lies, which a tongue set on Fire of Hell, would make no Conscience of.’ (Silverman, 386)
After his wife’s departure, he and his children prayed and sang Psalms into the wee hours of the morning. Three days later, Lydia returned on hearing the news that Increase had drowned at sea. Soon after, Cotton’s father succumbed. In 1724 he owed so much money, Mather feared he would have to sell his beloved library. Instead, members of his congregation raised sufficient sums to wipe out his indebtedness. After his daughter, Elizabeth, died in 1726, only two of his children remained alive – Samuel and Hannah.

Blessed with good health for much of his life, Cotton Mather fell ill three times in 1727. He died the following February sometime between eight and nine o’clock in the morning. A godfearing man, he was not without his faults: inner fears, meddlesome ambitiousness, guile, vanity, rashness, and envy. But as the Reverend Benjamin Colman said, “Love to Christ and his Servant commands me to draw a Veil over every Failing: for who is without them?” (Silverman, 425)

Cotton Mather was the most prolific writer of early American literature, yet few of his 469 published writings have appeared in print since his death. He craved knowledge, and when he died, he owned one of the largest libraries in America. His son, Samuel, estimated it contained seven or eight thousand titles and five generations of manuscripts. Part of his legacy included the many diaries he had kept throughout his life. The last word Cotton Mather spoke harkened back to what he had counseled his parishioners, the condemned, and the pirates – “Grace!”

For further information, I recommend these resources:

Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.
Bosco, Ronald A. “Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon,” American Quarterly 30 (1978), 156-176.
British Piracy in the Golden Age edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007.

Clifford, Barry, and Kenneth J. Kinkor. Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. National Geographic Society, 2007.
Collins, Emily E. Eyes on God and Gold: The Importance of Religion during the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy (thesis). Ashville, NC: University of North Carolina, 2004.

Dow, George Francis, and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. Dover, 1996.

Henigman, Laura. Coming into Communion: Pastoral Dialogues in Colonial New England. State University of New York Press, 1999.

Levy, Babette M. Cotton Mather. Twayne, 1979.
Levin, David. Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer 1663-1703. Harvard University Press, 1978.

Mather, Cotton. “An Account of the Behaviour and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates” in British Piracy in the Golden Age (edited by Joel H. Baer), volume 4, pages 91-92. Pickering & Chatto, 2007.
Mather, Cotton. Diary of Cotton Mather (v. 1: 1681-1709; v. 2: 1709-1724). Frederick Ungar, 1957?
Mather, Cotton. Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgments. Printed by Timothy Green, 1704.
Mather, Cotton. “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead” in British Piracy in the Golden Age (edited by Joel H. Baer), volume 4, pages 129-153. Pickering & Chatto, 2007.
Mather, Cotton. “Pillars of Salt” in Pillars of Salt by Daniel E. Williams, pages 64-91. Madison House, 1993.
Mather, Cotton. “Useful Remarks: An Essay upon Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men” in British Piracy in the Golden Age (edited by Joel H. Baer), volume 4, pages 159-205. Pickering & Chatto, 2007.
Mather, Cotton. The Vial Poured out upon the Sea. A Remarkable Relation of Certain Pirates Brought unto a Tragical End. Printed by T. Fleet for N. Belknap, 1726.
Minnick, Wayne C. “The New England Execution Sermon, 1639-1800,” Speech Monographs 35 (1963), 77-89.

Redicker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Beacon Press, 2004.

Selected Letters of Cotton Mather compiled by Kenneth Silverman. Louisiana State University, 1971.
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. Harper & Row, 1984.

The Trials of Sixteen Persons for Piracy. J. Edwards,1726.

Williams, Daniel E.  Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison House, 1993.
Williams, Daniel E. “Puritans and Pirates: A Confrontation between Cotton Mather and William Fly in 1726,” Early American Literature 22 (1987), 233-251.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. Harcourt, 2007.


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