July 18, 2009

Nix's Mate: Pirates, a Curse, and Dutch Water Spirits



No pirate corpses were visible the day I sailed past Nix's Mate.

Last week a friend and I took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown. One of the sights we saw as we cruised through Boston Harbor was Nix's Mate, a very small island topped by stone pyramid. It may be only be 200 square feet, but it has more folklore per foot than any other island in the harbor.

WHERE DID ALL THE LAND GO? Nix's Mate was originally a 12 acre island where sheep grazed. Now, it's just a tiny rocky shoal that's entirely hidden during high tide. What happened? According to Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, in the 1630s a certain Captain Nix was murdered in a ship anchored off the island. His first mate was convicted of the crime, and sentenced to death by hanging on the island. As he was led to the gallows, he shouted "God, show that I am innocent. Let this island sink and prove to these people that I have never stained my hands with human blood." After the sailor was executed, the island slowly began to sink into the sea, proving his innocence. (A more boring explanation is that the land was quarried for gravel.)

WHAT'S IN A NAME? There are a few explanations of where Nix's Mate got it's catchy name, which it's had since 1636. The first is that was named after Captain Nix's who was hanged there. However, there are no records of Captain Nix or a sailor being executed on the island in the 1630s. This leads to the second explanation - that Nix's Mate is really a garbled version of nixie scmalt, which is Old Dutch for "wail of the water spirits." Allegedly, a Dutch passenger on a boat muttered this as he heard the waves pounding against the island's cliffs. (You can read more about the water spirits known as nixen here.)

PIRATES! Although there is no record of Nix's mate being executeded on the island, three actual pirates are known to have been hanged there, with their bodies left in the gibbet as a warning to other would-be pirates. The most famous of the three was William Fly, who was executed in July of 1726. Fly refused to repent during his trial, and wanted to die as bravely as he lived. According to Robert Cahill's New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments, Fly walked to the gallows carrying a flower, and smiled at the executioner as the noose was put around his neck. Other sources claim that Fly even helped tie the noose around his own neck. The corpses of Fly and the other pirates were buried on Nix's Mate, and are now probably at the bottom of Boston Harbor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The same thing happened to Billingsgate Island, just south of Jeremy's Point, Wellfleet, adjacent to Eastham on the Cape. But it sank beneath the water and it's buildings floated over to the Cape itself on rafts because the early settlers cut down all the trees. Simple erosion!

(The whole Cape, indeed nearly the whole country east of the Mississippi, was one huge forest when Europeans arrived and began hacking and burning all the trees away under the rubrick of "improving" the land. Pity.)