William Fly: A Short-lived Pirate of the 1700s

William Fly was an English pirate with a short lived-career and a short life. His life of piracy began in 1726 after he signed on to sail with Captain John Green from Rhode Island to West Africa on the Elizabeth Snow. During the voyage Fly and Captain Green clashed several times, which then resulted in Fly conspiring with several other men to get rid of him and allow Fry to take command of the Elizabeth Snow.

William Fly, Courtesy of Wikipedia

William Fly. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At one o’clock in the morning of 27 May 1726, William Fly, accompanied by several mutineers, went to the captain’s cabin. Fly was carrying a cutlass in his hand and he told the Captain that he had been elected the new captain. He warned him that he should not resist. The mutineers then pulled Captain Green out bed, shouting “Upon deck, you dog, for we shall lose no more time about you.”[1]

Captain Green was hauled to steerage and then forced onto the deck. The mutineers asked the Captain if he would leap overboard on his own or if he wanted “to be tossed over like a sneaking rascal?”[2] For an hour the Captain begged not to be thrown overboard, but finally, the mutineers tired of his begging, seized him, and tossed him overboard. However, the Captain was not going into the water easily. He grabbed the main sheet and was hanging on for dear life. That was until one of the mutineers picked up an axe and lopped of his hand, which caused the Captain to fall into the water with blood pouring from his hand as he hit the water.

The mutineers then sought the Captain Green’s first mate. His name was Thomas Jenkins. They likewise brought him to deck and likewise refused to listen to his entreaties to spare his life. As they went to throw Jenkins overboard, he struggled, and one of the mutineer’s snatched the same axe that had been used to lop off Captain Green’s hand and landed a blow on Jenkins’ shoulder, barely missing his head. Jenkins was then thrown into the sea, and the last the mutineers saw of him he was swimming and crying for help.

William Fly and Another Mutineer Attacking Jenkins, Public Domain

William Fly and another mutineer attacking Jenkins. Public domain.

With the Captain and Jenkins gone, the mutineers now declared the Elizabeth Snow theirs. They sewed a Jolly Roger flag — a white skull and crossbones on a black background — and raised it over the ship. They also renamed the ship the Fames’ Revenge and set sail to commence a pirate’s life decided to sail along America’s eastern coast by heading for North Carolina.

Typical Jolly Roger flag. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They soon came across several ships. The first ship was the John Hannah. They captured her crew but also sank the ship because of their inexperience and unfamiliarity with the American coast. Another ship appeared named the John and Betty. The pirates chased her, but she out sailed them. That did not stop Fly from continuing his pursuit so that by morning Fly was within yards of the John and Betty. He hoisted his Jolly Roger Flag, fired his guns, and boarded her after she was struck. His reward was meager, some sail cloth and muskets, but there was one thing of value on board. It was an experienced and able seaman named William Atkinson, who was also well acquainted with the coast.

William Fly decided to detain Atkinson and use him as his pilot. Atkinson didn’t want to stay, but Fly refused to let him leave, telling him:

“Your palavering won’t save your bacon. Go you shan’t; … discharge your duty like an honest man, or I’ll send you to the devil with my compliments.”[3]

William Fly continued his piracy. Off the coast of Delaware, he gave chase to a sloop with fifty passenger headed to Philadelphia and captured it. However, he found the ship and everything on board was of no use. Fly then ordered Atkinson to take the Fames’ Revenge to Martha’s Vineyard, which Atkinson missed on purpose. When Fly found himself at Nantucket, he was exasperated and got a gun to shoot Atkinson.

“You are an obstinate villain,’ cried Fly, ‘and you mean to hang us, but blood and wounds, you dog, you shan’t live to see it.'”[4]

Fortunately, however, another pirate interposed and saved Atkinson’s life, believing Atkinson had made an honest mistake.

Map of Martha’s Vineyard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Finding himself in constant danger, Atkinson tried to ingratiate himself with the pirates. He was convincing enough that they believed he might join them, and as they were interested in having an able seaman, there was even talk of deposing Fly and making Atkinson captain. Atkinson did not necessarily discourage the pirates from replacing Fry, but he also told them that he would not accept command of the ship.

As the ship sailed on, it finally made its way to Brown’s Bank on 23 June. There it captured a schooner. At that time, Fly was also told by the captain of the schooner about another ship that was better and would be of more interest. That ship soon appeared on the horizon, and, as Fly wanted to capture it, he sent six of his pirates on a schooner to capture it, but when it came to sailing and strategy Fry was no John Paul Jones.

In the meantime, William Fly and fifteen men, who he had impressed, were left on board Fames’ Revenge:

“It is written that the days of the wicked shall be short, and it seems that Heaven, weary of the crime of William Fly, prepared to make the promise good. Atkinson seeing … [that] he could never have a better change to turn the tables [did so] … Fortunately several more fishing vessels came in sight right ahead of the Elizabeth, whereupon Atkinson desired the pirate captain to come forward with his glass. Fly left his arms on the quarter deck, and coming forward sat down on the windless to look out ahead. Atkinson and three more instantly took possession of his arms, and laid hands on him. They secured him with little trouble.”[5]

Fry was livid that he had been captured and he became desperate to be released. He railed and cursed and wished “all the devils of hell would come and fly away with the ship.”[6] Unfortunately for Fry, his cursing and threats did no good.

When Atkinson sailed the pirate ship into the Boston Harbor it was 28 June. Fry’s pirate life had almost two months and only a few days later, on 12 July, his life would end. William Fly and his pirate associates — Samuel Cole, George Condick, and Henry Greenville — were brought before the Court of Admiralty. Condick was released but the rest were found guilty of piracy and murder and condemned to death.

William Fly - Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor in the 18th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 27-year-old Fly was the first of the lot to be executed and likely the last sight he saw was the Elizabeth Snow sitting sedately in the harbor waiting to sail. Of his execution the Times Union wrote:

“The execution occurred at the usual place in Charlestown, near the ferry, about where the North End Park is located. The gallows was placed as usual at a point midway between the ebb and flood of tide. Thousands came from miles around to see the hanging. Three ministers offered very long prayers after the men were on the scaffold. Fly smiled all through, probably fortified by plenty of New England rum.

After the men were properly and completely hanged, their bodies were taken down and transported in a boat to Nix’s Island, down the harbor … two leagues from town. Fly was there hung in irons as a Spectacle for the warning of others, especially sea-faring men.” [7]

References:

  • [1] Carey, T. The History of the Pirates, 1825, p. 135.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 139.
  • [4] “Narrative of the Career of Wm. Fly, Boatswain of the Elizabeth Snow,” in Cooper’s Clarksburg Register, 29 September 1842, p. 1.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [5] Stedman, Arthur, A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 1892, p. 300.
  • [7] “Pirates and Buccaneers,” in Times Union, 26 August 1924, p. 11.

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