The moral force of Puritan theology was legendary, an impulse so powerful that it helped drive the settlement of an entire continent. But sometimes it met its match—and at least once, that match was a pirate.
In 1726, Cotton Mather, New England’s most influential preacher, engaged in a two-week argument with William Fly, a sailor awaiting execution on charges of high piracy. As described in a 1987 article in Early American Literature by Daniel Williams, and recounted in a recent undergraduate history thesis by Kimberly Lorton posted online by Eastern Illinois University, Mather repeatedly visited Fly in prison hoping to convince him to repent before he swung from the gallows at Boston Harbor.
For Mather, the conversion effort was about more than Fly’s soul: He was likely hoping to produce an “execution sermon,” a popular kind of religious pamphlet that featured both the text of a sermon delivered just before an execution and the doomed person’s final request for repentance. The two together were a powerful form of religious propaganda that bolstered the Puritan worldview.
But William Fly wasn’t willing to go along. He remained defiant to the end—retying his own noose after the hangman did a poor initial job, and using his last words not to repent, but to warn sea captains against treating their crews badly lest they turn mutinous, as he had. This led one Boston minister (not Mather) to say, “Fly was the greatest Instance of obduracy that has yet been seen among all the Male factors who have suffer’d in these parts.”
Fly’s defiance was a high-profile public relations defeat for Mather, who’d actually created a set of “Instructions” for how pirates should act on the scaffold in order to maximize the effect their repentance had on the public. After the execution, Fly’s body was hung in chains on Nixes Island in Boston Harbor, and Mather began trying to limit the fallout. Later that same year he published “The Vial poured out upon the Sea,” which argued that Fly should be judged harshly for disregarding the state of his eternal soul, rather than admired for his fierce independence—as a wavering public seemed inclined to do.
Zines at Harvard
If you came of age in the 1980s and early ’90s, the self-published magazines called zines have a mythic status—passionate, DIY expressions of a blooming alternative counterculture before it vanished into a million chat rooms and blogs. Zines were edgy, low-fi, and self-consciously marginal—the antithesis of, say, an institution like Harvard University.
But places like Harvard are where culture comes to rest, and last spring the university acquired 20,000 zines and related material from a private collector in California who asked to remain anonymous. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette earlier this month, among the first researchers to look at the collection were a couple of aspiring undergraduate librarians who spent the summer knee-deep in a blizzard of tiny periodicals, and emerged amazed at the variety.
However zine authors might feel about it, their work is slowly trickling into the realm of academic study. Earlier this year the University of Iowa acquired former Brainiac blogger Josh Glenn’s collection of ’80s and ’90s zines, from obscure one-offs to influential publications like bOING
bOING, the print forebear of the well-known blog.
At Harvard, highlights from the new collection include prominent Riot Grrrl zines (feminist zines from the early 1990s) like Jigsaw by Tobi Vail and I (Heart) Amy Carter by Tammy Rae Carland. Harvard also acquired a number of important review zines—including the iconic Factsheet Five—which cataloged and commented on individual zines and served as a guide for readers who, like the Harvard students, may have been overwhelmed by the sheer variety of communities they spoke for.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.