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First Person

A real pirate story: Inside Gregory Flemming’s new book

The Acton author has uncovered the striking capture and escape of a 19-year-old cod fisherman in the 1720s, the subject of his new book.

Gregory Flemming.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Gregory Flemming.

Philip Ashton was from Marblehead, and not only did he sail with the pirates, but he escaped after nine months and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island for close to two years. And I thought to myself, Wow, this is just an amazing story, and no one had even written a full book-length treatment of it, so I did.

He actually sailed with one of the worst pirates of the 18th century, an absolutely horrific man named Edward Low. Low would sometimes cut open a captive alive and take out his heart, or cut off his lips and ears and roast them over a fire. And this happened on many occasions.

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When Ashton ran off from the pirates, he had nothing with him — no knife, no gun, no way to make a fire. He didn’t even have shoes. So he just survived on raw fruit he could pick. He’s been called “America’s real-life Robinson Crusoe.”

John Barnard was the minister at First Church in Marblehead. He was worried a lot about people in Marblehead, about their lack of commitment to faith. So the very Sunday after Ashton gets home, he and his parents go to church, and Barnard gives this sermon saying: “Look at this guy. He faced pirates at gunpoint, he survived aboard a pirate ship, he survived as a castaway, and he came home safely. What more proof do you need that God watches over you?” That’s Barnard’s interpretation.

On the west end, [the island of Roatan is] a real tourist destination; cruise ships go in, you can fly there. The eastern end is only accessible by boat. No roads go out there, and it still may look very much as it did when Ashton was there almost 300 years ago. I stayed at a dive resort there and got to go kayaking around the harbor where he lived.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

READ MORE Flemming’s At the Point of a Cutlass will be released June 3. He’ll appear at Westborough’s Tatnuck Bookseller at 1 p.m. June 8. For more events, go to
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