Like a few other Boston Harbor Islands, the now nearly eroded Nixes Mate possesses an air of mystery that’s lent to it not only by its vast diminishment but also by the folklore and legend that surrounds the place. The story (or, rather, one of the stories) goes that a 1600s-era Captain Nix was murdered at sea by none other than his mate, disgruntled for reasons unknown. Although he denied any wrongdoing, Nix’s mate was taken to the island to be hanged, at which point he was good enough to predict that the then valuable, centrally located, 12-acre island would deteriorate soon after he met his maker. Since we doubt Nix’s mate was either scientist or fortune-teller, we’re writing off this tale, as romantic as it is.
Another popular Nixes Mate legend singles out feuding pirates as the inspiration for the island’s namesake. In the story, a pirate version of Nix and his pirate mate plunder some treasure and load it onto their pirate ship. After the two men anchor their vessel and set up shop on the island, however, the tide begins to turn. Nix evidently feels that he can’t trust his mate to stay mum about the money, and therefore, to top off his list of crimes, he charmingly opts to bury his murdered mate on the island along with the loot. We suppose it’s a viable option, but we’re still not convinced that this story is the real basis for the island’s name.
While we have our reasons (mainly in the form of a healthy degree of skepticism) for seriously doubting the veracity of these tales, historical record at least indicates that pirates were, in fact, present along the New England coast and probably skulking around Nixes Mate. Evidence shows that several pirates were hanged in Boston proper before being strung up in gibbets on Nixes Mate in the 1700s, as they were a serious threat to Boston’s maritime commerce up until the 1830s at a minimum. One unlucky pirate chief was captured in 1726 after leading a mutiny onboard a slave ship; he was hanged and displayed on Nixes Mate to serve as a rather threatening example for shipmen throughout the area. Given the sordidness of all these tales, perhaps it’s best that Nixes Mate is now almost lost to the sea.
For more on the stories behind the city’s sanctuaries, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein, or check out last week’s blog. To help you explore the islands on the go, download our free smartphone app. Anchors away!