Marblehead Chronicles: The town’s Robinson Crusoe

In the early 1700s, pirates were a menace along the coast of the American colonies. From New England through the Carolinas and into the Caribbean Sea they roamed, searching for treasure. One of the most famous and feared pirates was Ned Low. A cruel and evil man, Low plundered, killed and kidnapped his way up and down the coast, seemingly unstoppable.

One fine day in the1720s, Low was doing his nasty work off the coast of Nova Scotia, capturing fishing vessels and merchant ships. He had already taken 12 vessels when he came upon the fishing schooner Mary, owned by Joseph Doliber of Marblehead. It was a Sunday morning, and by tradition, fishing vessels known as “Sunday keepers,” like the Mary, did not work. Low’s pirate ship sailed close, attacked and boarded the Mary. The prize that Low sought was men for his crew. Low had one peculiarity when it came to taking crew members. Though he had no qualms about killing men who were fathers of young children at home, he would not take them as crew members. He only captured unmarried men.

The Ashton family house at 95 Elm St. built circa 1715. COURTESY PHOTO / MARBLEHEAD HISTORICAL COMMISSION

The Mary was quickly and easily captured, since like most fishing schooners she carried little in the way of weapons. Low took charge and renamed her the Fancy. He released most of the crew and sent them off in one of his discarded ships. The six remaining single men were given a choice: they could either become pirates or die. All reluctantly agreed to become pirates. Philip Ashton of Marblehead was one of the six men, and his story is remarkable.

Ashton was 19 years old in 1722 when he was captured. He had no desire to be a pirate, but he did not want to die either. Phillip was an unwilling pirate for about eight  months. He worried constantly about being killed by Low or being hung as a pirate if the ship was captured. During this time, the ship had made its way south and finally came into Caribbean waters.

One day the ship stopped at a small uncharted island to take on fresh water. Several men were sent ashore to fill wooden kegs with water. Ashton volunteered to be among them, and they rowed to the island to look for a natural spring. Ashton waited for his opportunity, and as soon as he could he ran away from the group and hid in the jungle. The crew searched for him for a long time, but finally had to return to the ship. Low was furious. He sailed back and forth around the island for five days, hoping to catch sight of Ashton, so that they could either recapture or kill him. Finally, they sailed away, with Low consoling himself that though he may have escaped, Ashton was marooned; doomed to die alone on a deserted island.

Once the excitement of being free wore off, Ashton realized he was not in great shape. He had a hard time on the island. He did have fresh water and fruits to eat. But he had no weapon and no fire to cook food, or to signal to other ships. His feet were cut and bleeding. As most seamen did, he went barefoot aboard ship and did not bring along any shoes to go ashore. Running over shells and rocks on the island as he escaped, he had cut his feet badly. Some of his wounds became infected, and he was sick and feverish. During this time Ashton became confused, lost track of time and was very low in spirit.

Pirate Ed Low’s route from ‘At the Point of a Cutlass’ by Greg Fleming, 2014

After nine months alone, Ashton had a visitor. A man came by canoe to the island, a Spaniard who made his living traveling among the small islands. Ashton never knew his name. The man stayed for a few days and when he left, he gave Ashton a knife and powder and flint to make a fire and promised to return. He never did. Whether the man was lost at sea or never intended to return is unknown. But Ashton was in much better condition after his visitor left, for now he could hunt and cook his food. His wounds had healed, and he could move about to explore and observe his surroundings. Then his luck really improved when he found an abandoned canoe on the other side of the island.

Ashton took his small canoe and traveled to the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras. Ashton stayed there alone for seven months. Then in June of 1724, two large vessels of English-speaking men came to the island. Ashton watched silently until he was sure that these men were not pirates, and then he came out of hiding. The sailors were startled and amazed by Ashton’s appearance. His clothing was almost gone, his hair and beard were long and unkempt, and his voice hoarse from lack of speaking. But the men rescued him and took him with them. They listened with great curiosity to Ashton’s story, asking many questions. They kept him safe until they met up with a ship bound for Salem.

Philip Ashton signed on to the ship and worked his passage home to Marblehead. He arrived two years, 10 months and 15 days after he had been captured by pirates. His family was amazed and delighted when he walked through the door of his family home at 95 Elm St. It was as if he had come back from the dead. The whole town of Marblehead was fascinated by his story, and Parson John Barnard helped Ashton to tell the tale, publishing a book in 1725, called “The Strange Adventures and Deliverances of Philip Ashton of Marblehead.”

Pam Peterson
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