Mary Read: Fearless Female Pirate

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Mary Read killing her antagonist [with a sword]. Illus. in: The Pirates Own Book, 1842, p. 389.

Dressed as a man, Mary Read lived the life of a man’s man as a woman. She was a skilled swordsman, sailed with Jack Rackham and was best friends with pirate Anne Bonny.

Eventual pirate Mary Read was born somewhere in London in the late 1600’s and died in early 1721. Her mother was married to a seaman, but, as seaman are wont to do, he went to sea and, as they are also wont to do, never returned. The seaman left his wife with a baby boy. Not long after this, Mary came into the world, presumably by another man, making her officially illegitimate. In order to escape her in-laws’ prying ways, Mary’s mother went to live in the countryside, taking her children with her. The boy then died, leaving just Mary.

Meanwhile, the mother-in-law — let us call her “Money Bags” — was told that Mary was a boy and the son of her son. This was so that the well-to-do mother-in-law would continue to send an allowance of a crown a week.

Mary’s mother dressed her up in boys’ clothing, and when the mother-in-law visited her “grandson,” she did not notice anything amiss. Therefore everyone was happy under this arrangement.

Though mothers-in-law, from the point of view of their long-suffering sons-in-law, are well known for their longevity and powers of endurance, Money Bags eventually died. This meant that there would be no more crowns making their way to Mary’s household.

A teenager by this time, Mary was able to procure a position through her mother as a footboy to a French lady. However, Mary eventually grew tired of the life of a footboy and signed on with a man-o’-war — still disguised as a boy of course. Though she hardly expected to see Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and St. Francis of Assisi onboard ship, she was put off by the cruelty of her shipmates and jumped ship at first opportunity.

So You’ve No Job Prospects or Money in Your Pockets? No Problem. Flanders Is the Place for You. After That You Can Open an Inn Called the “Three Horseshoes.”

With no other prospects immediately presenting themselves, Read then decided to enlist in a foot regiment. The fighting took her to Flanders, where she served with distinction.

She then met and fell in love with a soldier belonging to a horse regiment. He indicated a preference for having her as his mistress, but Read indicated that there would be no horsing around, so the two of them married.

Presumably, she at some point before the wedding mentioned to him her womanhood. Together they opened an inn near a castle. With the husband’s strong horse-related background, he naturally enough came up with the name Three Horseshoes for the inn. Mary during this time had resumed wearing women’s clothing. Maybe it was better for business to have someone actually look like a woman when introduced as the wife.

This is where Mary Read would have faded from history; or rather, she never would have been known to us to begin with, her life’s story, while interesting, being too historically inconsequential to this point. In any event her husband and inn partner soon died, which left something of a void in Read’s life.

Time to Go Adventuring Again

That void would be filled by again donning men’s clothing –her dead husband’s, in fact–and going out adventuring. She again enlisted in the army and went to Holland.

However, there was no war on at the time and no killing-related opportunities, which didn’t suit Read at all. Despairing of the chance to sow her wild oats in battle, Read boarded a ship for the West Indies.

As fate would have it, her ship was taken by Captain John Rackham –he of Tintin fame. As fate would further have it, one of Rackham’s “men” was none other than Anne Bonny. Setting her eye on Read, whom she assumed was a fetching young lad, Bonny fetched him to the nearest cabin, where she might then have her way with him.

The mechanics being all wrong, Read revealed herself as a woman to Bonny. “Well, I’ll be–” Bonny must have said. “I’m one too, if the truth be known.”

The two of them became fast friends, and were generally regarded as the most capable and determined fighters among Rackman’s crew.

Some time later, while Rackham’s ship was conducting pirate-related raids in the Caribbean, a captured man joined the crew. This time it was Read’s turn to do some eye-setting on the newcomer. After sorting out who was what so there’d be no confusion and, probably, double checking to ensure that the mechanics were right, the two fell in love.

Later, when her lover had an appointment to fight a duel with another pirate, Read purposely picked a quarrel with the pirate before the duel could come off. Though she probably kept her opinion to herself, Read didn’t like her lover’s chances in the duel. She liked her own chances better. Read fought and killed the pirate.

Annie, Get Your Sword. There’s Foul Work Afoot, and All Our Men Are Dead Drunk

In the year 1720, with most of the crew of Rackham’s ship incapacitated in the ship’s hold following a night of debauchery and demon-rum-drinking, the ship was attacked. It was more or less Anne Bonny and Mary Read against the hordes. Being significantly outnumbered, however, they were soon taken prisoner along with the rest of the crew. Speaking of the crew, at least one of them had to be carried up dead from the hold, where they had been cowering when Read shot several rounds at them. This had been her way of showing her displeasure at their cowardice and drunken incompetence.

Everybody, including Bonny and Read, was condemned to death for piracy.

The End Is Not Really the End If You Have a Father Rich Enough to Get You Off

Standing before the judge, Read was asked why she had chosen the life of a pirate. Rather than play for sympathy or go for laughs as most of us might, she responded with,

“That as to hanging, it is no great hardship, for were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the seas, that men of courage must starve.”

All of the men had a date, soon enough, with the hangman — and it wasn’t the kind where you present flowers or chocolate. Both women, however, claimed to be pregnant and so received a stay of execution. Bonny’s old man was rich and influential enough to get her off. Mary Read, on the other hand, had already died in prison before then from fever or possibly while in childbirth. In any case, like her father before her, she ended up never returning home from the sea.

There is one other final common point she shared with her father: they both died in male clothing.