Biography of Mary Read, English Pirate

Mary Reed

 Artist Unknown

Mary Read (1685–April 28, 1721) was an English pirate who sailed with "Calico Jack" Rackham and Anne Bonny. Though little is known for certain about her former life, she was well-known as a pirate from 1718 to 1720. After being captured, she was spared hanging because she was pregnant but died shortly after due to illness.

Fast Facts: Mary Read

  • Known For: One of the most famous female pirates of all time, Read sailed with "Calico Jack" Rackham during the early 1700s.
  • Also Known As: Mark Read
  • Born: 1685 in England
  • Died: April 28, 1721 in Port Royal, Jamaica

Early Life

Most of the limited information about Mary Read's life comes from Captain Charles Johnson (believed by many, but not all, pirate historians to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, the author of "Robinson Crusoe"). Johnson was descriptive, but never mentioned his sources, so most of Read's alleged background is in doubt.

Read was supposedly born sometime around 1690 to the widow of a sea captain. Mary’s mother dressed her up as a boy to pass her off as her older brother, who had died, to get money out of Mary’s paternal grandmother. Mary found she liked dressing as a boy and as a young “man” found work as a soldier and sailor.

Marriage

Read was fighting for the British in Holland when she met and fell in love with a Flemish soldier. She revealed her secret to him and they married. For a time, they operated an inn called The Three Horseshoes not far from the castle at the town of Breda in the Netherlands. After her husband died, Read could not operate the inn alone, so she went back to war, dressing once again as a man. Peace was soon signed, however, and she was out of work. Read took a ship to the West Indies in hope of finding new opportunities.

Joining the Pirates

While en route to the West Indies, Read’s ship was attacked and she was captured by pirates. Read decided to join them and for a while lived the life of a pirate in the Caribbean before accepting the king’s pardon in 1718. Like many former pirates, she signed on board a privateer commissioned to hunt down those buccaneers who had not accepted the pardon. The mission didn’t last long, however, as the whole crew soon mutinied and took over the ship. By 1720 she had found her way on board the pirate ship of “Calico Jack” Rackham.

Anne Bonny

Calico Jack already had a woman on board: his lover, Anne Bonny, who had left her husband for a life of piracy. According to legend, Bonny developed an attraction to Mary, not knowing that she was a woman. When Bonny tried to seduce her, Read revealed herself. According to some accounts, they became lovers anyway, with Rackham’s blessing (or participation). In any event, Bonny and Read were two of Rackham’s most bloodthirsty pirates, each carrying—according to one report—a machete and a pistol.

Read was a good fighter. According to legend, she developed an attraction to a man who had been forced to join the pirate crew. The object of her affection managed to irritate a certain cutthroat on board, who challenged him to a duel. Read, fearing that her would-be lover might get killed, challenged the brute to a duel of her own, scheduling it a couple of hours before the other duel was supposed to take place. She promptly killed the pirate, in the process saving the object of her affection.

Capture and Trial

By late 1720, Rackham and his crew were well known as dangerous pirates, and bounty hunters were sent out to capture or kill them. Captain Jonathan Barnet cornered Rackham's ship in late October 1720. According to some accounts, Bonny and Read fought valiantly while the men hid below deck. Rackham and the other male pirates were quickly tried and hanged in Port Royal, Jamaica, on November 18, 1720. Bonny and Read, at their trial, declared that they were pregnant, and this was soon determined to be true. They would be spared the gallows until they had given birth.

Death

Mary Read never got to taste freedom again. She developed a fever and died in prison not long after her trial, probably sometime in early 1721.

Legacy

Most of the information about Read comes from Captain Johnson, who most likely embellished at least some of it. It is impossible to say how much of what is commonly "known" about Read is true. It is certainly true that a woman by that name served with Rackham, and evidence is strong that both women on his ship were able, skilled pirates who were every bit as tough and ruthless as their male counterparts.

As a pirate, Read didn't leave much of a mark. Rackham is famous for having female pirates on board (and for having an impressive pirate flag), but he was strictly a small-time operator, never getting close to the levels of infamy of someone like Blackbeard or the success of someone like Edward Low or "Black Bart" Roberts.

Nevertheless, Read and Bonny have captured the public imagination as being the only two well-documented female pirates in the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy." In an age and society where the freedom of women was greatly restricted, Read and Bonny lived a life at sea as full members of a pirate crew. As subsequent generations increasingly romanticize piracy and the likes of Rackham, Bonny, and Read, their stature has grown even further.

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