Biography of Mary Read:
Mary Read (1690? -1721) was an English pirate who sailed with "Calico Jack" Rackham
and Anne Bonny
. Although little is known for sure about her former life, she was well-known as a pirate from 1718 to 1720. When captured, she was spared hanging because she was pregnant but died shortly thereafter due to illness.
Early Life of Mary Read:
Most of the little that is known about Mary Read comes from Captain Charles Johnson (believed by many, but not all, pirate historians to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe). Johnson was descriptive, but never mentioned his sources, so most of her 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, in order 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 in Holland:
Mary 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. They operated an inn named “the Three Horseshoes” not far from the castle at the town of Breda. When her husband died, Mary could not operate the inn alone so she went back to war, but a peace was soon signed and she was out of work. She took a ship to the West Indies.
Read Joins the Pirates:
While en route to the West Indies, Read’s ship was attacked and 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. It didn’t last long, 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.
Mary Read and 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, Anne developed an attraction for Mary, not knowing she was a woman. When Anne tried to seduce her, Mary revealed herself. According to some accounts, they became lovers anyway, with Rackham’s blessing (or participation). In any event, Anne and Mary were two of Rackham’s most bloodthirsty pirates.
Tough Mary Read:
Mary was a good fighter. According to legend, she developed an attraction for 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. Mary, fearing that her would-be lover might get killed, challenged the brute to a duel of her own, timing it for 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 attentions.
Capture and Trial of Read, Bonny and Rackham:
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 of 1720. According to some accounts, Anne and Mary fought valiantly while the men hid below deck. Rackham and the other male pirates were quickly tried and hanged in Port Royal
on November 18, 1720. Bonny and Read, at their trial, declared that they were pregnant, and it was soon determined to be true. They would be spared the gallows until such time as they had given birth.
Death and Legacy of Mary Read:
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.
Most of the information about Mary Read comes from Captain Johnson, who most likely embellished at least some of it. It is really impossible to say how much of what is commonly "known" about Mary Read is really true. It is certainly true that a woman by that name served with Rackham, and evidence is strong that both women 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 a really cool 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.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.