Copyright 2001, David Stapleton
[Similar to my misgivings about Anne Bonny, I hesitate to profile Mary Read. She, with Anne has been the material of many stories, and I doubt that I can do more than paraphrase what others have said before me, but here goes...]
In some sense the history of Mary Read is more clouded than that of Anne Bonny, all be it they both ended up in a similar straight pleading their bellies before the magistrate and buying time against the hangman's noose. In Mary's case for only a few months it seems, but let me start at the beginning as any story should.
Mary Read was born in England, some where in the country, although some tales put her birth in London and one says Devonshire around 1685. She was born illegitimate as her mother's husband had been away at sea too long to have been the rightful father. Mary had an older brother, who died soon after her birth. The mother in financial difficulties and living off a stipend from her mother-in-law, sought to disguise Anne as the now dead infant brother in order to stay in the dame's good graces and continue the support. In this day and time it would not have been terribly difficult, given the clothing and limited personal interaction. Eventually the mother-in-law died and Mary was forced to seek employment as a French lady's foot-boy at the age of thirteen.
It was not long before Mary signed on a man-of-war and made her way to Flanders to carry arms in a foot regiment, although she gained the respect of her peers she could not gain a commission and changed to a horse regiment. This is where she fell in love with a young and handsome (one has to wonder how much of this is just embellishment) Fleming. She contrived to let him know of her sex and without going into a load of speculation as to their relationship, they fell in love and married. Gifts were given by many in the regiment and the newlyweds bought an eating house or ordinary, named the Three Trade Horses (another account has it named The Three Horseshoes and places it in Breda, Holland). The happiness was fleeting as the young man soon died of fever and the Peace of Ryswick reduced the traffic through the area.
Mary again donned male attire and set to sea in a Dutch merchant bound for the West Indies, after a short stint in a Dutch foot regiment. Here accounts differ somewhat, some say that Mary's ship was taken by unnamed pirates and some say her ship was taken by Jack Rackam's ship. It is possible that she may have married in the West Indies and have taken advantage of the King's Pardon around 1709. Regardless of which, she signed with the pirates and eventually made it to New Providence and eventually joined up with Rackam and Anne Bonny as privateers against the Spanish. Privateering soon gave way to piracy. This eventually led to the meeting with Captain Jonathan Barnet in late October of 1720 off the coast of Jamaica, where that fateful scene in which the two women were the only resistance to capture as the rest of the crew hid below decks either drunk or recovering from a drunk.
Along the way Mary fell in love with one of the men on board ship and again contrived to disclose her secret to this man. In another incident Anne Bonny took Mary to be a handsome gent and flirted with her, involving Rackam's jealousy and revealing the true nature of both Anne's and Mary's sex to the three. Yet another incident relates how Mary's paramour became involved in a challenge to a duel, and Mary provoking a similar challenge for an hour earlier to prevent her lover from being harmed.
Account again differ as to the events of the trial, some say Mary's lover was hanged, some say he was set free as having been forced into service with the pirates against his will. Mary herself, at the age of 36, had her death sentence commuted by her pregnancy, although she died within months of a fever, possibly on April 28, 1721.
It is hard to say how the women were able to pull off the masquerade past their early teens. One of the witnesses against Anne and Mary, a Dorothy Thomas, claimed to have known the two for women when they plundered her husband's ship by the largeness of their breasts, even though both were wearing men's pants and coats at the time. Scenes of Yentel wrapping her chest spring to mind (ugggh), but even with measures like that the toilet facilities on a ship of the time largely consisted of hanging over the edge. I find it a little hard to believe that the women's sex was unknown by the other pirates (one account has it that the women wore appropriate female clothing except when action was imminent). Had they not been caught, the women would probably have been put ashore before long as they advanced into pregnancy.
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