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Female Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read And How They Escaped Death Sentences

British History | April 20, 2021

Anne Bonny and Mary Read. (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Hollywood depicts female pirates as lusty, tight-bodiced hotties who are equally skilled in fighting and pillaging, throwing back pints of rum, and seducing their enemies, but the reality is slightly more complicated. The pirate world of the Caribbean, which thrived from about 1650–1730, was very much a man's world, but Anne Bonny and Mary Read managed to sneak in and earn reputations as ruthless female pirates—mostly by dressing as men.

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny spent much of her childhood pretending to be a boy, so cross-dressing came naturally to her. Born sometime around 1698 in County Cork, Ireland to prominent attorney William Cormac and his family's maid, Anne was presented to the world as the young son of a distant relative of her father, who kept her hair cut short and dressed her in boys' clothes. When the ruse was discovered, Cormac and Anne's mother, Mary Brennan, fled Ireland in disgrace for Charleston, South Carolina.

After Brennan's death in 1711, Anne ran wild, drinking at the local taverns into the wee hours of the night and bedding the fishermen who docked in Charleston. She also developed a fierce temper, once beating a man half to death who had attempted to rape her and possibly even fatally stabbing a servant girl who crossed her. Still, Cormac didn't disown his daughter until 1718, when she eloped with James Bonny, a lowly sailor.

Since her new husband was a wannabe pirate, the newlyweds moved to the Bahamas, but James Bonny made more money as a mole, secretly turning in wanted pirates. While he was off turning his cloak, Anne was doing her thing in the local watering holes and getting cozy with several true-blue pirates, including John Rackam, A.K.A. Calico Jack. She soon left her husband to join Jack's crew, and despite superstitions against women on board, Anne lived openly on the ship as Jack's paramour, though she tucked her hair into a cap and posed as a man during battles with merchant ships. Often, Calico Jack took prisoners, which is how Annie met Mary. 

Bonny from a Dutch version of Charles Johnson's book of pirates. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Read

Like Anne Bonny, Mary Read was also forced to dress like a boy as a child. Her mother had given birth to a son just before her husband died at sea, and her in-laws offered to financially support the boy until he reached adulthood, but after her son died in infancy, she had to get creative to secure her financial future. She quickly got pregnant and had a second child, an illegitimate daughter that she named Mary but passed off as her husband's son. Even after the deception was uncovered, she continued to dress Mary as a boy and allowed her to take odd jobs that were typically reserved for young men.

One such workplace was the British naval fleet, where she fell in love with her bunkmate. After she revealed both her feelings and genital configuration, however, the young man responded with offensive propositions that Mary rebuffed on the grounds of being a "proper lady," so he outed her to the rest of the crew, forcing her to quit her job. With few options left, she married her former crush, but he died soon after. On her own once again, she resumed life as a man and took a job on a Dutch ship headed for the West Indies, which was attacked by Calico Jack. Assuming she was a fellow Englishman, his men invited her to join their pirate crew, an offer she gladly accepted. Mary fit in well with the crew: She drank heavily, swore like a sailor, and fought with the best of them. No one suspected her secret. 

An 1842 sketch of Read (right) killing a pirate. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Anne And Mary

According to legend, Anne Bonny tried to seduce their newest crew member, but Mary feared Calico Jack would make her walk the plank if he caught her in bed with his lover, so she revealed her true identity. Pleased to have another woman on board, Anne agreed to keep Mary's secret, and the two became close friends and possibly also lovers. Some claim Calico Jack became jealous of their friendship and threatened to slit Mary's throat, but at the last moment, she saved herself by baring her breasts to him. Like Anne, Calico Jack agreed to keep Mary's situation private.

Everything changed on the night of October 22, 1720, when Anne and Mary spotted one of the governor's official vessels from the ship's deck. They sounded the alarm, but most of the crew was passed out drunk, so the two women, their captain, and the few somewhat sober pirates were left to their own devices to fend off the fuzz. They were defeated easily and captured, so the women outed themselves with the hope of leniency. It didn't work, and all were found guilty of piracy and sentenced to hang, but just before the women's executions, they both insisted they were pregnant. A subsequent examination proved they were telling the truth, and their sentences were suspended until they gave birth.

Mary Read never made it that far. She died of a fever in prison in April 1721, but no one knows for sure what happened to Anne Bonny. Did she, too, die in prison? Did she escape and live out her days under yet another assumed identity? Some believe that her father used his connections to ferry her safely back to Charleston, where she gave birth to Rackam's child, remarried, and lived to an impressively advanced age for those days, but all of the records that might have proven that have long been destroyed. Her later life, if she had one at all, will likely always be shrouded in as much legend as the rest of it.

Tags: 1700s | pirates | women in history

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.