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

By Karen Harris
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.