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Volume 35
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Past Out: Who were Anne Bonny and Mary Read?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Anne Bonny and Mary Read - two 18th-century women pirates - lived lives of adventure on the high seas, and were reputed to be as brave and bloodthirsty as any man.

Most of what is known about Anne and Mary comes from the transcript of their trial and the 1724 book, A General History of the Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson, believed to be a pseudonym for Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe. But their story has since been widely embellished and has entered the realm of legend.

Anne was born around 1700 in County Cork, Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy lawyer and his housemaid. To escape the scandal, Anne's father left his wife and moved with his mistress and daughter to Charleston, South Carolina, where he bought a plantation. By all accounts, Anne was a rebellious tomboy with a "fierce and courageous temper," who once stabbed her maid and savagely beat a man who tried to rape her.

Though her father hoped she would enter a respectable marriage, Anne preferred to socialize in the local port taverns. At age 16, she eloped with James Bonny, a penniless small-time pirate who hoped to gain access to her inheritance; her father then disowned her, and she reportedly set fire to his plantation in retaliation.

Anne and her husband moved to New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas, where he became a paid informant handing over pirates to the governor. Anne, who resented this treachery, spent her time at local pirate haunts, where she became friends with a Gay dressmaker known as Pierre the Pansy. Legend has it that upon hearing of a French ship delivering fine fabrics, Anne and Pierre stole an abandoned wreck, covered themselves in turtle blood, and placed a dressmaker's mannequin in the bow with Anne standing over it with an axe; the terrified crew of the merchant ship surrendered their cargo without a fight.

Around this time, Anne began a relationship with Captain John "Calico Jack" Rackham - allegedly the designer of the skull-and-crossbones insignia - who had come to the Bahamas to take advantage of a general amnesty for pirates. Humiliated by the affair, James Bonny abducted Anne and dragged her before the governor, demanding that she be punished for marital desertion. Rackham offered to buy Anne in a "divorce by purchase," but she refused to be sold like an animal. Instead, Rackham and Anne - dressed as a man - fled and took up a life of piracy in the Caribbean. Before long, Anne became pregnant; by most accounts, she gave birth in Cuba, but the baby was premature and soon died.

Returning to the seas, Anne and Rackham captured a Dutch merchant ship. Among the crew was Mary "Mark" Read, who passed herself off as a young man. An illegitimate child like Anne, Mary had been born around 1690 in England. Her mother reportedly dressed Mary as a boy, disguising her as a recently deceased older brother in order to obtain financial support from Mary's paternal grandmother. As a teenager, Mary ran away and joined the army. She fell in love with a fellow soldier, and the couple married and opened an inn in Holland. After her husband's untimely death a few years later, however, Mary again disguised herself as a man and went to sea.

According to lore, Anne tried to seduce Mary, who revealed her true sex by exposing her breasts. The two women became fast friends and possibly lovers. Jealous of the attention Anne paid to Mary, Rackham reportedly burst in upon them in a cabin, finding them partially undressed. Despite learning the secret of her sex, Rackham nevertheless welcomed Mary into his crew, and by some accounts he, Mary, and Anne had a three-way relationship. Others hold that Mary fell in love with a male crew member. Rackham himself is said to have gone both ways, with Pierre the Pansy being one of his purported lovers.

In October 1720, a pirate hunter attacked Rackham's ship off the coast of Jamaica. Legend has it that Rackham and the drunken crew hid below deck, while the "fierce hell cats" Anne and Mary battled the invaders. Outnumbered, they were captured and brought to trial. Rackham and his men were hanged, but the women "pleaded their bellies," claiming to be pregnant. Before Rackham's execution, Anne reportedly taunted that "if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hang'd like a dog." In accordance with British law, Anne and Mary had their executions postponed and were sent to prison, where Mary died of fever several months later.

Anne's fate is less clear. By one account, her well-connected father bailed her out of prison. Then only in her early 20s, she reportedly returned to America, where she married and bore several children. Other tales maintain that she returned to a life of piracy, entered a nunnery, ran a tavern in England, or simply disappeared never to be seen again. According to Captain Johnson, "What has become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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