Mary Read was a female pirate on the Spanish Main during the 18th century. Her short life was driven by her apparent love of battle and independence, and her habit of disguising herself as a man. Mary’s fame comes mostly from her association with two other famous pirates, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack Rackham.
Mary Read is believed to have been born around 1690 in England, to an extremely poor family. After the death of Mary’s older brother, her mother is said to have disguised young Mary as a boy, as a means of receiving continuing financial support from her eccentric, but wealthy, grandmother. Some stories suggest that Mary and her mother survived on this income, while others believe the grandmother rented Mary out as a footman to make extra money.
Experts speculate that the comparative freedom of choice available to men was attractive to Mary Read, as she continued to disguise herself for professional reasons throughout most of her life. She became a soldier, serving both in the navy and on land, all the while pretending to be a man. Eventually, her disguise was discovered by one of her compatriots, who Mary eventually married. Most accounts believe that the two left the army and opened an inn together, which they ran successfully until the husband’s sudden death.
Well used to difficult circumstances, Mary Read resumed her former guise and went to work as a sailor. How she became a pirate is uncertain, and stories vary. Some suggest she joined voluntarily in search of adventure and profit, while other accounts say her ship was captured and she was offered the choice of joining the crew or dying. Either way, still passing as a man, Mary came to work on Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate ship during the late 1710s, shortly to meet her most valuable companion.
As with most aspects of her life, Mary Read’s meeting with Anne Bonny is a only speculative. Many accounts suggest that the promiscuous Anne fell in love with the handsome young seaman, only to discover that he was Mary in disguise. Other stories say that Anne recognized her as a woman and befriended her. With Anne’s acceptance onboard despite her gender, Mary was finally allowed to come out of hiding and pursue the life she loved as a woman.
Between Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Jack Rackham, the crew came to considerable profits for a short time. However, their successful activity caught the attention of a feared pirate hunter named Jonathan Barnet, who attacked the ship in 1720. While Jack and the crew lay drunk in the ship’s hold, Mary and Anne attempted to fight off an entire invading force. Despite their brave fighting, the ship was taken.
Mary was at this point pregnant, and used this in her trial to stay execution until after she gave birth. She died in prison in early 1721, probably due to illness but possibly as a result of complications in childbirth. Anne Bonny, who also stayed execution through pregnancy, was not hanged, but vanished from the records entirely. It is believed that she was ransomed, and many theories exist as to her life after prison.
Mary Read was a career soldier, clearly preferring the dangers of battle and piracy to the comparative safety of a woman’s life. As she spent much of her life dressed as a man, scholars have often speculated that she had homosexual preferences. However her early marriage and departure from the army and later affairs as a pirate suggest that her disguises were a means to her career and little more.