Mary Read

Mary Read, also known as Mary Reade and Mark Read
(c. 1690 – 1721)

In the late 1680s in Plymouth, England young Mrs. Read was left pregnant at home while Mr. Read went to sea. She gave birth to a boy, but he was consumed by sickness and died very young. Mrs. Read then became pregnant again by an unknown man. This time she gave birth to illegitimate Mary Read, around 1690. Mother Read was anxious for her husband to return home and her money was running out quickly, so she decided to appeal to her mother-in-law for financial support. Knowing that her in-law disliked little girls, Mrs. Read dressed Mary as a boy and treated her like a son named Mark. The deception worked as long as Mary passed for a boy. When reports of Mr. Read’s death reached Plymouth, Mary was able to inherit his company and holdings for he had left it all to his son. However, at age thirteen the money ran out and Mary was forced to find employment.

Initially Mary worked as a footboy to a French woman, but the task was too dull and so Mary ran off to work on a Man-o-War. The abuse on the ship was too harsh and so Mary again switched vocations. This time she enlisted in the English Army at Flanders. She served with distinction and was promoted to the Cavalry. While serving, she fell in love with another soldier. She surrendered her secret to him and the two were swiftly married. They bought out their military commissions and opened an inn in Breda, Holland named The Three Horseshoes. However, in her mid-twenties her husband died and she needed to once again find work.

Knowing that the world was an easier place for a man than a woman, Mary chose to adopt the name of Mark again and to dress as a man while seeking work. She took a job aboard a Dutch merchantman heading for the West Indies. On one particular voyage in the autumn of 1717, the merchantman was attacked by Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham. He offered the crew of the merchantman to sail under his flag and Mary accepted.

Sometime in the winter of 1717/1718, the pirate Adam Bonney intruded on Mary while she was dressing. He saw everything. However, rather than create trouble, Adam exposed himself as being a woman too. In fact Adam was really Anne Bonney, the lover of Captain Rackham. Sharing the same secret, the two women became fast friends. Their friendship attracted the jealous eye of the Captain and he demanded to know what the truth of the matter was. “Mark” revealed the charade and the Captain was thunderstruck to have been so duped.

In either December 1717 or January 1718 Anne Bonney became pregnant with the Captain’s child. He put her ashore in Cuba in July, where the child was born premature and died. She was terribly disheartened and so Rackham sailed to Port Royal so that Mary and Anne could take advantage of the amnesty being extended to pirates there. Anne’s time in Port Royal was made difficult and the pirates, including Mary, made a midnight escape and once again resorted to piracy.

From this time forward, Mary Read was an openly female pirate. Her and Anne would put on men’s clothes for fighting, but otherwise they went about as women.

Some time in 1720, Mary fell in love with another pirate on the crew. However, the man she fell for had a big problem in the way of a burly pirate on the crew wanted him dead. A duel was issued between the two men. It was obvious to all that Mary’s lover was going to perish in the future melee, so Mary devised a plan. Mary challenged the burly pirate to a duel and demanded instant satisfaction. The pirate laws were clear on the matter and so the Quartermaster rowed the two ashore. There Mary and the burly pirate faced off with pistols and cutlasses. Both gunshots missed their marks and so they closed in with swords drawn. It was clear to Mary that he was stronger. She had to be quick. She had to keep away from his blade and wait for him to blunder. Then came her chance: the burly pirate lunged and stumbled. Mary tore open her shirt revealing her bare breasts. The burly pirate was stabbed to death while gaping at the vision. Mary defeated the menace and won over her lover. The two “plighted their troth to each other, which Mary Reade said she look’d upon to be as good as a marriage, in conscience, as if it had been done by a minister in Church.”

In October 1720 the pirate-hunter Captain Jonathon Barnet found Rackham after the pirates had a night of heavy drinking and carousing. Barnet sent some heavy cannon fire at the pirates, then moved in to board. Mary Read and Anne Bonney were the only pirates willing to fight for the ship – all the others, including Rackham, hid belowdecks. Despite fighting like “fierce hell cats,” the Mary and Anne simply couldn’t hold off an entire crew. The pirates were defeated.

Returned to Port Royal, the pirates stood trial for their crimes. The women revealed their sex and therefore received a separate trial from the men. It was of no use however, for they were all sentenced to hang. When the judge asked if there was any reason why they shouldn’t hang, Anne exclaimed “We plead our bellies, sir.” Both women were pregnant and since the unborn were free of crimes it was unjust to put them to death too. Therefore the women were sentenced to be hanged after giving birth. Unfortunately, Mary died of fever in prison in 1721, before giving birth.

A timeline of Mary Read’s life

c. 1690: Mary was born a bastard in Plymouth, England.

c. 1693: Mary was dressed as a boy and named “Mark” so that her grandmother would provide for her.

c. 1695: Mary’s false father, Mr. Read, was pronounced lost at sea. Mary inherited his company.

c. 1703: Mary’s company closed and she found work as a foot boy. Later in the year, she served on an English Man-o-War.

c. 1704: Mary joined the English Army and fought in War of the Spanish Succession.

c. 1710: Mary married a soldier and they opened an inn in Holland.

c. 1715: Mary’s husband died. She took a job on a Dutch merchantman using the name of Mark Read again.

Autumn 1717: Mary joined the pirate crew of Captain Jack Rackham.

Winter 1717: Mary’s secret was revealed to Anne Bonney.

July 1718: Captain Rackham took Mary to Port Royal to be pardoned of her pirate crimes. Within thirty days, Mary is a commiting new pirate crimes.

Summer 1720: Mary fell in love with a pirate and fought to save his life.

October 1720: Captain Rackham and his crew, including Mary, were captured.

November 1720: Mary was sentenced to hang to death.

Spring 1721: Mary died of fever while pregnant in jail.

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