In our current age, when pirates are pretty much icons for an unfettered way of life that most of us can only dream of, its hard to imagine a time when chick pirates weren't doubly cool. Who can argue with boobs and guns, right? The fact is that being a lady at sea back in the day was pretty shocking stuff. Unless you came from a culture that expected strength and fortitude from its women, like Alwida the Viking or Grainne ni Malley (known to the Elizabethans as Grace O'Malley), the Irish pirate queen, you were a freak and society wanted nothing more of you than to gawk at your swinging corpse.
This attitude is the reason - perhaps the only reason, in fact - that we know anything about Anne Bonny, Mary Read (or Reade) and their pirate Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham. The sensational nature of their trial, the transcripts of which were published in Europe and the American Colonies, cannot be underestimated to this day. They were celebrities, but not in a good way. Think of the last trial of a serial killer that you remember and you'll get the vibe.
It is no wonder that our old friend Charles Ellms picked up the story of Rackham and his lady pirates for his The Pirates' Own Book. The entries could have been a simple act of plagiarism from the 18th century work A General History of Pirates , and to some degree they are. What is interesting about Ellms is, though he virtually shrugs off Rackham and only gives Bonny a paltry two pages (not even so much as a picture for either!), he seems truly enamoured with Mary. He entitles her entry Adventures and Heroism of Mary Read, as if she were above her pirate cronies somehow, and follows through in his prose.
According to both Ellms and Johnson (who wrote General History), Mary was born somewhere in England on an unknown date. Her father passing away before her birth, Mary's mother contrived to get a small stipend from the paternal grandmother by passing Mary off as a boy. Mary continued to cross dress, going into service as a footman and eventually joining the British army where she was shipped off to Flanders.
Mary - and this is always the case in these stories - exceeded expectations in bravery and intelligence and was promoted to a cavalry position. Here she fell in love with her bunk mate and, as Ellms puts it: "The violence of her feelings rendered her negligent in her duty..." Her comrade took note of her behavior, she revealed her sex (a salacious moment in Victorian prose) and then demanded marriage before they could satisfy their lust for one another. This point is missing in Johnson's telling and it shows Ellms' regard for Mary. Deep down inside, she was a good girl.
The lovers leave the service and open an inn but Mary's husband dies and she is left with nothing but debt. She returns to her men's clothes and signs aboard a merchant vessel as a hand. The ship makes the West Indies but is raided by pirates and Mary is forced to join the crew. Again, Mary is inherently good and a victim of circumstance. In fact, she takes a pardon at New Providence but, finding herself desperate for money, is forced back to sea - this time with Jack Rackham.
Ellms goes through the old story of Anne Bonny falling in love with Mary as a man. Here Anne is flaunting her womanhood aboard ship, while Mary modestly maintains her cover of men's clothing. Mary eventually has to reveal herself to Anne to get the lusty wench off her back and Anne feels compelled to reveal Mary to Rackham. Once all the feminine goodies are out on the table, Mary is allowed to pursue an affair with a fellow sailor without any further immodest trouble from Anne or Rackham. What a relief... or is it?
Mary's new beau crosses another seaman and a duel is called for. Though Ellms doesn't come out and say that Mary's boyfriend is at the very least a newbie, Mary is so anxious for his safety that she picks a fight with his rival. She meets the man before her paramour's duel with him, and kills him in a fair fight (as seen in the picture above). That was close!
Soon after, Rackham's ship is overtaken by a British sloop. While the drunken men sleep and/or cower below, only Anne and Mary put up a fight. The pirates are captured and, though both Mary and Anne are given a stay of execution due to their pregnancies, the men are hanged in Jamaica in 1720. Ellms simply says that it is probable that Mary fell sick and died.
The story is mostly fiction. Where Mary Read came from or how she came to a life of piracy is truly any one's guess. More is known of Anne Bonny's early life but the two switch places at the end. Though Anne seems to have made it out of prison alive nothing else is known about her. Mary, on the other hand, did die in a Jamaican prison of "fever". Most historians agree that this was probably puerperal fever engendered by giving birth in a filthy jail.
Ellms is faithful to Mary to the end. "Her conduct," he says "was generally directed by virtuous principles, while, at the same time, she was violent in her attachments." He makes it clear that she was unusual strong for one of her sex, "...capable of enduring much exertion and fatigue..." and this, to me, is particularly poignant when held up next to what we know for truth in the story. She could sail and fight hand to hand and work a cannon, but childbirth killed Mary Read. That's not cool, or heroic. That's tragic.