Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lady Pirates: A Poor and Pitiless Death

Some time in the first week of April, 1721, Mary Read died in a Jamaica prison.

This infamous pirate, who had become a sensation on both sides of the Pond due to widely circulated broadsheets, stood at the bar with her now equally infamous mates, “Calico” Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. After sentence was passed and the three pirates were remanded to the gallows, Read and Bonny pulled their trump card. Both claimed to be pregnant. A quick examination proved them right, and the lady pirates were sent back to jail to await the births of their babies. Thereafter, the sentence of death would be carried out.

According to legend and fact, both women cheated the hangman but in very different ways. Charles Johnson, who was probably Daniel Defoe, says in his History of Pyrates that even he cannot say what became of Anne Bonny. She disappeared from prison, alive and hale evidently, and was never heard of again. Mary Read, on the other hand, meets a much less romantic end. Both Johnson and the legal records available show that she died before she could be hanged, of “feaver.”

At this point the mystery of Mary’s death becomes almost as intriguing as that of Anne’s disappearance. Just what type of illness was it that this by all accounts strapping, even masculine female seafarer succumbed to? Some writers say she died before giving birth. Others split hairs – but very important hairs – by either carefully choosing or carelessly confusing their wording. In these instances Mary died either in childbirth or of childbirth.

While separating fact from fiction is impossible at this late date, short of a body to forensically examine, let us evaluate each of the possibilities. From there, opinions and fantasies can fly away into the ether.

First and foremost, Mary’s situation as a prisoner – and a pregnant prisoner at that – must be considered. Not only Johnson but one of those famous broadsheets tells us that it was Read and Bonny who put up the final fight aboard their sloop, William. The men, according to generally accepted accounts, huddled below decks with their captain, either too drunk or too scared to participate. This would have left both women, at the very least, somewhat weakened as they entered the jail in Jamaica that would end up being Mary’s final home.

The conditions in prison, probably needless to say, would not have been in the least savory. In a tropical climate, dank, perpetually warm cells would probably have been the norm. Whether or not prisoners were kept in individual confinement is not clear, but most probably at the time and place prison would have meant crowded, unsanitary rooms where everyone would have been lucky to be away from whatever part of the space people used as a privy. Lice, fleas, ticks and other parasites would have had a field day. The cases of so called gaol fever probably would have been high.

Gaol fever, also sometimes called ship fever because it was virtually endemic on the prison hulks popular with the British Admiralty, was what we know today as typhus. This disease is caused by a bacteria spread by vermin, usually lice, and encouraged by cramped, unsanitary conditions. The first symptoms are generally flu-like with chills, cough and joint pain. A high fever up to 104 degrees ensues causing delirium, light sensitivity, stupor, low blood pressure and finally death. A rash can develop at any time and in severe conditions this can cause gangrene. Gaol fever, then, may be the thing that took the life of both Mary Read and her unborn child.

Perhaps not, however. In some accounts she did live to give birth which even today is no easy task under the best of circumstances. How and where a birth in prison might have been undertaken is not reliably recorded, but it is probably safe to say that privacy was at a premium. The process of giving birth would have been stressful enough, but the added stresses of unsanitary conditions, bad diet and the potential lack of professional assistance – at the time a midwife – would have compounded the situation.

If the birth of Mary’s child, alive or dead, was successful yet more trouble with “feaver” loomed large. Puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever, was a very real problem. As Judith Walzer Leavitt puts it in her book Brought to Bed:

The raw wound of placental separation combined with the trauma of delivery created a ripe environment for the introduction of infected material and its rapid entrance into the blood stream.

Though cases of puerperal fever were surprisingly uncommon in home births during Mary’s era, giving birth in prison would have created a perfect storm of conditions for contracting and quickly dying of this dreaded condition.

Whatever the case, it is a sad end to a story of an unusual and interesting woman. She may have known the famous “short and merry” life of a freebooter, but she died a poor and pitiless death.

Header: Imaginative engraving of Mary Read from Johnson’s History of Pyrates


Charles L. Wallace said...

Fascinating (and, I shoulda used my "good read" comment here ;-) Except, Mary was a bad girl! hahaha

I always wonder about things which have been lost to history (I'd probably waste my time-machine share on answering such riddles. And, visiting the Reeperbahn in 1961 and 1962/Hamburg Star Club and the Cavern in Liverpool, too - stuff like that.)

Pauline said...

Well, yeah; Mary was a bad girl. In light of the laws of her time she had her sentence coming, no question.

I wish we knew more about who she really was. Most of what is written about her in our time is just a rehash of Johnson, which is certainly more fiction than fact. It's a shame, really, because she was probably a pretty interesting individual.

All told, though; any of the above is no way to die...

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! i agree. Typhus or infection: either way, it's not a good way to go.

Pauline said...

And the big mystery, of course, is what became of her child if he or she did manage to survive. There is so much that we may never know.

Le Loup said...

A very interesting post Pauline, thank you.
Regards, Keith.

Pauline said...

Thanks, Keith; as always, I very much appreciate you taking the time to stop by and encourage me :)

daleburr said...

You might be interested in an entry I am working on at the H2G2 site (we like to think we are the fun alternative to Wiki) about fever in the 19th Century;

This is currently under review for inclusion in the edited guide.

If you follow the link to "Florida Sailor" (my account) you might find the accounts about the "General Armstrong, The Quasi War and The Summers Mutiny of interest.

Thank you for your interesting blog.


Pauline said...

Thank you, Dale, both for stopping by and for the link. Very much appreciated (I'll be surfing around your site this weekend).