Mary Read and fellow female pirate Anne Bonny have captivated the public imagination for three centuries, but much of what has been written about them is false.
Most accounts can be traced back to a flawed description of their lives in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) which holds that they both had disguised themselves as men in order to secure jobs as sailors; they both supposedly wound up on Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate sloop where they took a fancy to one another – each thinking the other was a man – only to find that they were both women.
As shown in The Republic of Pirates, if this encounter did take place, it happened not at sea, but in Nassau. We know this because by the time the two became pirates, both women — and their genders — were known not only to one another, but to Governor Woodes Rogers and other officials. Read enters the documentary record in August, 1720, when she helped Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny steal an armed sloop from Nassau Harbor. Her identity and gender were known to Governor Rogers, who put out a continent wide Most Wanted notice that named her and Bonny.
Former captives report that Bonny and Read did indeed dress as men in battle and cursed, swore, and fought like any other member of the crew. One reported he only knew they were women “by the largeness of their breasts”; another noted:
“they were both very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board.”
According to the General History, Read had been a cross-dresser since early childhood. Her mother is said to have raised her as a boy in the hopes of passing her off as another man’s son. She subsequently served as a sailor and foot soldier, according to this undocumented account, before being captured by pirates.
Rackham, however, was a reckless captain, and within two months had landed his entire party in a Jamaican prison.
Bonny and Read were also sentenced to be hung, but they received a stay of execution after revealing they were both pregnant. Read did not survive her pregnancy. She died from a violent fever and her April 28, 1721 burial was recorded in the records of St. Catherine’s church in Jamaica.