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Of all the infamous West Indies pirates, Mary Read stands out as one of the most mysterious and inscrutable. No one is sure when she was born, with most speculation ranging over almost a decade, between 1685 and 1695. According to Charles Johnson -- a frequently unreliable source -- her mother began dressing Mary in boy's clothes from a very early age, with the hope of passing her off as another man's son.
(Note: Not sure how this will play with average audiences. Have we ever done a market survey on cross-dressers? -ML)
In her teens, Mary evidently harnessed her skill for disguise to secure a job aboard a ship. Taking to sea, she worked her way forward until she found a position in the British Navy. Still disguised as a man, she saw action in battle, though owing to the conflicting reports of her birth, we cannot be certain of the battle. It was during these skirmishes that Mary met her first husband -- so the author of the "General History of Pyrates" claims -- a Flemish soldier who had evidently fought beside her.
But this union was not fated to remain intact, as Mary's husband was killed soon after their marriage. With few reasons to remain in Europe, Mary sailed for the West Indies. It is unclear what transpired in the years following, but it is almost certain that she resumed the practice of dressing as a man. We also assume Mary continued working aboard ships, improving her skills as a sailor and swordsman. By 1715 or 1716, it was likely she had visited her fellow sailors in Nassau, though perhaps not for the same reasons.
Official records of her activities do not appear until around 1720, a ship she had been sailing on was taken by pirates, who were subsequently arrested. In order to avoid a swift execution by Governor Rogers in Nassau, Mary took the King's pardon and there she settled. Whether or not this was a front for more secretive activity, it is hard to say.
It was at this time, however, that Mary met and befriended the much younger Anne Bonny. The two became close friends, as Anne reportedly saw through Mary's disguise rather quickly. Unfortunately, Anne's beau, Jack Rackham did not, and Mary was compelled to reveal herself as a woman to avoid a pointless altercation.
According to recently unearthed documents, we know that some of Governor Roger's administrators were eventually made aware of Mary's status as a woman -- likely on account of Rackham's big mouth. In any event, Mary, Anne, and Jack did not hang around Nassau for much longer after their meeting. At some point in the late summer of 1720, the trio raised a small crew and stole a Schooner docked in Nassau's Harbor.
For three months they pirated and pillaged, with Anne and Mary taking the lead whenever their self-appointed Captain Rackham was indisposed from drink. Unfortunately for all, Rackham's incompetence also landed them in more trouble than they could handle, and in October 1720 their ship was set upon by the British. According to reports, only Anne, Mary, and one unnamed young man were fit enough to resist -- and resist they did. Miraculously, only the young man died in the ensuing fight. Anne and Mary were arrested, as were Jack Rackham and the rest of his crew, after they awoke from their drunken stupors below deck.
Taken to Kingston for trial, their executions were stayed after the women announced they were many months pregnant. Mary languished in jail until her term was up. Unfortunately, just days after giving birth, she died of a severe illness or infection, likely caused by the terribly unsanitary conditions of her captivity. It is not know what happened to Mary's child.