Mary Read was born in Plymouth, Devon, England, in the mid to late 17th century, to the widow of a sea captain.
Her date of birth is in dispute among historians because of a reference to the “Peace of Ryswick” by her contemporary biographer Captain Charles Johnson in A General History of the Pyrates. He very well may have made an error, intending to refer to the “Treaty of Utrecht”. The discrepancy would place her birth either c.1670 or c.1690. It is more likely that she was born the latter, which would mean she was the very typical age of 28 at the time of her piracy. (If Read was born earlier, there is no record by Johnson nor any other contemporary author to explain what happened in the 15-20 year gap.)
Read’s mother began to disguise illegitimately born Mary as a boy after the death of Mary’s older, legitimate brother, often referred to in legend as Mark (there is no proof of this name). This was done in order to continue to receive financial support from his paternal grandmother. The grandmother was apparently fooled, and Read and her mother lived on the inheritance into her teenage years. Still dressed as a boy, Read then found work as a footboy, and later found employment on a ship.
After learning the harsh realities of the sea life, she jumped ship and joined the British military, allied with Dutch and Austrian forces (this could have been during the Nine Years War or more likely during the War of the Spanish Succession). Read, in male disguise, proved herself through battle, but she fell in love with a Flemish soldier. She dressed as a woman for the only time in her life to marry the soldier. They used their military commission and gifts from intrigued brethren in arms as a funding source to acquire an inn named “The Three Horseshoes” near Breda Castle in The Netherlands.
Upon her husband’s early death, Read resumed male dress and military service in Holland. With peace, there was no room for advancement, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies.
Becoming a pirate
Read’s ship was taken by pirates, and whether forced or by choice, she joined them. She took the King’s pardon c.1718, and took a commission to privateer. Her privateer was taken by the notorious pirate John “Calico Jack” Rackham and his companion, the female pirate Anne Bonny.
Still dressed as a man (this may not be true, see article on Anne Bonny that states that the woman dressed as woman on the ship), Read was soon recruited to Rackham’s crew where she became familiar with Bonny. Nobody knew that Read was a female until Bonny, also disguised as a man, began to take a liking to Read thinking she was a handsome young fellow. That forced Read to reveal to Bonny that she was a female which disappointed Bonny. Rackham, who was Bonny’s lover, became jealous of the intimacy between them and threatened to cut the throat of her new lover. So Rackham was also let in on the secret.
Rackham allowed her to stay on as a member of his crew even after finding out that she was, indeed, female. Eventually, Read and Bonny would wear men’s clothes while attacking another ship, and women’s clothes at other times.
Read fell in love with one of the sea artists (carpenter or navigator) who had been forced to join Rackham’s crew. He was due to fight a duel with an experienced pirate he had rubbed the wrong way. Read, knowing that her beloved stood no chance against him, started a quarrel with the older man and challenged him to a duel that would take place before the pending duel with the artist.
During the subsequent duel the older man stumbled during a thrust. Legend has it that Read ripped her blouse open, revealing her gender. Supposedly, in the moment of the pirate’s surprise and hesitation, she quickly grabbed his cutlass and killed him( or she cut his head off). It is agreed among historians that she prevailed in the death match, and her lover showed up on time for his duel.
Capture and imprisonment
In October 1720, the troops of pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet took them by surprise, and captured Rackham and his crew on behalf of the governor of Jamaica. Rackham and the majority of his crew were reportedly drunk, and did not put up much resistance, many being passed out in the ship’s hold. Read and Bonny did resist, but were outgunned.
Rackham and his crew were sentenced to hanging for acts of piracy, as were Read and Bonny. However, the females escaped the noose when they revealed they were both “quick with child” (known as “Pleading the belly”), so they received a temporary stay of execution. Read was believed to have been pregnant by the artist, whom she considered her legal husband before God. Bonny was believed to have been pregnant by Rackham (who was most definitely not her husband).
Read died in prison in April 1721, but there is no record of burial of her baby. Official documents state that Read died of fever associated with childbirth.
Bonny disappeared from the historical record, presumed to have lived a long life in Colonial America.
Further reading on Mary Read and Anne Bonny