Mary Read (c.1690-1721) aka Mark Read, was an English pirate. She and Anne Bonny are two of the most famed female pirates of all time; they are the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy during the early 18th century, at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Mary Read was illegitimately born in England, in the late 17th century, to the widow of a sea captain.
Her date of birth is disputed 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”. Whichever it is, her birth was about 1691.
Read’s mother began to disguise illegitimately born Mary as a boy after the death of Mary’s older, legitimate brother Mark. 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.
She later joined the British military, allied with Dutch forces against the French (this could have been during the Nine Years War or during the War of the Spanish Succession). Read, in male disguise, proved herself through battle, but she fell in love with a Flemish soldier. When they married, she used their military commission and gifts from intrigued brethren in arms as a funding source to acquire an inn named “De drie hoefijzers” (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, who forced her to join them. She took the King’s pardon c.1718-1719, and took a commission to privateer, until that ended with her joining the crew in mutiny. In 1720 she joined pirate John “Calico Jack” Rackham and his companion, the female pirate Anne Bonny.
Read remained dressed as a man at first. Nobody knew that Read was female until Bonny 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 woman. Rackham, who was Bonny’s lover, became jealous of the intimacy between them and threatened to cut the throat of Bonny’s new paramour. To prevent Read’s death, Rackham was also let in on the secret; following, Rackham decided to break male seafaring tradition by allowing both women to remain on the crew.
During their brief cruise in late 1720, they took several prisoners and forced them into useful service. Read fell in love with one such victim who was surprised to learn that she was a woman and eventually returned the affection. When one of the pirates challenged her lover to a duel, Read contrived a secret duel to occur a couple hours earlier. She killed the pirate before he could bring any harm to her lover, whom she called “husband” as they made vows to each other in absence of a minister.
Capture and imprisonment
In October 1720, pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet took Rackham’s crew by surprise while they were hosting a rum party with another crew of Englishmen off the west coast of Jamaica. After a volley of fire left the pirate vessel disabled, Rackham’s crew and their “guests” fled to the hold, leaving only the women and one other to fight Barnet’s boarding party (it is also possible that Rackham and his crew were too drunk to fight.) Allegedly, Read angrily shot into the hold, killing one, and wounding others when the men would not come up and fight with them. Barnet’s crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, requesting “quarter.”
Rackham and his crew were arrested and brought to trial in what is now known as Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy, as were Read and Bonny. However, the women 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 died of a violent fever while in prison, and her April 28, 1721 burial is in the records of St. Catherine’s church in Jamaica. There is no record of the burial of her baby.
In popular culture
In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Mary Read is a non-playable character first introduced to the player character, Edward Kenway, as James Kidd, the alleged son of William Kidd. She eventually reveals herself as Mary Read and in alliance with The Assassins. Other parts of her life story revealed in-game is her initial enticement of Anne Bonny, joining Jack Rackham’s crew and her trial for piracy, as well as a fondness for Colman’s Mustard, a delicacy of the City of Norwich. Towards the end of the game she dies from fever (due to the unsanitary conditions of the cell in which she had given birth) while being carried from prison by Kenway.
Mary Read appears as one of the main protagonists of the 2014 independent film “A Tattered Flag.”