Anyone interested in pirate history and legend is familiar with the stories of infamous men like Calico Jack and Blackbeard, but there were also many women who made their mark robbing and plundering on the high seas, and their stories provide a fascinating, and often bawdy glimpse into the lives of women living outside of their gender and the law.
Anne Bonney was one of the most famous women pirates. Her adventures have inspired books, films, tattoo art and even a popular Caribbean cocktail. She was born in Cork, Ireland in the late 17th century, and was the illegitimate child of an attorney and his servant girl, who Anne’s father eventually left his wife to be with. Because Anne’s father was extremely wealthy, Anne was a popular choice as a wife with many of the affluent men. Instead, the feisty Anne married a penniless man for love. The marriage didn’t last long. She soon left her husband to elope with the notorious Calico Jack Rackham and pirated the Caribbean at his side dressed as a man. She was said to be one of the most courageous adventurers on his ship, and when that ship was eventually taken in 1720, she was one of the last three left on board. Anne spent some time in a Jamaican prison, but escaped execution by claiming she was pregnant. While it’s known that the rest of her cohorts were either executed or died in jail, Anne mysteriously vanished from all historical record. What became of her is left to speculation and legend.
Pirating alongside Anne Bonney was Mary Read, also known as Mark Read because she too spent most of her life in the guise of a man. Mary was actually raised as a boy after her brother died so her impoverished mother could continue to receive money from her husband’s parents. She eventually began dating and married a man she met in the army, but Mary soon set off for adventure again and shipped to the West Indies dressed as a man. She came to pirate with Anne when her ship was taken by Calico Jack. Legend states that her true gender was revealed because Anne Bonney- convinced the captured Mary was indeed male- decided to have her way with Mary, and ripping open her shirt revealed her breasts. Mary spent the rest of her life marauding with Jack and Anne until the capture of his ship in 1720. Mary died in prison from fever.
Far from the Caribbean, and over one hundred years after Anne and Mary’s exploits, Sadie Farrell pillaged New York City and The Hudson River. Known as Sadie the Goat, this Irish Catholic gang leader was fond of head butting men in the stomach to distract them so her cohorts could easily rob them. She eventually lead The Charleston Street Gang, and in 1868 high-jacked a boat and sailed the Hudson kidnapping for ransom and raiding and robbing villages and the houses of the wealthy. Sadie’s nemesis was a bar bouncer named Gallus Mag, who supposedly bit off Sadie’s ear in a bar fight and kept it pickled in a jar behind her bar. They eventually reconciled and Gallus returned the ear, which legend says Sadie wore in a locket around her neck until she died.
Lady Mary Killigrew
In England, Lady Killigrew was the first English royal pirate. She was a lady under Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century. At the time “gentlemanly” pirating was allowed as long as little blood was spilled, and Lady Killigrew pursued her new hobby voraciously along the English coast. She might have been too enthusiastic, because Queen Elizabeth sentenced her to be executed in 1583 after she and her cohorts killed the entire crew of a Spanish merchant ship they had plundered. She was spared in the end and her sentence was reduced to jail time.
There was also the infamous Grace O’Malley, the daughter of seafarers in 16th century Ireland. As a child she cut off her own hair and dressed as a boy to prove to her father she was worthy to accompany him on sailing trips. This may have been where she received her nickname of Granuaile, or “bald Grace”. Soon after rescuing her father from English pirates on one of these voyages, Grace was commanding her own fleet, pirating the seas but also secretly waging a war on England, gaining control of more and more castles on the coast. She fought her cause her whole life and lived to be over 70.
These five trailblazing women have influenced history greatly. They have become feminist icons, inspired literature and the arts, and, maybe most importantly, provided tales and legends of exploits and intrigue that quietly satisfy our own yearning for adventure on the high seas.
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