Given her circumstances, Mary Read might have led a predictable life of poverty and public shame. Her mother was the wife of a seaman and had given birth to a son. But while the husband was away at sea she became pregnant with Mary by another man. The husband never returned home and was presumed dead. When the boy also died shortly thereafter, the mother began dressing Mary up in boy's clothing. The idea was to fool her mother-in-law into believing Mary was the grandson so she might continue receiving financial support. The charade worked until Mary became a teenager, at which time she took it upon herself to continue the hoax and eventually joined up with the British army disguised as a man.
While details of her life at this point are sketchy, it's believed she fought for the British in either the Nine Years War (1688 - 1697) or the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). She is said to have distinguished herself as a brave fighter, and only left the army when she fell in love with a Flemish soldier (um, after she revealed to him that she was, in fact, a woman). They bought an inn together and lived a normal life until her husband died prematurely. Left on her own, she again tried joining the army as a man, but peace broke out, ending her prospects.
|I am no man...Behold, I have breasts!|
It was at this time, still disguised as a man, that she found work on a ship headed for the West Indies. During the journey the ship was overtaken by pirates who forced her into service. But when an opportunity to take the King's Pardon came up she took it, along with a commission as a privateer. For a short time she hunted pirates, until she decided she liked being on the other side of the law better and joined in mutiny.
In 1720 Mary Read signed on with the crew of "Calico Jack" Rackam's ship. And, surprise, there was another woman already onboard -- Anne Bonny, Rackam's lover, also dressed as a man. Like a crazy Monty Python sketch, Bonny soon found herself attracted to the handsome new pirate and tried to seduce him/her -- until Mary let Anne in on her secret. An interesting "bonding" moment, no doubt.
According to Dorothy Thomas, a woman they had once held as a captive on their ship, "Bonny and Read dressed as men, fought with pistols and machetes like any other pirate, and were twice as ruthless." Supposedly they wanted to kill Ms. Thomas so she couldn't testify against them...which she later ended up doing.
The Rackam partnership was short-lived, however. In October of 1720 their ship was targeted by the authorities, which led to a brief on-deck fight. While the men of the crew fled to the ship's hold, Read and Bonny stayed up top to fight. Read was said to be so angry that the men wouldn't come out and defend the ship that she fired her pistol into the hold, killing one of her own crew mates.
The surviving members of Rackam's ship were taken into custody and tried in Jamaica for piracy. Most men were hanged immediately, while the two women, both pregnant, were able to "plead their bellies" and avoid swift execution. Months later Anne Bonny somehow managed to get released, while Mary died of fever shortly after giving birth in April, 1721.
While not a heroine in the traditional sense of the word, Mary Read was a remarkable woman for her times, having forged an unusually free life in a "man's" world. I mean, what were her options as a woman, given her circumstances? Marriage or prostitution were about it. I think she probably lived a very hard life, but one she determined, and I give her credit for being badass enough to see it through.