Who were Anne Bonny and Mary Read?

Liz Highleyman | May 03, 2007

Anne Bonny and Mary Read – two 18th-century women pirates – lived lives of adventure on the high seas, and were reputed to be as brave and bloodthirsty as any man.

Anne was born around 1700 in County Cork, Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy lawyer and his housemaid. To escape the scandal, Anne's father moved with his mistress and daughter to South Carolina, where he bought a plantation. At age 16, Anne eloped with James Bonny, a small-time pirate who hoped to gain access to her inheritance; her father then disowned her, and she reportedly set fire to his plantation.

Anne and her husband moved to the Bahamas, where he became a paid informant for the governor. Anne spent her time at local pirate haunts, where she became friends with a gay dressmaker known as Pierre the Pansy. Legend has it that upon hearing of a French ship delivering fine fabrics, Anne and Pierre stole an abandoned wreck, covered themselves in turtle blood, and placed a bloody dressmaker's mannequin in the bow, prompting the terrified crew of the merchant ship to surrender their cargo without a fight.

Anne Bonny Around this time, Anne began a relationship with pirate Captain John "Calico Jack" Rackham. Humiliated by the affair, James Bonny dragged Anne before the governor, demanding that she be punished for marital desertion. Rackham offered to buy Anne in a "divorce by purchase," but she refused to be sold. Instead, Rackham and Anne – dressed as a man – fled and took up a life of piracy in the Caribbean.

Before long, they captured a Dutch merchant ship, which included among its crew Mary "Mark" Read, who passed herself off as a young man. Mary had been born around 1690 in England. Her mother reportedly dressed her as a boy, disguising her as a recently deceased older brother in order to obtain financial support from relatives. As a teenager, Mary ran away and joined the army. She married a fellow soldier and opened an inn in Holland, but after her husband's untimely death, she again disguised herself as a man and went to sea.

Mary Read According to lore, Anne tried to seduce Mary, who revealed her true sex by exposing her breasts. The two women became fast friends and possibly lovers. Jealous of Anne and Mary's relationship, Rackham reportedly burst in upon them in a cabin partially undressed, thus learning Mary's sex. By some accounts, Rackham, Mary, and Anne had a three-way relationship. Others hold that Mary fell in love with a male crew member. Rackham himself is said to have gone both ways, with Pierre the Pansy being one of his purported lovers.

In October 1720, a pirate hunter attacked Rackham's ship off the coast of Jamaica. Legend has it that Rackham and the drunken crew hid below deck while Anne and Mary battled the invaders. Rackham and his men were hanged, but the women "pleaded their bellies," claiming to be pregnant. Their executions were postponed and they were sent to prison, where Mary died of fever several months later.

Anne's fate is less clear. By one account, her father bailed her out of prison. Then only in her early 20s, she reportedly returned to America, where she married and bore several children. Other tales maintain that she returned to a life of piracy, entered a nunnery, ran a tavern in England, or simply disappeared never to be seen again.

For further reading:

  • Hoyt, Robert. 2006. Anne Bonny: Tale of a Lady Pirate (Trafford).

  • Nelson, James. 2004. The Only Life That Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack (McBooks Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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