In an era when women had limited rights, Mary Read, also spelled Reade, lived a man's life as a sailor, soldier, and pirate. Accounts of her childhood are disputed and most publications credit a book by Charles Johnson with giving a fictional history of her early life. Ironically, some people speculate that Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe," one of the most famous pieces of fiction about pirates. The following is what is commonly known about her, born in London to a widowed mother, she was raised as a boy. Speculations about why Mary was raised as a boy include to obtain her brother's inheritance, and to mislead her father who was frequently out to sea. At thirteen, Mary was employed as a footboy to a French woman but she ran away and sailed on a man-of-war ship.
She left the sea to fight in Flanders as a foot soldier in a horse regiment of the British Army. While serving as a mercenary, Mary fell in love with a Flemish soldier. After revealing her gender and identity, the couple wed and opened an inn in Holland called "The Three Horseshoes." Mary might have settled into the life of an innkeeper's wife but her husband died of a fever and she returned to living as a man.
After an attempt to rejoin the infantry failed, she shipped out to the West Indies. En route, pirate Calico Jack Rackham took the ship and Mary signed on as a pirate on Rackham's ship "The Revenge."
Anne Bonney sailed with Calico Jack dressed as a man also, although she was Jack's lover. She discovered Mary's gender, and some reports suggest Mary and Anne had some romantic involvement, but there is no historical evidence to prove that theory. Most accounts credit the women as posing as men for survival purposes and to earn a living. With one woman aboard, Calico Jack was not adverse to another and Mary proved to be a fine seaman.
The best known tale about Mary Read is about the duel she fought with a pirate in her lover's stead. A pirate that Mary fancied argued with an older, more experienced pirate and a duel was set to settle the quarrel. Mary had no doubt that her lover would die so she began her own fight with the pirate, which led to a duel. Although slighter and smaller, Mary held her own in the fight which included both cutlasses and pistols for some time. Her opponent was nearing victory when she ripped open her blouse to reveal her breasts. Shocked by the revelation that his shipmate was a woman and that he dueled with a female, her opponent stumbled and Mary all but detached his head with her cutlass, killing him.
When her lover arrived for his duel he found his opponent dead and Mary triumphant. The couple wed but marital bliss was not fated for the pair. Soon after their wedding, Calico Jack's ship was taken by the Governor of Jamaica's forces. All the male pirates on board were tried and sentenced to hang, although the two women - Mary Read and Anne Bonney - had a separate trial. The men were hanged but the two women were not on the basis that they were both pregnant. According to British law, the government refused to end the life of an unborn child, no matter how guilty the mother was of any crime. Some accounts say the claims were true, and so the women were imprisoned to await the birth of their children, but other accounts say claiming pregnancy was simply to avoid hanging.
Mary Read reportedly sickened with a fever and died a short time after her arrival at the prison, but claims exist that she died during child birth in 1721 instead. In either scenario, she cheated the hangman and left a legacy as one of the most infamous female pirates in history. That legacy continued into the 20th century when a play was staged in London in 1978 about Mary Read and Ann Bonney.