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Pirate Women Storm Into Museum of Early Trades

Bloodthirsty gender-bending on the high seas.

Women pirates were in Madison Sunday, if only in the imagination of those attending the companion lecture to the current exhibit, "Mariners, Merchants and Pirates" at the .

“There is a great saying,” said lecturer Kati Brower, who provided pictures and historical accounts of these rebels of yesteryear. "Nice women never make history.” 

Brower, who has a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University in American studies including women's and African studies, recounted the escapades of the “strong women” who entered into the world of Jolly Rogers, rampages, stealing and hiding loot and gender-bending non-conformity that gave them freedom from the age-old constraints placed upon women. 

“Women couldn’t speak their mind, couldn’t own property, and when a woman was divorced she lost everything, even her children,” Brower said.

Women pirates are documented from 600 B.C. to the mid-1800s, and two of the most famous were Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  Bonny was born in England and raised in America. A red-haired beauty and a spitfire, Bonny left her comfortable home in Charleston, Va., to marry a pirate, James Bonny, but was then disowned by her father. She later left her husband for another pirate, Calico Jack, donned men’s clothing and sailed the Caribbean with Jack as privateers.  

Mary Read, of Britain, was a eventually imprisoned on Bonny’s ship. Also dressed as man, Read revealed her true gender to Bonny and the two began a relationship.  They fought off British enemies with swords and guns while the men hid below deck, according to Brower.  

“You may think just because they were women they weren’t as ruthless as the men, but they were,” Brower said. 

Read is said to have driven her saber through the heart of a man she challenged to a duel.   

Another lady pirate, Maria Cobham, shot a captain in the head, took his clothes, sewed him up in a gunny sack and threw him overboard, according to Brower.  Cobham wore this uniform when fighting the enemy. She tortured captors by placing them on sails and using them for target practice until they died and made other prisoners eat poison stew, Brower said. 

Fanny Campbell, Rachel Wall, Sadie Farrell, and Sarah Bishop were all American women pirates, Brower said. 

Campbell, born 1750 in Lynn, Mass., disguised herself as a man to rescue her pirate lover in a Cuban prison.  En route Campbell prevented a mutiny and commanded two ships. 

Rachel Wall, of Carlisle, Pa., left a normal life on the farm to become a pirate with her husband. Wall sent out fake distress calls to enemy crews who were then besieged and robbed. Wall was the first and last woman to be tried and hung as a pirate for trying to cut out a woman’s tongue.  

Sarah Bishop was kidnapped and forced to cook, steer the ship and become a mistress to an entire crew. She eventually jumped ship during a siege and lived as a hermit in Connecticut. 

Sadie Farrell, born in 1869, was also known as Sadie the Goat for ramming her head in her enemy’s stomach. A petty thief and gang leader in Long Island, Farrell led her gang as river pirates. They sailed from Maine to Connecticut robbing and pillaging.  They hid their loot in smuggler’s tunnels. Farrell, who lost her ear in a fight, regained her ear upon reconciling with her enemy and wore it in a pendant for the rest of her life. 

The audience appreciated the lecture’s content and girl-power theme. 

“It’s a treasure for Madison,” Kathy Burgmeyer, of Summit, said. “This whole series on sailing, pirating and shipwrecks was so informative. It’s a condensed education.”

“I thought the Golden Age of Piracy was the late 1600s to late 1700s, so to hear of them later and also as women was new for me,” said Gordon Bond, of Union. 

“Girls can do anything boys can do, even criminality, and this is another example,” Stephanie Hoagland, of Union, said. “I like any women who don’t stay in their place.  I find women pirates fascinating.  The fact that these women would dress up like a man, hoist the mast, fight like a man and no one would know, is pretty awesome.”

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