Wily Wenches and Private Ladies
While Grace O'Malley, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Mrs. Cheng are probably the most famous of the female pirates, other women pirates are known, and there are probably many more who lived as men and were never discovered to be women. A host of female marauders are mentioned in pirate history, but few details are known about their lives or the extent of their high seas exploits. Despite having served as pirates during different eras and throughout various cultures, all female swashbucklers had one thing in common: they seemed to share an enjoyment of violence and were willing participants in their piratical deeds.
Lady Mary Killigrew
During the 1500s in England, piracy was allowed, provided it was done with authority, quietly, and with little bloodshed. John Killigrew was the Vice-Admiral of Cornwall, and his wife, Lady Mary, was reported to have led several authorized pirate raids along the English coast. In the winter of 1583, storms forced a ship into the harbor at Falmouth in Northern England. Some reports say the ship was Spanish, others say it was German. Regardless, Lady Mary led her pirates out to the ship, boarded it, massacred the crew, then plundered the ship's cargo of jewels, silver, and coins. When Queen Elizabeth I heard about the attack she was understandably very angry, and her ire led to Lady Mary's immediate capture. She was then tried and found guilty of piracy and was sentenced to be hanged, but in an interesting twist of fate, the Queen eventually pardoned her.
Why did the Queen pardon Lady Mary Killigrew?
No one knows for sure, but because the monarchy quietly authorized some piracy, and because Lady Mary had done a good job pirating for Queen Elizabeth in the past, it is suspected that the monarch thought she might have need of her services sometime in the future.
Elizabeth Shirland was born in 1577 in Devonshire, England. As a young woman she disguised herself as a man and served under British privateer and sea dog Sir Francis Drake. In 1595 she returned to England and married, but was soon bored as a housewife and returned to sea. In time, she became captain of her own ship, and eventually informed her unsuspecting crew of the truth about her sex. Liz was a fiery female pirate, and in a perhaps apt twist of piracy, she used the men of her ship for her own personal pleasure. In this case, forewarned and forearmed should have been the crew's mantra, because if she was angry with them, she would slit their throats with her cutlass, a maneuver that earned her the nickname “Cutlass Liz.”
As a pirate, Liz was not very successful, taking only one major prize in 1604 — a Spanish merchant ship from which she stole gold and silk before setting the vessel on fire. A few weeks later, she was betrayed by two of her crewmembers who secretly allowed several Spanish soldiers to board her ship while she was busy being pleasured by a third conspirator. The invading Spaniards dragged her off the ship, but not before she killed her traitorous lover with a hidden dagger. Choosing not to wait for a trial and hanging, the Spanish soldiers acted on their impatience and killed her immediately.
Rachel Schmidt was born in 1760 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and was likely the first true American female pirate. At age sixteen, while in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she met George Wall, and they soon left town and were married. Afterward, the couple moved to Boston, where George was a fisherman and Rachel worked as a maid. Not long after their move, George and a few of his friends decided to take up piracy and asked Rachel to join them. When she agreed, the group borrowed a boat from another friend, to whom they promised a share of their plunder, and headed out to sea.
Rachel and George's piratical tactics in luring prey were highly deceptive. Typically, they would fish until a storm rolled in and would then put out a distress signal. When another ship responded, they would kill the crew, transfer the cargo to their ship, and then sink the aiding vessel to make it appear that it had simply gone down in the storm. In 1782, their ship really was caught in a bad storm during which George and at least one other man were thrown overboard and drowned. Rachel, however, was rescued and went back to Boston where she continued to steal from boats harbored at the docks, until she was finally apprehended and convicted of murdering a sailor.
Sentenced to die for the sailor's murder, Rachel denied to the end that she was guilty of that particular incident, though she did confess to her crimes of piracy. When her execution was carried out in October of 1789, she became the last woman to be hanged in the state of Massachusetts.