Bad Behavior

The Search For Blackbeard’s Mistress

The plank house today and as it once appeared

The Plank House today (left) and how it once looked (right), source.

Today the Plank House looks much more modern (well, “modern” in the broadest sense), which is why I didn’t take pictures of it. It doesn’t exactly set our scene. As the funds are raised, the Plank House is being renovated back to its historical roots! So in today’s post I thought I’d use pirate illustrations from N.C. Wyeth (posts about him here, here, and here) instead.

Blackbeard & The Hook

As the coast of Delaware and Pennsylvania began to grow in population it became a dangerous target for piracy. It didn’t help matters that in 1701 William Penn ordered a public market to be built in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. It became a haven for pirates to sell their plunder…which definitely was not Penn’s intention.

Then in 1717 a French merchant ship that had been captured arrived on the shores of the bustling maritime and shipbuilding town. It was equipped with 40 guns and the exciting name, Queen Anne’s Revenge. It’s captain was Edward Teach, also known as Edward Thatch, but best known today as Blackbeard.

Blackbeard is a mysterious figure. He was probably born in the 1680’s but no one is sure. Born in Bristol, England Blackbeard grew up in an important sea port dealing in exotic goods and the slave trade.

When Blackbeard died, a letter addressed to him was found on his body; historians have taken this to mean that he could probably read and write and was born to a respectable family.

Legend has it that Blackbeard moved to New Providence, a lawless island, and became a pirate in 1716 by joining Captain Benjamin Hornigold (yes he was actually only an active pirate for less than 2 years!). Skilled in his work, Blackbeard was put in charge of his own ship and crew.

There is no record of Blackbeard murdering those he held hostage as his crew ransacked their ship (not that he didn’t do it, there’s just no record) but his appearance did leave a lasting impression. Bestselling author and mysterious sea captain, Charles Johnson (whose real identify was never discovered, click on his name to read more), wrote a famous record of Blackbeard including: “[He was] such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful.”

A Woman Named Margret

While Blackbeard is one of the best known pirates today, historians actually only know of one treasure haul, discovered in 1996. It’s on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum where his ship wrecked.

In Marcus Hook, plagued by pirates, rumor had it that Blackbeard took a particular shine to a Swedish woman named Margret. He was known to visit the town, and her, regularly when he wasn’t pillaging the settlements dotting the Eastern coast. Marcus Hook was already a popular spot to stop and sell your plundered goods or restock on supplies. Pirates used its location, slightly outside the Philadelphia government’s jurisdiction and custom officials, to their full advantage.

When he wasn’t in the Hook, Blackbeard was busy expanding his reach. At the height of his power and of piracy in general, in May of 1718, he blockaded Charleston, South Carolina so completely that it paralyzed the port and brought all sea trade to a standstill. Officials were terrified that pirates would make this a trend, destroying the economies of anyone they wished to. The blockade brought him power and fear but it also put a very large target on his back.

British Bombardment

In 2004 the Manerchia family bought a home in Marcus Hook on Market Street. While renovating they found wooden planks under the walls. Then their granddaughter pulled some rare pottery out of the backyard. They called in some historical experts. The house, built in 1735, is the only known example of a 17th-century Finish plank log house in Pennsylvania. During the Revolutionary War, the British marched towards Philadelphia. Along the way, in Marcus Hook, 1,000 British riflemen arrived on Market Street. George Washington had named the town as an important place for patriots who might want to shoot at incoming British ships. The British told the townspeople that they would be taking care of this problem and they should expect some gunfire at their buildings. Despite the polite warning, the Brits thoroughly leveled the town firing cannonballs at the mansions along the river and shooting at the ships. Few houses were left.

But back to the Plank House…the home was originally built by settler Roger Jackson, then later purchased by the woman known only as Margret. The Mancerchias named their house the “Plank House.” While it was built after Blackbeard’s death, foundations found show that another structure was on the property even earlier. Margret did not live there until after Blackbeard’s death though, so while Blackbeard is recorded as visiting her often near Second Street/Discord Lane, he was never in the Plank House specifically.

Because of the bombardment there are no other (known) pre-Revolutionary period houses left in Pennsylvania’s third oldest town besides Margret’s home. Residents are still finding evidence of the British. In 2010 a woman planting flowers dug up a cannonball from that attack.

The Plank House is solidly built (it is still standing after all!) from 7-foot (2 m) by 11-foot (3.5 m) rectangular logs. The siding has hand beaded, ship-lapped siding and hand-carved brackets. Originally, the house was near Second Street, nicknamed Discord Lane, because it was the most popular place for pirates to drink, carouse and brawl. Margret lived close to Discord Lane but not much is known about their relationship or her.

Hunting Pirates

In 1718 the governor of Philadelphia issued a warrant for Blackbeard’s arrest. The pirate quickly left town, nabbing two French ships headed to the Caribbean. The governor quickly sent two ships after him. Blackbeard sailed for the safety of Bermuda, robbing only several English vessels along the way for the provisions he needed.

When Blackbeard returned to the colonies, rumors that he was in North Carolina reached those hunting him over his piracy in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Fears of another blockade made Blackbeard an important target and the increase of pirates on the shoreline worried local government officials that law-abiding seamen would be easily enticed into piracy.

Governor Spotswood of Virginia sent British Naval officers to Blackbeard’s alleged hiding  spot and issued several edicts back home. One required ex-pirates to register with the authorities even if they had been pardoned in court. Another forbade former pirates from associating with each other in groups of three or more.

a marooned pirate

“Marooned” by Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth’s teacher, source

To take it a step further, Governor Spotswood captured former Queen Anne’s Revenge quartermaster William Howard who had wandered into Williamsburg, Virginia after being abandoned. When Howard was arrested he had £50 pounds on him (that’s more than $10,000 today) and two black slaves.

Howard was chained below deck on the HMS Lyme as lawyers built their case. It was a show trial; Howard was tried and convicted of piracy. Spotswood had spent the trial gathering information against Blackbeard and his crew too. He had a legal case against him now, whether or not Blackbeard was still on Virginian soil. The British Naval sailors sent to Blackbeard’s hiding spot found the pirate and launched a surprise attack.

Blackbeard was killed in a sea battle with them in November of 1718. Historians have estimated that he was a little under 40-years old.

The Manerchias donated the house to the Marcus Hook Preservation Society and have taken an active involvement in its preservation and study (you can go to the annual Pirate Festival in September). Excavation on the land beneath the house continues. So far, archeologists have uncovered thousands of artifacts from the 17th century, some of which belonged to Maggie/Margret, Blackbeard’s mistress, and some which predate her by thousands of years.

While Marcus Hook was more of a safe haven for pirates, the rest of the coast didn’t enjoy such luck. A second pirate post with more danger and plundering is coming up next month!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10