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The legend of Blackbeard’s silver-plated skull

The pirate flag of Captain Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The flag shows a skeleton spearing a heart and toasting death. Image credit: Fred the Oyster via Wikipedia.

There is an area of land on the west side of the mouth of the Hampton River in Hampton Roads, VA that is known as Blackbeard’s Point.  After Blackbeard was killed in battle in 1718, his head was placed on a pole overlooking the southern end of the Cheseapeake Bay as a deterrent to any current or future pirates.  The head sat atop that pole for many years until it disappeared.  The skull, now lined in silver, eventually showed up again at a pub in Virginia so that it could be used as a goblet.  It traded hands a few times until it ended up in storage at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Before I discuss the undignified afterlife of Blackbeard’s skull, I would like to start with the meteoric career of the notorious pirate captain.

Blackbeard’s (c. 1680 – November 22, 1718) real name was either William Thatch or William Teach depending on the source.  For this article I will refer to him as William Teach because I think it’s the most well-known version of his birth name.  Little is known about his early life until he became one of Captain Benjamin Hornigold’s lieutenants in 1716.  Teach got his famous monicker from his long black beard that he wove into braids.

Edward Teach was in command of his own crew by 1717.  At the end of that year, he captured a slave ship that he refitted and renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge – the most prized ship in his fleet.

Engraving of Blackbeard complete with lit fuses he tied to his hair and his many pistols. Engraving by either Joseph Nicholls 1726–55) or James Basire (1730–1802). Image from Wikipedia.

Blackbeard was one of many pirates who disrupted trade throughout the West Indies and the American colonies in the early 18th century.  To stop these outlaws, King George I issued the Proclamation for Suppressing on Pirates on September 5, 1717 and announced that any pirate who surrendered to any British governor within one year would be pardoned for any acts of piracy committed before January 5, 1718.

In May of 1718, Teach blockaded the port of Charles Town, SC and successfully held it for ransom for medical supplies.  Shortly after, while in a rush to evade English naval battleships tasked with hunting pirates, Blackbeard accidentally ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground off the coast of North Carolina.  Then in June of 1718, Blackbeard and his men sailed to Bath, NC to petition the state’s governor, Charles Eden, for the king’s pardon.  Eden granted them all pardons and they seemed to settle into normal, law-abiding life in Bath…for a few months.

A map of the area around Ocracoke Inlet, 1775. Image from Wikipedia.

Teach and his crew continued to rob vessels that sailed to and from the Chesapeake Bay.  They would then anchor near Ocracroke Inlet, in the Outer Banks, to repackage the loot to help conceal their illicit activities.

Blackbeard’s return to piracy seems to have been the worst kept secret in the region.  In “The Last Days of Blackbeard,” Colin Woodward, historian and author of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, Governor Eden may have known about his illegal escapades and looked the other way.  But the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, kept track of him and was determined to capture the unrepentant criminal.  Since Spotswood did not have legal authority to arrest anyone in another colony, he hired two British naval commanders to do his dirty work.  One of those commanders was Lieutenant Robert Maynard.

Because of Spotswood’s reconnaissance, Maynard knew about Blackbeard’s hide out on Ocracoke.  He sailed with two sloops to the Outerbanks on November 21, 1718.  Although he spotted the pirate captain and his men on the 21st, he did not attack until the next morning.

Early November 22nd, Maynard and his two ships ambushed Blackbeard and twenty of his men.  Blackbeard’s ship broadsided one of Maynard’s sloops and headed to open water, but his escape was hindered by a damaged sail.  Maynard’s second ship, the one the lieutenant was aboard, soon caught up to Blackbeard.  Blackbeard and his crew, thinking perhaps they had the upper hand, boarded the naval vessel.

The pirates and naval sailors clashed with swords, guns, and fists.  The outlaws were soon overcome by Maynard and his men.  Blackbeard was fatally wounded during the battle and he succumbed to his injuries.  The fourteen surviving pirates were taken prisoner.

Maynard inspected Edward Teach’s corpse and noted that he had “five shot in him, and 20 dismal cuts in several parts of his body.

Maynard then chose a pretty gruesome way of broadcasting the success of his mission.  The lieutenant beheaded Teach’s corpse and dangled it from the front of his sloop.  The rest of his body was dumped into the Pamlico Sound.

Edward Teach’s severed head hangs from Maynard’s bowsprit. Image credit: Charles Elles’s The Pirates Own Book (1837) via Wikipedia

Maynard gave Blackbeard’s head to Spotswood when he sailed to back to Virginia.  Spotswood in turn mounted the head on a pole and displayed it near Hampton Roads at a location that became known as Blackbeard’s Point.  The stories of the skull do not end here but they are little more than folklore.

According local legend, the pirate’s skull became the property of a tavern owner in Williamsburg, VA, who had it lined with silver and dared his patrons to drink from it.  Then it showed up at another bar in the 19th century in Alexandria, VA.

In the early 1950’s, Edward Rowe Snow, a maritime historian and author, claimed to be in possession of Blackbeard’s skull.  Whenever Snow gave lectures or made public appearances he brought the skull along to show his audience.  At some point after Snow died in 1982, his widow gifted his entire collection, including the silver-plated skull, to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

I’m not sure where Snow got the skull or if there is any evidence to support his claims that the skull in his collection belonged to the legendary pirate captain.  Without records of ownership or a forensic examination, it’s tough to say if William Teach’s skull was ever turned into a goblet by a tavern-owner or ended up in the basement of the Peabody Essex Museum

Although the Peabody Essex Museum did lend it out at least once for an exhibit, the museum no longer displays the silver-plated skull legend says belonged to Blackbeard.



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