This month I share with you the fascinating story of the search for
Blackbeard's skull. But first, two brief comments.
- Several people have wondered about the progress on the renovation of the Homer
& Aliph Howard Home. Because of unexpected contractor delays
there has been nothing to report in the last two months. However, we
expect work to begin again immediately after the July 4 holiday. Look
for more photos and commentary next month. In the meanwhile, you can
read the latest report here.
- Fans of Molasses Creek and Fiddler Dave will be happy to hear that Dave
has released his first solo CD, "Cecil
Train Heads West". Click on the link to read more.
And now, the search for Blackbeard's skull:
So much has been written about Edward Teach, aka "Blackbeard," and
Ocracoke, especially his bloody battle at "Teach's Hole" near Ocracoke
Inlet on November 22, 1718, that I will only give a brief recount, but will
share with you several other little-known, but interesting facts.
A View of Teach's Hole from Springer's Point:
As many of you know, the "Golden Age of Piracy" came to an end when
Virginia's Governor Spotswood sent Lt. Robert Maynard in pursuit of the
dastardly pirate. Blackbeard's fearsome head was severed from his body in that
famous battle. Afterwards Maynard unceremoniously threw the headless corpse
overboard where it reportedly swam around the ship seven times before sinking
into the murky depths.
For some time I reported that Maynard carried Blackbeard's head back to
Williamsburg, Virginia as a grim message to Teach's nefarious "Brethren of
Recently, on one of my history/ghost walks, I
was told that the gruesome trophy was actually taken to Hampton, Virginia. After
checking R.E. Lee's definitive book, Blackbeard the Pirate, A Reappraisal of
His Life and Times, I learned that "according to the legends of
Virginia and the statements of a number of writers, Blackbeard's skull dangled
from a high pole on the west side of the mouth of the Hampton River for many
years as a warning to seafarers. The place is still known as 'Blackbeard's
According to Donald W. Patterson on the web site, Blackbeard
Lives, Maynard's "sailors hung Blackbeard's head on the bowsprit of their sloop
and headed for Bath, where Blackbeard lived. In early January of 1719, they
sailed to Williamsburg, Va., still displaying their gruesome trophy. By early
February, they arrived in the Norfolk, Va. area. Around the middle of the month,
authorities in Hampton, Va. hanged several of Blackbeard's men. They stuck his
head on a pole as a warning to potential pirates."
More interestingly, I was reminded of one colorful legend regarding
Blackbeard's skull. According to Lee, "In time, someone took down the grim
souvenir and fashioned it into the base of a large punch bowl." He goes on
to recount that for many years the bowl rested in the Raleigh Tavern in
Williamsburg where it was used as a drinking vessel. This information comes from
the 1898 "Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania" Volume II, by John
F. Watson who states that the skull was "enlarged with silver….and I have
seen those whose forefathers have spoken of their drinking punch from it; with a
silver ladle appurtenant to that bowl."
Legends also suggest that for many years the skull made the rounds of coastal
dinner parties as a sober reminder of the fate of lawless sailors. Other tales
claim that the skull played a central role in fraternity rituals in Virginia and
In a footnote in Lee's 1974 book he states that the skull can no longer be
located in Virginia, although "a well-known New England writer on pirates
and a collector of pirate memorabilia" claimed to be in possession of the
The New England writer and collector Lee refers to is no doubt Edward Rowe
Snow (1902-1982). I have a photocopy from his out-of-print book, Secrets of
the North Atlantic Islands, published in 1950, that shows a picture of a
skull. The caption reads, "The skull of the famous pirate Blackbeard,
photographed with one of his pistols." I am told that the skull was
included in several trips that Snow made in the '60's & '70's to various
places of nautical interest in the New England area.
In the process of researching the legend and searching for the skull, John
Walker, on his web page, Blackbeard,
talks about contacting, in 1990, an elderly woman in Massachusetts who claimed
to be in possession of Captain Teach's skull. She said she was in the process of
donating it to a museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
As of this writing, the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts now
holds the skull from the Edward Rowe Snow collection.
On their web page, From
the Quarter Deck, Gena and Tom Metcalf, folklorists and historians, are
shown holding the object in question.
According to some sources, officials at the museum have never put the skull on display, and
refuse to claim it as Blackbeard's citing lack of proof one way or the other.
Tom Metcalf, who finds no reason to doubt its authenticity, reports that the
skull has been on tour, and even made it to the San Diego Maritime Museum a few
In his book, Blackbeard's Cup, Charles Whedbee, North Carolina
historian and collector of Outer Banks folklore, claimed to have actually drunk
from the silver plated skull/punch bowl while on a visit to Ocracoke Island in
the early 1930's. Although it is an entertaining story, it is unlikely to have
actually happened. To my knowledge, no one on the island has heard of such an
object ever being located here, nor do the tales of furtive meetings, solemn
rituals, or secret passwords sound convincing. They are more likely the product
of an imaginative college graduate's mind than the true account of the lives of
the native Outer Bankers I know.
Furthermore, although Whedbee is reported to have seen photos of Edward Rowe
Snow with his silvered skull, and to have stated that this skull was indeed the
same one he was familiar with, this is difficult to believe. Whedbee, an
accomplished storyteller, claimed to have drunk from a shallow bowl fashioned
from the top half of a skull. He reports that the vessel bore the curse "Deth
to Spotswoode" engraved on the rim. Neither the size, shape, nor details of
this skull match those of the skull in the Peabody-Essex Museum.
Another View of Teach's Hole:
It is unlikely that, after 285 years, we will ever know for sure what happened
to Edward Teach's skull. That he was a figure larger than life itself, however,
is attested to by the fact that his story continues to fascinate us. This is
especially true on Ocracoke where tales abound of the headless pirate
perpetually wandering our shoreline after dark.......searching, in vain, for his