Not long ago I was asked to write a short article about the “Ocracoke Orgy!”

Those two words conjure up widely divergent images: a quaint and wholesome Outer Banks village…and wild sexual and dipsomaniacal license. I couldn’t imagine a title or topic that would capture more reader attention.

However, lest you worry that our beloved village has become the center of uncontrolled sexual excess, and at the risk of losing readers attracted to National Enquirer sensationalism, I must reveal that the alleged orgy took place almost 300 years ago, in the fall of 1718.

Captain Charles Johnson published the first account of the orgy in his 1724 book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Johnson’s book has been described as “a vivid and bloodthirsty account of a dozen English and Welsh pirates,” including Ocracoke’s best-known brigand, Edward Teach, popularly called Blackbeard, that recounted “graphic accounts of murder, torture and rape in exotic locations.”

Although the identity of Captain Johnson remains a mystery, most scholars agree he must have been a seaman of considerable knowledge and experience, perhaps even a privateer who frequently crossed paths with his subjects.

So what exactly transpired in the fall of 1718 on Ocracoke Island?

Less than a week after Blackbeard’s blockade of Charleston Harbor on June 4, 1718, the pirate captain wrecked the Queen Anne’s Revenge at Old Topsail Inlet. In a brilliant maneuver, Teach marooned the majority of his rag-tag crew, and took command of his smaller sloop, the Adventure. Accompanied by his closest associates, Teach absconded with their recent plunder. Blackbeard then surrendered to North Carolina Governor, Charles Eden, and received the king’s pardon.

In spite of the pardon, Teach was not done with piracy. In late August, in the Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda, Blackbeard captured a French merchant ship laden with sugar, cocoa, cotton, and indigo dye. Rather than return to the Caribbean with his prize, Teach sailed north, bound for North Carolina where he knew he would receive a warm welcome from Governor Eden and his Secretary, Tobias Knight.

In early September the Adventure, passed through Ocracoke Inlet. The pirate crew remained at Ocracoke for several weeks, careening and repairing their ship. Meanwhile, Captain Teach paid a midnight visit to his friend, Tobias Knight, in Bath. A plan was hatched.

On September 24 a Vice-Admiralty Court heard the case of the French “sugar ship” which Blackbeard had unloaded and burned to the waterline.  Blackbeard claimed he had encountered the vessel abandoned on the high seas, and had burned her when it was discovered that she was leaking. Teach was cleared of any crimes, and allowed to keep the cargo. Of course, he was ordered to pay tariffs to the colonial government. In addition, Knight received twenty casks of sugar as a gift.

It was time to celebrate, and Ocracoke Island was the place to party. Mark R. Jones, in his 2005 book, Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City says this about what happened next:

“To celebrate his grand fortune, Blackbeard headed to Ocracoke Island. The Queen Anne’s Revenge [actually, Blackbeard was in command of the sloop Adventure at this time] was laden with food, rum and women picked up from the waterfront. Other notorious pirates, like Calico Jack Rackham and Charles Vane, arrived at Ocracoke with more women and rum. It soon became a huge, continual party that has become known as the ‘Ocracoke Orgy.’ Hundreds of pirates spent several weeks on the island drinking, eating and whoring with more than fifty wenches.”

The crews of Black Beard’s and Vane’s vessels carousing on the coast of Carolina

From The Pirates Own Book, 1837

As Robert E. Lee writes about the “pirate festival” in his 1974 book, Blackbeard the Pirate, A Reappraisal of His Life and Times, Teach was back at Ocracoke after his appearance at the Vice-Admiralty Court, and the notorious pirate captain, Charles Vane, was soon to join him.

In July Captain Vane had spurned the king’s pardon which had been offered by the Governor of the Bahamas. After attacking the Governor’s fleet, eluding capture, and plundering a number of vessels on the high seas, Vane sailed north to Ocracoke.

Lee writes that “Vane’s visit with Blackbeard…actually constituted the largest pirate festival ever held on the mainland of North America. Among the celebrities who attended the festivities near what is now the village of Ocracoke were Edward Teach, Israel Hands, Charles Vane, Robert Deal, and John Rackham, all of whom at some time during their lives had commanded a pirate ship.”

Lee calls Ocracoke a “pirate playground” where “hogs and cows were barbecued, and many of the fishermen and traders passing the inlet, upon seeing such a throng of people, stopped to trade with them and furnish them with fresh provisions.” Those provisions, Lee assures us, included “an ample supply of rum, and the punch bowls were never empty.”

Other writers describe the gathering as

  • “a weeklong bout of raucous festivities replete with wine, women, and song that some have called the ‘Ocracoke Orgy'” (Bruce Roberts and Sandra Clunies, in their 2002 book, Pirates of the Southern Coast¸ the earliest reference to the term “Ocracoke Orgy” that I have been able to document.)
  • “an infamous week of drunken debauchery and womanizing,” (Dr. Michael D. Hogan, in his article “Pirates of the Carolinas (Part V): Charles Vane, the Unluckiest Pirate of Them All” published in Southport Magazine), and
  • “the biggest gathering of pirates on the entire eastern seaboard…[where] wild and wicked sea villains chased women around the beach, while musicians played all night.” (Terrance Zepke, in his 2005 book, Pirates of the Carolinas)

Interestingly, the earliest mention of this pirate gathering, from the pen of Captain Charles Johnson (remember him from his 1724 book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates?) says only that, “Captain Vane went into an inlet to the northward, where he met with Captain Thatch, or Teach, otherwise called Blackbeard,…and civilities passed for some days, when about the beginning of October, Vane took leave and sailed further to the northward.”

That’s it! Captain Vane and Captain Teach passed “civilities for some days.”

So what are we to make of the “Ocracoke Orgy” story?

No doubt a meeting of Blackbeard and Vane took place on Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard was encamped in the fall of 1718.  Rum surely was involved; perhaps even barbecued hogs and cows.  If a few musicians were among the pirate crews…maybe a mouth harp, or a harmonica, even a concertina or a flute…there would have been rowdy sea shanties. Did merchant vessels stop for a bit of revelry? Who knows? More likely they kept their distance from a group of seasoned pirates.

What about “women picked up from the waterfront,” and scenes of “whoring with more than fifty wenches?”  Was it a “week of drunken debauchery and womanizing,” “a huge, continual party” with a “throng of people” coming and going, a time when “wild and wicked sea villains chased women around the beach, while musicians played all night?”

Kevin Duffus, author of The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate, doesn’t think so. And I agree.

Duffus refers to the pirate gathering as a “banyon,” a traditional British Royal Navy term for a period of rest and relaxation. He envisions makeshift tents fashioned from sailcloth that were erected on the beach, and concurs that 18th century sailors would have eagerly hunted and roasted wild game, and gathered fresh oysters and other shellfish rather than eat the ship’s stores of worm-infested beef and moldy hard tack.

He points out that the woodcut pictured above debuted in an 1837 volume titled The Pirate’s Own Book, and seems to be the source of the exaggerated legends of “a weeklong bout of raucous festivities.” As Duffus points out, “The artist could hardly have imagined a more inaccurate scene.”

While Charles Vane may have brought one or two women to the gathering, there surely were not as many as depicted in the woodcut. After all, there was no village on the island at that time. Nor would the participants have been so nattily dressed, nor so prim and proper (consider the dignified fiddler). To emphasize his point, Duffus remarks on the sturdy wooden dining table (where did that come from?), and notes that one woman is even carrying a baby!

Surely there was a gathering of buccaneers on Ocracoke Island (probably on the soundside beach near present-day Springer’s Point) in late September or early October of 1718. But the “passing of civilities for some days” by the pirate crews of Charles Vane and Edward Teach hardly counts as an “Ocracoke Orgy.”

It does make for a colorful story, however.

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Hardly anyone who has visited Ocracoke hasn’t heard about Blackbeard, the fiercest seafarer ever to fly the black flag of piracy.  The basic story is fairly well known:

  • Although virtually everyone knew the pirate as Blackbeard, he often went by the name Edward Teach, Tatch, or Theach….or even Edward Drummond.  There is little doubt that all of these monikers were aliases.  His real name may be permanently lost to history, but see below for some fascinating new research.
  • Historians suggest that he was of English descent, born perhaps in Bristol.  Some think he was from Jamaica, or even Philadelphia.  Again, no one actually knows.
  • During his brief career as a pirate (about 18 months in 1717 & 1718) Blackbeard terrorized shipping from the West Indies to New England.
  • Captain Teach appears to have been a close personal friend of North Carolina Governor Charles Eden and his secretary, Tobias Knight.
  • In November of 1718 Virginia’s governor, Alexander Spotswood, sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the British Royal Navy in pursuit of Blackbeard because Governor Eden was doing little or nothing to halt piracy along the Virginia – North Carolina coast.
  • Maynard caught up with Blackbeard as he lay anchored in Pamlico Sound, near Ocracoke Island.
  • During the battle (on November 22, 1718) Captain Teach took five pistol wounds and twenty cutlass & dagger wounds before he succumbed and had his head chopped off.  His crew immediately surrendered.  This effectively ended the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the colonies.

Black Beard:

There are, of course, many more stories about Blackbeard — how he got his start in piracy with Captain Hornigold in the West Indies, how he captured the French vessel, “Concorde,” and renamed her the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” how he terrorized captains, crews, and passengers on numerous ships as he plundered their cargo, how he took fourteen wives, how he blockaded Charleston Harbor and demanded nothing more than medicines, how he scuttled the Queen Anne’s Revenge in Beaufort Inlet and marooned most of his crew, then fled to Ocracoke in the “Adventure,”….as well as many other stories.

Within the last several years I was alerted to a paper published in the North Carolina Genealogical Society’s Journal entitled “Legends of Black Beard and his Ties to Bath Town: A Study of Historical Events Using Genealogical Methodology.”¹   In it the authors argue that some evidence suggests that Blackbeard may have been native to eastern North Carolina.  It is a fascinating article, one worth more attention and research.  I will summarize the main points below.

Governor Charles Eden and his secretary, Tobias Knight, chief justice of the colony, both owned plantations on the west side of Bath Town Creek in Bath, the colonial capital of North Carolina.  Knight’s property lay at the mouth of the creek where it joined the Pamtico (Pamlico) River.  Just to the north was Governor Eden’s plantation. Next in line, across the narrow Whitby Creek, was the plantation of Captain James Beard. These plantations included 300 – 400 acres each.

An intriguing aspect of Governor Eden’s property is that a tunnel reputedly joined his cellar to the bank of the creek.  It was by means of this tunnel, many believe, that Blackbeard secretly carried a portion of his ill-gotten gains to the governor in exchange for protection from prosecution.

Black Beard’s Flag:

On September 5, 1717 King George signed his “Act of Grace,” an offer of amnesty designed to pardon any piratical acts committed after Queen Anne’s War.  The proclamation was signed on September 5, 1717 and extended for one year.

Blackbeard accepted the king’s “Act of Grace” in June of 1718.  Tellingly, Captain Teach chose to accept the pardon, not from Governor Woodes Rogers in the West Indies, as did most other buccaneers, but from Governor Charles Eden in Bath, NC.

Could it be, ask the authors of the genealogical journal, that the “inhabitants of Bath County did not see Black Beard as the rogue that history records”  because his home town was in Bath? This would explain why he decided to return to Bath to accept the king’s pardon there.  As the authors say, perhaps Black Beard “was just coming home.”

Intriguingly, Captain James Beard, Governor Eden’s neighbor on Bath Town Creek, had a son who was born about 1690.  This son, whose name has been lost to history, died between September 1718 and sometime in 1721, according to information gleaned from various deeds.  Could this son be the pirate who came to be known as Black Beard?

The Genealogical Society’s Journal article points out that Captain James Beard’s son may have chosen to identify himself by the appellation “Black” plus his own authentic surname.  As they say, “his own beard being black, he was able to play on this concept to good advantage, using it to terrorize his victims.”  They go on to ask, “Was irony involved in this man’s choice of an alias, just as there was irony in the selection of the name Queen Anne’s Revenge for Black Beard’s flagship?”  It seems entirely plausible to me.

Perhaps Captain Edward Teach, Black Beard the pirate, was actually a native of eastern North Carolina.  No doubt he knew these waters well.  Ocracoke was one of his favorite anchorages.  And his one-time quartermaster, William Howard, may have been the same individual who purchased Ocracoke Island four decades later, after Lieutenant Maynard put an end to piracy at what became known as Teach’s Hole.

This theory is at least worth further research.

Springer’s Point (Teach’s Hole channel is nearby):

¹ August, 2002 issue

All photos on this page courtesy of http://www.teachshole.com/

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Island Greetings!

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 the Coast.”

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 Point.'”

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 Connecticut.

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 famous skull.

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 years ago.

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 head.

 

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