, Salem, MA

Local News

June 4, 2007

Blackbeard's skull? See for yourself at Marblehead pirate show

MARBLEHEAD - During the early 1700s, the pirate Blackbeard, armed to the teeth with pistols, daggers and swords, attacked merchant vessels all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Enraged Colonial authorities would have given anything to have his head.

Now, the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society has his head. Or at least they might. And anybody who visits their new exhibit "Pirates and Privateers in Marblehead" (which includes documents, paintings and artifacts) can have a look at what is said to be Blackbeard's skull, displayed in a Plexiglas case.

"It's the 'purported' skull of Blackbeard," said the museum's Pam Peterson. On loan from the Peabody Essex Museum, it was donated to them by the widow of popular New England historian Edward Rowe Snow. "He purchased it in Virginia and used it on all his speaking tours."

It carries a kind of magic. Blackbeard, whose real name was either Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, is the most famous pirate of a very colorful era, according to curator David Moore of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Pirates in general have always been a subject of intense fascination - Moore has been studying this one for 10 years, and his museum has a growing section on Blackbeard.

Likewise, the Marblehead Museum is tapping into a fascination with New England's buccaneers. In both cases, the interest has been stoked by the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. That benign vision of piracy might even be close to the truth about Blackbeard, said Moore, who believes that the pirate leader never killed anyone except in self-defense.

By some accounts, Blackbeard strayed as far north as Nova Scotia during his pirate career, which ended at Ocracoke Inlet, not far from Moore's North Carolina museum. He was beheaded by a sword swipe during a fierce shipboard battle with authorities. His bewhiskered visage was then mounted under the bowsprit of a sloop and brought back to shore.

"From there, we can trace it as far as a pole erected at Hampton, Va.," Moore said. "It was put on a pole between the heads of two other recently executed pirates." These were meant as object lessons to other would-be pirates.

Later, legend holds, the skull of Blackbeard was taken down, coated with silver and converted into a ghoulish drinking cup used by college fraternities. Moore is skeptical that this artifact eventually found its way to New England. He notes that Edward Rowe Snow had a curious method of confirming the authenticity of his find.

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