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.
"He said it spoke to him on a dark and stormy night. And the eyes glowed in the black." But Moore adds, "Who knows?" He speculates that it might be worth making a facial reconstruction of the skull to find out what Blackbeard really looked like.
Dan Finamore of the Peabody Essex Museum stresses that the skull is kept in the museum's collection as an example of pirate folklore, not as Blackbeard's genuine skull. "It's a very interesting piece. ... We haven't done tests on it." Having seen ancient photos of the "cup" supposedly made from the pirate's skull, Finamore sees little similarity with this version.
Moore agrees that it doesn't match what he knows about the dead pirate's cranium. For his part, Finamore doesn't want to lure people to see Blackbeard's head under what might turn out to be false pretenses.
After all, that would be sheer piracy.
If you go
* What: "Pirates and Privateers in Marblehead" exhibit, featuring purported skull of Blackbeard
* Where: Marblehead Museum and Historical Society, 170 Washington St.
* When: Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through December
* Price: Free, donations appreciated
* Information: Call 781-631-1768