Black Sails Season 3: The Legend of Blackbeard

Black Sails Season 3 weighed anchor. If dead men tell no tales, what’s all this we hear about Blackbeard?

Den of Geek and Starz are throwing a Black Sails Party at NYCC with free rum on October 9th and 10th. Click here for details on how you can attend!

Blackbeard was the most famous and feared pirate during his lifetime, but his legend began to grow before his body was even cold.

Once the pirate was killed, Robert Maynard, the navy lieutenant who had hunted him down, cut off his head and threw the body overboard. Almost immediately, sailors recounted how the headless body “swam three times around the ship before sinking into the depths.”

Locals believed that Blackbeard’s body roamed the local beaches at night, looking for his head. Will-o-the-wisps in the area of Oracoke Island are called “Teache’s lights” to this day.

Ad – content continues below

Legend says that the pirate left a vast treasure, hidden under the waves and cursed so it could never be found.

Also, almost immediately, Blackbeard became the single source for the classic trope of the evil pirate captain who murders his men for no reason. The classic setup is that the pirate in question says or does something mildly annoying – sings out of key, speaks up at the wrong time, or is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Out comes the pistol, the pirate captain shoots, and the hapless victim falls dead. Then the captain drops a quip of some sort and everyone hops back to work, more careful than ever not to cross their tyrannical leader.

Blackbeard actually did shoot a member of his crew, and actually did say “I need to shoot one of you now and again, or you’ll forget who I am.” How do we know? The pirate, Israel Hands, testified at the trail of Blackbeard’s captured crew that he himself could not have taken part in the battle, because he was on shore, nursing his wounded foot.


The full story is that the night before, Hands, Blackbeard, a visiting merchant captain and a couple of other pirates were up late playing cards and drinking heavily. Somebody said something that Blackbeard objected to, and he pulled a pistol. The gun went off in an entirely random manner, and hit Hands in the foot (some people say the lower leg). Hands began screaming and complaining, and Blackbeard, barely able to stand, uttered the fateful line.

It’s not nearly as impressive a story when the pistol discharges at random, the victim is the pirate captain’s particular friend, and the captain in question is almost too drunk to function. Not to mention the victim lives. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 – On Stranger Tides shows the story in its legendary format, and it’s one of the most famous pirate tropes of all time, but the fact is that Blackbeard didn’t just go around shooting people.

Ad – content continues below

Blackbeard was a tourist attraction in North Carolina for years, and when the locals ran out of true stories, they simply made some up. This seems to be the origin of Blackbeard’s Wives. This tale may also be linked to a fairytale called “Bluebeard” about a mysterious man who marries many young girls, keeping them as wives before murdering them.

In the Blackbeard tale, dockside prostitutes are substituted for innocent young girls. Supposedly, Israel Hands, the ship’s bosun, would be awakened in the middle of the night, some time when the Queen Anne’s Revenge was in port. Blackbeard would be there, dead drunk, with a pretty young working girl that he wished to “marry.” Hands would read through some kind of improvised ceremony, and the two “newlyweds” would go off to the captain’s cabin to celebrate their nuptials.

In the morning the girl would leave, perfectly happy and considerably richer. Blackbeard would make no more effort to contact her. According to the story, the pirate captain occasionally became maudlin drunk, and would cry into his rum that “women were untrue and he would never marry again.” Until the next time. The count of his “wives” supposedly tops off at about 17. There is no proof to any of this.

Nor is there any proof that he was already married to a woman named Arabella Drummond, who ran away to sea and became a pirate captain in her own right. Other stories tell of her being Blackbeard’s sister. The famous pirate did use the name Drummond occasionally as an alias, and it’s even conceivable it was his real name, but Arabella did not actually exist.

The real area in North Carolina where the famous pirate ended his days is filled with claims to fame: Cities up and down the coast mention Blackbeard in museums, walking tours, restaurants and bars. Pirate festivals celebrate Blackbeard’s legacy with historic reenactments and kitsch. If you want to make money on whatever you’re selling, throw the name “Blackbeard” on it and you’re good to go.

Meanwhile, St Thomas – in the US Virgin Islands is home to the 99 steps to Blackbeard’s Castle. It’s on the registry of historic landmarks, and surrounded by a hotel and a restaurant. (Probably a gift shop as well.) Three problems: 1. Blackbeard never went to the Virgin Islands. 2. The tower was built in 1679, a year before Blackbeard was born. 3. There are actually 107 steps.

Ad – content continues below

Blackbeard’s appearances in literature begin with The Saturday Evening Post story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in which he appears on a jury of the damned – a group of evil men who must be persuaded by Webster’s fine oratory to appreciate the beauty of life. Since then he has shown up in a wide variety of stories – Rick Roirdan’s Heroes of Olympus series, in which he and his men have been changed into guinea pigs by the sorceress Circe, Tom Power’s On Stranger Tides, and an assortment of others. The problem here is that when such an iconic figure makes an appearance, he tends to take over the story. Certainly when I was reading On Stranger Tides I was much more interested to know what Blackbeard would do next than what the hero was up to.

The famous pirate’s earliest movie appearance came in 1952’s Blackbeard the Pirate when Robert Newton – Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island – was pegged to play him in a money-making effort designed to tie into the better-known Disney film. Newton was the ultimate character actor, the voice that created the “pirate accent” and Blackbeard was the ultimate pirate, but the movie was rushed and of only average quality.

Disney later worked Blackbeard into their series of mid-1960’s zany comedies in the 1968 movie Blackbeard’s Ghost. Cursed by one of his many wives to live forever, the ghost must do one good thing to earn the reward of eternal rest. A young Peter Ustinov plays Blackbeard here, and the movie got a moderately good rating.

On TV he’s been on Doctor Who (1968) The Simpsons (1993), Bones (2006), Once Upon a Time (2014) and in a 2014 miniseries called Crossbones (a story hacked to death by the network). In a series of YouTube rap battles, Blackbeard squares off against Al Capone – and wins.

But Blackbeard has become in many ways the “default pirate.”  Look for a pirate image, and you’re likely to see a bearded man. And since Teach, Thatch, Drummond, or whatever he was calling himself, was the only Golden Age pirate with a beard, we know where that comes from. The beard is so iconic that we’ve had pirates named Red Beard, Blue Beard, Yellow Beard, Purple Beard, Grey Beard, and even White Beard. One recent iteration of the Peter Pan story even (rather desperately, I think) has a pirate captain named “Black Moustache.”

The latest Peter Pan movie – an origin tale – features Blackbeard instead of Hook as the nemesis of the Boy Who never Grows Up.  Heady territory, since Pan and his crew, fictional characters who have outlived their copyright, have obtained mythic status. The real Blackbeard crafted his own legend with care, and it stood him in good stead.  I believe he’d be deeply satisfied to know that his fearsome legend lives on.

Ad – content continues below

Den of Geek and Starz are throwing a Black Sails Party at NYCC with free rum on October 9th and 10th. Click here for details on how you can attend!