Mary Read was born in England in 1685, back when The United States of America was still just a cluster of colonies. Mary’s mother was a poor woman who, by the time she got pregnant with Mary, already had one son from her previous marriage to a sailor who had abandoned her and their newborn child to sail the seas. Alone with her infant son, Mary’s mother faced intense financial troubles- it was not easy to find work as a single woman in late 17th-century England. Women were barred from high-paying professions like law and medicine, and most had to make what little money they could working as domestic servants like maids, bakers, beer brewers, and cloth spinners. During this difficult time, Mary’s mother had an affair with a new man and became pregnant with Mary out of wedlock. Having a child outside of marriage was considered perfectly shameful at this time, so Mary’s mother made the decision to move to the countryside and hide her pregnancy from the harsh judgement of English society. While she was hiding away and keeping the secret of her unborn child, her young son fell ill and died.
Here’s where it gets interesting: When Mary Read was finally born, her mother made the decision to raise her in disguise, pretending Mary was actually the son that had died. Since her birth in the English countryside, Mary was dressed in boy’s clothes and called by a boy’s name- essentially replacing her mother’s dead son. This way, everyone would believe the child was born through a legitimate marriage, and the sailor (Mary's mother's deserter husband and the father of her dead son) would still be financially responsible for the child. You see, Mary Read’s grandmother was a woman of substantial means, and once Mary's mother managed to convince the rich woman that young Mary was actually her male grandson, she agreed to contribute a weekly allowance of one crown for the child’s “maintenance” (Johnson, 119).
Raising her daughter as a boy had other advantages for Mary's mother. Mary, dressed as a boy, could work in fields that would have been off-limits to her if she presented herself as a woman. From a young age, Mary worked as a footboy for a wealthy neighbor, a crew hand on a ship and, later, a soldier in the British military, most likely serving during the Nine Years' War or the War of Spanish Succession (while in men’s military garb, of course). Thus, Mary's mother was finally able to sustain a reasonable lifestyle with money from her working “son” and his/her paternal grandmother, who provided monetary support to a child she believed to be of her own flesh and blood.
Mary Read was a spirited woman with a strong mind and a courageous heart. She proved her strength during her time in the military, fighting alongside England’s strongest men and, eventually, falling in love with one- a Flemish man whom she eventually married. Mary and her husband lived happily for a few years, running an inn they owned together in Holland. Of course, things couldn’t be this easy and carefree for Mary Read- she was destined to live a wilder, more adventurous life. When her husband died unexpectedly just a few years into their marriage, Mary donned her men’s clothing once more and resumed her military service, this time fighting for Holland. However, there wasn’t much work for her to do as, at the time (early in the 18th century), there was no war to fight. Thus, Mary packed up and headed out: running away on a ship to the West Indies where she would earn herself a reputation as one of the most fearsome pirates of her time.