Sometimes it’s not the truth, but the story which makes for a historical attraction. A case-in-point: The Pirate House in Charleston, South Carolina.
People have strolled the cobblestones of the French Quarter and down Church Street, past this bermuda stone dwelling since 1704, but when it took on the disinction of the Pirate House is lost to time. Legend has it that the Pirate House was a boarding house, gambling den and place for local merchants to trade in contraband goods, provided by pirates during the colonial era. South Carolina was under the English Navigation law, which placed high taxes on all purchases imported by ship into the colonies. These tariffs made purchasing not only luxury items, but day-to-day items cost-prohibitive. In addition to price, selection was paltry, and smuggling provided a way to counteract the effects of the law on both. According to the story, the Pirate House was one of the spots where this trade went on. Further stories have it that a secret tunnel led into the stone archways in the basement of the house, but that during work on Charleston’s sewage system, this tunnel and others which provided access to trade during the days of smuggling were filled in. In the basement of the Dock Street Theatre, a couple blocks away, it’s still possible to see what is alleged to be the access to one of these tunnels.
Sandwiched between the Pirate House and the St. Phillips Church Cemetery, is a narrow passageway which takes you into Pirates Courtyard, a leafy space dominated on one side by a restored fountain. Which is nice, don’t get me wrong, but leaves you, like the house, scratching your head and wondering just what the connection with pirates actually is. It’s said that like the house itself, the courtyard was used for trading in smuggled goods. And it’s also intimidated that the house was known for “entertaining” pirates, or at least putting them up for the evening. Of course the most famous pirate rumored to have frequented the place is Blackbeard.
It’s hard to avoid references to Blackbeard in Charleston, and rightly so. Blackbeard’s most audacious act took place here, when he blockaded the harbor with his fleet and held the entire town hostage for a ransom of, oddly enough, medicine.
With a handful of ships under his command, Blackbeard had styled himself Commodore, and in May of 1718 he anchored off Charles Town bar, and proceeded to stop and plunder every ship which tried to sail past. Over the next week they succeeded in accosting nine vessels, and took a plethora of well-heeled prisoners, who they kept as hostages. Blackbeard’s orders were brief, fill a list of medications or all the prisoners would have their heads lobbed off and sent to the governor of South Carolina, and the ships put to the torch. Blackbeard sent a fellow by the name of Mr. Marks, accompanied by two of his crew to retrieve the small trunk of medicine. It’s thought that the medicine Blackbeard was wanting was for treatment of the clap, which might explain the Commodore’s urgency.
After three days there was no sign of Mr. Marks or the two pirates, and Blackbeard was fuming, threatening to put the entire town to the torch. A messenger arrived with word that Marks and the pirates had been capsized after leaving the ship, and had to walk to Charleston. Blackbeard extended his deadline, but to show he meant business, sailed his fleet into the harbor itself. Mr. Marks finally made it back with the medicine, explaining his further delay had been caused by an inability to find his pirate escorts, who had spent their time in Charleston drunk.
At that Blackbeard released the ships and hostages, though taking anything of value, including all the clothes of several persons, who had to come back to Charleston in the buff.
So it’s easy to believe that after this, Blackbeard would have been unlikely to have returned to Charleston. And it’s pretty much out of the question that Blackbeard’s treasure might be buried in the basement of the Pirate House, or in the passage, which is another rumor attached to the dwelling.
In fact, there is scant evidence that Blackbeard every actually walked the streets of Charles Town, or Charleston as it later became. His entire pirate career lasted less than five years, and most of that was likely spent at sea or in New Providence, in the West Indies.
Blackbeard’s end happened in North Carolina, and his head taken to Virginia along with what remained of his crew. But the legend persists that his skull, or at least the top part of his skull came back to Charleston, where it was fashioned into a drinking cup.
So the odds are against Commodore Teach every having walked across the threshold of the Pirate House. That the place might have been frequented by other, lesser known rogues and scoundrels is entire possible, but to insist on historical accuracy is beside the point. Who knows how many people over the past three hundred years have felt the rush of the proximity to piracy when they stood in front of the old house, with the 75 pound anchor mounted on the outside wall. The anchor itself fell victim to piracy a few years back. It was eventually replaced, and the bottom floor is now available for rent as a bed and breakfast.
Which is pretty nice option when visiting Charleston. In a great location downtown – and Charleston is a great city for walking – it’s easy to believe that you’re sleeping in the same room which once housed pirates and their plunder. And sometimes when it comes to history, believing it’s true is just about as good as being true.