Site of Blackbeard's Death

August 10, 2012 — Growing up in the Mid-Atlantic, I would often find myself in nearby North Carolina for various reasons. My impression was always that it was a nice, if innocuous, place. It took me a long time to learn that North Carolina is much more exotic than just one-half of a pair of bookend states, for a few reasons. The relevant one here? Blackbeard was offed there.

That’s right. If North Carolina hadn’t of been first in flight, its license plates would bear that infamous pirate’s feral mug with a red circle and slash over it.

Known by his mom as Edward Teach, British-born Blackbeard had a two-year reign of salty-wet terror in the early 18th century that stretched the length of the southeast coast of what was not yet the United States, as well as throughout the Caribbean. His flag bore a demon skeleton spearing a bleeding heart while lifting a glass in toast to the devil (or an hourglass in warning to his victims), and it flew at the masts of four vessels crewed by some 400 pirates under his leadership. He captured at least 45 vessels in his short career and at one point blockaded the entire city of Charleston, South Carolina.

The best part about a pirate is how they look, of course, and Blackbeard wore villainy like it was custom-tailored. He was absolutely demonic with a long, braided black beard laced with lit cannon fuses, a blood-red coat under a metal armor of pistols and knives, and brandishing a pair of swords like they were the eating utensils of a starving man.

The North Carolina coast was a regular hunting and hiding grounds for him. I’ve already written about seeing a house where he’s supposed to have lived, in the town of Beaufort, and every once in a while the news throws us progress updates on the status of the dredging up of one of his pirate ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, just off the coast of that same town.

And now I can report to you that I’ve been to the site where they fed his flesh to fish.

Piracy isn’t exactly an occupation with a great retirement plan, and Blackbeard met his end on November 22, 1718, after a fierce battle with some Royal Navy men who had been sent down by the British governor of Virginia, Alexander Spottswood, to do just that. Led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, they tracked Blackbeard down in a pair of ships to a channel that’s come to be called Teach’s Hole, one of his favorite places to weigh anchor. It’s adjacent to Pamlico Sound, just off Ocracoke Island, where he like to go ashore to drink his rum, bury his treasure, and shiver his timbers. I’m obviously not researching very deeply here.

Blackbeard was aboard his ship, the Adventure, at the time he was intercepted by the hunting party. Accounts differ about the details of the battle out in the sound, but at some point it moved from cannon- and insult-firing to hand-to-hand combat aboard one of the Royal Navy ships. Blackbeard really didn’t want to pay his dues in pirate hell that day, because it took 20 sword cuts, five musket-ball wounds, and one beheading to take the monster down.

The story goes that they threw his headless body into the drink, where it swam around the boat multiple times before finally sinking into the brine. The seamen held onto his head, as they wanted the bounty, and tied it to the front of one of their ships and returned to Virginia. There, in Hampton River, Blackbeard's head was hung from a pole in an area now known as Blackbeard's Point.

There’s a legend that his skull was stolen and eventually silver-plated as a drinking chalice, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, actually has a silver plated skull chalice in its collection that most people point to as Blackbeard’s. Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t often display the piece itself (usually lending it out to other museums) and doesn’t give any official credence to the Blackbeard rumor. They wouldn’t even answer my emails when I looked into it for The New England Grimpendium.

The island of Ocracoke isn’t as apathetic about its morbid Blackbeard connection, although they don’t exactly revel in it, either.

The island is located in the Outer Banks, and is both a thin and thinly populated place. Less than 1,000 people live on this one-town strip of land, and it’s only accessible by boat or plane. There’s a free auto ferry that goes to it every half hour or so from Hatteras, though, which was really easy to use.

The ferry drops you off at the northern end of the island, where you can drive the 12 miles passed its famous, uncrowded beaches until you get to the bulge of land at the opposite end that is the small town of Ocracoke. The only official acknowledgement that I saw that one of history’s great villains went down there was a historical sign downtown. However, some of the local businesses have picked up the slack. Like Teach’s Hole.

This Teach’s Hole is a small, pirate-themed gift shop that takes up part of the first floor of a two-story red building. However, for a fee, you can walk through its Blackbeard Exhibit, a small section of the building with various paintings of Blackbeard, a life-sized model of the man himself, items dredged from the waters thereabouts, and reproductions of his ship and various weapons from the period. It’s a little cheesy, but if like me you’re there for Blackbeard, that’s where you’ll find his black heart the most prominent.

After we visited Teach’s Hole, I wanted to get as close to the real Teach’s Hole as we could without getting wet. He was killed and dumped out in Pamlico Sound somewhere, but you can see the general area where his blood mixed with seawater from the 120-acre Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. It’s adjacent to the residential part of the small town, although by residential I just mean where all the houses that get rented out to tourists through VRBO are.

There’s a public trail to Springer’s Point right there in the neighborhood, but the trailhead is easy to miss. It’s off Loop Road, and there’s a small sign, but it looks like it just goes to the back yard of one of the properties. There’s no parking anywhere near it, so you’ll have to make arrangements. The path isn’t too long and wends through a pleasant forest, past a lonely tombstone for a local philanthropist named Sam Jones (who’s buried with his horse), and ends at a beach overlooking the channel and sound. The only signs I saw there talked about birds and crabs. Nothing about the death of Blackbeard.

I assume there must be a thousand tales about Blackbeard’s headless ghost wandering the area, though. And, with the nature sanctuary preserving what it must’ve been like when Blackbeard black-booted it across the island, and his headless skeleton somewhere there offshore, it makes me want to hit up VRBO for an overnight stay.