In the light of day, a ghost story is easily mocked as a childish fable, but on a pitch-black night beneath a canopy of ancient oak and loblolly pine stirred to life by a sea breeze, one’s perspective is altered considerably. Hiking through the inky woods of Springer’s Point at the southern end of Ocracoke island, my skin prickled and my legs ached to flee.
Unseemly cowardice, perhaps, but it was not just any ghost I sought. Ocracoke island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was once the stomping ground of Blackbeard the pirate.
In September of 1718, the very soil on which I now made my church-mouse footsteps was witness to the largest known piratical gathering in North American history: Dozens upon dozens of social rogues, Blackbeard at their head, convened to celebrate rum and freedom, the elixirs of life. But life being a matter of yin and yang, two months later the tides turned and, in the waters off this same shore in a ferocious battle with the English navy, Blackbeard’s head was lopped off. Blackbeard, some say, still wanders Ocracoke.
Blackbeard had become a matter of personal obsession. I had been to Ocracoke several years before, researching a book on small coastal communities. During that stay I had fallen under the spell of the pirate whose spirit wafts, literally and figuratively, from the tiny island’s every pore. Intrigued, I returned, hoping to get a better feel for the man whose actual and purported exploits during his surprisingly short piratical career — 1716 to 1718 — would make tabloid news look bland. Blackbeard had 14 wives (this is true, though only one marriage was legal). He placed slow-burning cannon wicks in his hair and beard before battles (true) so that he resembled the devil. He removed and boiled an adversary’s lips and then made the man eat them (debatable, but innovative). Historians aren’t even certain of his real name (true). Perhaps most evocative for modern truth seekers is this: Many believe a portion of his loot is buried somewhere on Ocracoke, a low-lying, largely untouched slice of barrier island with nearly 16 miles of shoreline edged with wax myrtle, yaupon and powdery beaches.
To get the lay of the land where treasure may or may not be buried, on my first day back on Ocracoke I hiked through Springer’s Point, not yet in the dark but in the happy light of day with local historian Philip Howard, whose own great-great-great-great-great grandfather William Howard may have served as Blackbeard’s quartermaster. Howard related an interesting tale: One evening at dusk a local fisherman was walking through the Springer’s Point woods when he spied a figure sitting on an old cistern: a large man dressed in a black waistcoat and sporting a thick, gray beard. The islander hailed the man, who rose wordlessly and walked toward him. Uneasy, the islander began to trot away. When the tall man continued to follow, the islander ran. Reaching his skiff, the fisherman was so unnerved he forgot the outboard entirely. Poling frantically seaward, he risked a final glance back.
“The figure was standing in knee-deep water, and then he just dissolved like smoke,” Howard said. He grinned. “You should come back here at night and look for Blackbeard wandering the beach.”
Fine, but searching for Blackbeard’s spirit was a lot less frightening in daylight. I biked in bright sunshine around the island, home to some 800 permanent residents. I surmised that Blackbeard may still amble about Ocracoke simply because he appreciates a free-spirited place. In the eponymous town, tucked at the southern end of the island, I cycled past coffee shops, trendy art galleries and a sign on the side of Albert Styron’s Store advising customers to “Get Your ASS in Here.” O’cockers, as the locals are known, are straight shooters of a practical mind. And they certainly appreciate Blackbeard, too.
The pirate is a cottage industry on the island. Teach’s Hole is a Blackbeard exhibit (many believe Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach) and a pirate specialty shop. There’s Blackbeard’s Lodge (self-explanatory), the Pirate’s Chest (taffy, jewelry, pirate souvenirs) and Teach’s Treasure (a house for rent). But my favorite is a local song dubbed the “Blackbeard Boogie” with the lyrics: He’s our hero now, and he’d be proud to see, all the money that we scam off of his legacy.
“This may be the most piratical place on earth,” drawled Rob Temple. “We’d be fools if we didn’t get in on it.”
Easygoing and honest, Temple spends summers ferrying visitors out to Teach’s Hole (where it is believed Blackbeard lost his head) in his schooner, Windfall. There the young ones receive “pirate loot,” and their elders cast a wary eye toward the green waters of Pamlico Sound for a glimpse of a backstroking Blackbeard. Temple, like historian Howard, has become something of a self-schooled expert on Blackbeard.
“I’ve read all the books — the good ones and the bull crap,” he said, explaining his qualifications. “There were enough facts about Blackbeard to make for a good story. And since nobody knew much about him, there was also plenty of room to make things up.”
Temple had penned an ode to Blackbeard, a lovely poem summing up the pirate’s life. I listened as he recited it. Finished, he smiled easily. “I love Ocracoke. The island is this tiny little pinpoint extremely central to pirate history. It’s great stuff.”
I continued my own research, putting off my night walk by visiting the Teach’s Hole Blackbeard exhibit, a tidy collection of history and artifacts run by George and Mickey Roberson. As George gave me a tour, we stood before a life-sized mannequin of Blackbeard, armed with a cutlass and a host of pistols and daggers. The statue’s blue-eyed glare was unnerving.
“He is kind of scary,” allowed George. “We turned him a little sideways so he wasn’t staring at the kids.”
“Were his eyes really that blue?” I asked.
“Well, no one really knows,” smiled George. “But he had 14 wives, so all the women in the store said he must have had something, and maybe it was his eyes.”
Or his stamina. A man who could accommodate 14 women was not to be trifled with. This thought and a dozen more gruesome permutations played in my mind on the night I finally corralled my nerve and returned to Springer’s Point to confront the specter of Blackbeard. The black woods swallowed me in an improbable darkness; as I stumbled over tree roots, Howard’s tale whispered in my ear. Already my nerve had sprung free; it ran off somewhere up ahead of me. I had given up any hope of finding treasure; it’s hard to search for something when one is moving at a half-trot. Was I frightened? You bet your sweet willies I was. The ancient oaks breathed piratical menace, and I wondered how, in this cursed blackness, the fisherman had managed to spy a dark-cloaked specter.
I may or may not have been running when I finally broke free of the woods and stepped out onto the beach. I was holding my breath — perhaps even the fearless Blackbeard did the same as the infamous blade clove the air — but there was no one on the shore but me.
I stood for a long time. The salt breeze touched my face. Behind me in the woods I could imagine the raucous clamor of pirates imbibing — Blackbeard and his fellows lived life on their terms. The waters of Pamlico Sound rested black and still, keeping their secrets.