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10 Gross, Bloody Truths You Never Knew About Pirates

With Black Sails swooping onto your TV this weekend, let’s get to know the really nasty side of pirates.


Photo: egeeksen | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

1. They Killed People With Real Heart
Courtesy of their unique line of work – pillaging, ship jacking, enslaving new crew members – taking people’s lives was often just a slow day at the office for pirates. In 1668, when Spanish soldiers cornered the notorious French pirate Francois l’Olonnais after he raided the Venezuelan coast, he plunged his cutlass into the chest of a soldier, tore out his heart, and chomped into it. L’Olonnais and his buccaneers escaped safely (and full of protein).

2. They Could Even Make Barnacles Lethal
You might assume that a pirate ship was a free-for-all of revelry, but buccaneers kept very strict codes. Code violations like stealing, abandonment, or striking a fellow crew member often had horrible consequences - you could be marooned on an island, tied to the ship’s mast and savagely whipped or, worst of all, keelhauled. This method of punishment was exceptionally gross - the offending buccaneer would be dragged beneath the ship’s hull from portside to starboard side until the sharp barnacles attached underneath had ripped the skin from his body. Taking exfoliation to the extreme, matey!

3. They Were Walking Disease Factories
Pirates were the swashbuckling embodiments of a CDC researcher’s wet dreams. At sea for weeks with virtually zero amenities, myriad diseases like scurvy, scabies, hepatitis, rickets, and even limb-amputating Gangrene (if battle wounds became infected) plagued crew members like a common cold in an air conditioned office. Our favorite disgusting ailment? Psittacosis. Pirates often contracted the infectious disease by inhaling dust from dried parrot shit. Left untreated, they often died from a pneumonia-induced coma.


Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

4. They Never Washed
During the early 18th century, in piracy’s Golden Age, indoor running water didn’t exist even on land, so imagine the grimy lot of a ship’s crew at sea. Pirates took aboard as much fresh water as possible when they went ashore, but it was strictly used for drinking and cooking, never bathing. So unless it rained, or a mate was fortunate enough to fall overboard, water rarely even touched their bodies. So, basically, pirates smelled worse than a homeless man’s ass.

5. They Chowed Down On Rodents
Like water, pirates gathered food ashore before they set sail back to sea. But since there were no refrigerators, freezers, or even canned goods, the food had to be consumed quickly before it rotted. After a few months, they would be lucky if there were stale crackers left, which would likely be covered with mold and weevil beetles (mmm, tastes like Triscuits!). When all else failed, buccaneers dined on rats. The ship’s hull was full of them, and rats were an excellent source of protein…that is, if you could catch the bastards.

6. They Underwent Raw Amputations
Common pirate lore has always featured swashbucklers with prosthetic peg legs, hooked hands, and the ever-popular eye patch. That's all far scarier when you consider this: Ship surgeons didn’t have anything to numb the pain during these operations. If a limb had to be removed, it was deftly sawed off. And if a pirate lost an eye, doctors simply stuffed the socket with tallow and oakum, and covered it with a patch. Sexy!


Photo: egeeksen | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

7. They Had To Watch Out For Ball-Splinters
Since most pirate battles took place at sea, buccaneers often met their demise at the hand of fired cannonballs, not cutlasses. Further, it was usually the razor-sharp wood splinters from explosions that shredded them to pieces, rather than the cannonballs themselves. Suddenly, drowning doesn’t seem so bad.

8. Their Deaths Were Horrendous
Eighteenth century pirates who were captured by authorities received swift “justice.” After brief tribunals, those found guilty of piracy were quickly sent to the gallows, where they were often beheaded by sword or hanged. Some more prominent pirates, after being hanged, were tarred, bound in chains, hung inside a cage, and left to rot before the public. Most horrific of all was the process of being hung, drawn, and quartered, which saw the pirate hung till half-dead, then cut down and disemboweled before his body was torn into four pieces. You know, just to be sure.

9. They Didn’t Make Victims Walk The Plank – The Reality Was Far Worse
Some pirates were somewhat civilized, but others were psychopaths. Edward Low in particular was notorious for his brutality, once cutting off a victim’s lips, broiling them, and forcing the blood-soaked unfortunate to eat them. For good measure, he then murdered the man’s entire crew.

10. They Were Just Plain Shitty
It was common for pirates new to the Caribbean to get what was known as “The Flux.” The mate’s immune system wasn’t accustomed to the new germs found in the area, which would cause severe diarrhea with an abnormal bloody discharge from their bowels. Reminder: There was no water to wash their arrrr-ses with. 

Check out the first episode here.


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