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M ELEY 7th October 2017 08:49 AM

Pirate graves in NC?
Here's a little controversial mystery nearly in my backyard. Check out these old grave stones, circa 1750, with carved skull and bones near Salisbury, NC.


And the story/mystery behind them...

First off, a few facts. Yes, many early grave markers had skull/cross bones, also hour glass, angels, etc. Indeed, it was the pirates who 'stole' these images for their Jolly Roger flag to tell others that to resist them spelled death. The problem with this explanation are two-fold.

First off, the 'lateness' of the graves. Skull/bones seemed to fall out of favor in the 17th. I've seen early examples in Salem, Mass and Boston Common. Also, none of the other old graves at the church are so marked.

Secondly, why no names? If they were stillborn or infants, religious communities always named the child in order for the soul to pass peacefully. Even visitors or travelers passing through the area who died would have been properly identified.

Masons often used skulls and crossbones in their fraternal order. However, there are none of the more important and identifiable symbols of masonry (stylus, ruler, mortar/pestal). Also, again, why no names? Surely, they would have listed the honored dead?

Could these graves be for executed criminals? Men who were buried but not given the honor of their listing? I could accept this explanation, although I'd be surprised that they would be buried with the church congregation unless they had some connection with the church.

To Gary Freeze, the professor at Catawba College, I say "Bah, Humbug!" The Golden Age of Piracy did end in 1717, which only meant that the period where there were over 4,000 pirates in the Indies (larger than any navy at the time) was coming to an end. Piracy was and still is alive and well and I could list numerous accounts if requested.

Also, to Freeze's argument,"Where is the ocean?" In answer, it is a few hundred miles east, with the Cape Fear river basin running from the sound directly to the region being discussed. Mr. Freeze doesn't realize that pirates that 'gave up the life' often ran far. Robert Kennedy, Bartholomew Roberts' Quartermaster, first hid in the Highlands before settling in London under an assumed name. Pirates often went inland on business, so again not a good argument.

To follow up on poo-pooing piracy so quickly, you do supposedly have an old church record, something that would not be seeking attention or sensationalism, but quite the opposite. Records of burials/deaths were usually surprisingly accurate. North Carolina has a long pirate history even apart from good ole' Blackbeard. The Lost Colony of Roanoak was directed by 2 Elizabethan sea dogs (Raleigh/Hernandez), Teach owned property in Bath, Bonnett sailed and was captured off our coast, our coast was attacked by Span pirates in 1740's, we had privateers during the Amer Revolution and War of 1812 (Otway Burns from NC was the most successful privateer of the era, later a senator), and blockade runners during the CW. For Freeze not to address all of these connections leaves room for doubt...

To the individual who said 'it is not a Jolly Roger' if the cross bones aren't behind the skull I call BS. First off, every pirate flag differed to their taste. Do a google search and you'll see. Secondly, these possibly executed men didn't carve their own stones!

So, my tirade finished, I mostly suspect that they were the graves of executed murderers. Pirates? There is still a slim possibility of such, but more proof would need to be forthcoming.

So what do you think?

P.S. Check out my novels 'Pirate Staits: Oath of Blood" and "Rise of the Snake King", my novels (pen M.H.Healy) bring up a lot of the above local exciting pirate history.

David 7th October 2017 08:01 PM

3 Attachment(s)
A mystery indeed, especially with the lack of names.
I am not convinced of pirate graves however and the skull and bones found there way onto tombstones well into the 18th century. Here are 3 examples dated 1720, 1774 and 1783. I found these rather quickly in my search and could probably turn up quite a few more if i put the effort in.

M ELEY 7th October 2017 11:53 PM

Hello David and nice pics. I stand corrected on that one! Still, no names or dates. I've been to the site long ago and can attest that they haven't simply 'worn off'. A mystery and interesting story, anyway... ;)

M ELEY 8th October 2017 01:06 AM

There were a preponderance of Scots living in NC to the point that we have an entire region called the Highlands. During the Amer Revolution, Scot marched against Scot as sides divided. Noted is that many Scots used the skull and bones on their grave markers, just odd to see no names.

Pukka Bundook 8th October 2017 01:26 PM

Any chance of these unknowns being plague victims or some such?

Just a thought,...based on ignorance!
I have the notion that murderers were buried in unmarked graves, and that those who committed suicide were buried on unconsecrated ground...


CutlassCollector 8th October 2017 06:42 PM

Spooky and interesting post Mark.

Hey, I believe they are pirate graves for sure. Sailors home from the sea.

M ELEY 9th October 2017 02:36 AM

Thanks for the vote, CC! Of course, we are only guessing. NC was considered a maritime colony and has a lot of interesting and strange history, especially in the area mentioned (Salisbury,NC). Check out this other well known local mystery. I include it to just to show that there are 'stranger things under the sun'.

Richard, plague was one of the theories presented in the search for information on these graves, but why punish the dead with no names? If it were a mass grave, why in the middle of a well preserved church cemetery? I guess they might have been travelers/strangers with no identification- :shrug:

You bring up a good point. Many murderers were indeed buried in unmarked graves, but usually unconsecrated ground so as not to 'pollute' the other graves. Unconsecrated ground also served as a punishment and a message, these villains were not in heaven...or so the belief goes.

Of course, pirate burials were also on unconsecrated ground when maritime law was in place. The pirate was executed at the 'high water mark' when the tide was out, symbolizing that the criminals were punished by the laws of the sea and not the land courts. Their bodies were left for three ebb tides to wash over their bodies, further signifying that their execution was under naval regulations. They were then buried at the waterline or in some other unconsecrated area away from any churchyard.

If we believe the rumors, the story says they had joined the community and hid their past. When discovered, they were punished accordingly by a court far from the ocean and given (at least) burial in the cemetery.

Are there any other reasons these graves might not be labeled if not murderers or pirates? Could they be house slaves? Symbolic markers for some past event??

Pukka Bundook 9th October 2017 03:13 AM

Good points, M.
Still mulling this over.

Have you a spade? (!)
If you Do, I can think of one method to narrow this down a bit. :-)
(18" tall would mean likely not a pirate....)

I can think of a good few English engravings, were we see deaths head or the grim reaper, but how this ties in I see not.

Another loose thought, is how certain British regiments used the skull & crossbones, but can't see how this would tie in.

To me, the plague and "unknown" still seems a good bet.

M ELEY 10th October 2017 11:58 PM

Oh wow, Richard! What a great idea about the spade!! :D :eek: :rolleyes:

Good points on regimental skull/bones for certain units, but I feel these markings aren't regimental for the same reason they lack names. There would be listings. The answer to this was is just going to have to remain...uh hum...buried for a while. Anyway, it was a good segue for Halloween!

Pukka Bundook 11th October 2017 02:17 AM

Now M, If you went digging on Halloween, probably no-one would pay any attention. :-)

Jim McDougall 26th October 2017 03:14 AM

Cap'n Mark,
A perfect topic in these days before Halloween!

I recall studying these gravestone motif's years ago as I was researching many markings and motif on 17th and 18th century swords, mostly hangers and such. The appearance of cherubs and figures of heads (not necessarily death heads ) occur on various hilts, as well as 'the Green Man'. The famed 'Mortuary' swords supposed to represent the death head of Charles I during the Civil Wars in England were actually around before his death, so that 'lore' not really accurate.

The skull and crossbones as a symbol of death were around long before pirates, and were indeed sometimes placed in or around cemeteries .
With the Masonic connection it does not seem a widely present 'brotherhood' in Europe until the 18th century, but of course there were some connected groups before then (they hardly appeared suddenly).
The skull and crossbones represent the 'memento mori' (remember that you too shall die) often used in Masonic ritual and symbolism.

I have understood that from a maritime theme, in ships logs, a sailor deceased often had the skull and crossbones next to his name. As many 'pirates' had come from these naval ranks and become 'outlaw', they saw themselves as 'dead' to their former world, and now 'on account'.

As Mark has said, the deaths head (skull) and crossbones, the fabled 'Jolly Roger" was hardly the only pattern or configuration used on the flags flown by pirates. Also present were the hourglass, the scythe or skeletons with them, hearts and other unusual symbols.

Getting to the gravestones, the deaths head with wings symbolized the spirit flying to the next world or to that effect. These kinds of rather morbid symbols gave way to cherubs and angels and other lighter figures with Biblical associations of classical nature in just prior to mid 18th c. .
However, there were always those very 'old school' and so many headstones often still carried the old symbols.

As Mark noted, pirates were hardly required to stay close to the ocean, and often strayed far inland, and many of their vessels were smaller and shallow draft which could navigate many Eastern rivers.
The presumption of these skull and crossbones on headstones or in general as distinctly announcing the presence of a pirate is hardly unusual. It has become so firmly emblazoned in folklore it is an almost expected reaction.
Also, would not a pirate who had not committed a capital act, and who was executed, in effect have paid his debt to society, and not necessarily be denied redemption in the afterlife? hence the words, God have mercy on his soul.

As far as I have known, criminals, suicides and such were indeed often buried in unmarked graves, but in locations outside established cemetery parameters or even further out in so called 'Potters Fields'. There were other divisions in burial compatibility, such as the dead of opposing forces in battles etc. or as noted slaves or Native American groups not mingled with others in set cemeteries.

As far as unnamed headstones, it would seem unlikely that anyone of the mentioned groups would be placed among other locals in a cemetery, and unusual even to have a headstone at all. It is possible, as noted, that family of a pirate might retrieve the body and bury it not to be found out, but that seems tenuous at best.

I don't think plague victims would have unmarked stones, as many have their names and died of 'whatever malady' marked without abandon.
With the medical notions of the times I think that burial would suffice as far as keeping contagion in check, and as victims they had no transgression to place them otherwise.

M ELEY 27th October 2017 09:33 AM

Excellent and thorough dissertation, Jim! I had forgotten to bring in the connection with the death face of King Charles I. You were extremely exacting on this one and also came full circle to this local mystery. I know it doesn't matter much, but mysteries of this sort always fascinate me and as you pointed out, it was a fitting subject for Halloween! What did you think of that other interesting (but separate) strange tidbit about Marshal Ney?

Jim McDougall 28th October 2017 12:26 AM

Thank you Mark for always recognizing my entries so kindly. You and I have always been intrigued by these kinds of mysteries, the pirates themselves being one of the most profound. Your interest and command of so many such mysteries in these fields is shown in your amazing writing......and I didn't realize you had done two more in the series!!!! Bravo!

My interest in the macabre is almost obsessive, and goes all year, not just Halloween!!! :)
In a way, I sort of regret dispelling a lot of these long held chestnuts about pirates and their lore.....but really, in many truth is even stranger than fiction.

I had never seen that about Marshal Ney, but it makes perfect sense that an execution might well have been 'staged'. He was so highly regarded on both sides of the conflict that it would not have been surprising.

Thank you again, and great topic and entries!!!

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