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10 Misconceptions About Pirates

Don't miss an episode—subscribe here! (This transcript comes courtesy of Nerdfighteria Wiki.)

Hi I'm Elliott and this is mental_floss video. Today I'm gonna talk about some misconceptions about pirates and destroy all of your dreams.

1. PIRATES STARTED BEING A PROBLEM IN THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES.

This is a common misconception because there were thousands of problematic pirates between around 1650 and 1720 CE, but pirates have been around for a lot longer than that. In fact, there's evidence that pirates were a huge problem in the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea during the 14th century BCE. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all had to be wary of pirates coming into their ports and disrupting their trade. You know, how pirates do.

2. PIRATES SAID THINGS LIKE "ARRR." 

Actually, experts believe that 17th century pirates talked just like any other English sailor would, so they probably did not have their own accents and slang words. It was the 1950 Disney movie Treasure Island that invented and popularized pirate speak with "arrrr"s and expressions like "shiver me timbers."

3. PIRATES BURIED TREASURE. 

If you think about it, why would they do this? Still, the idea that pirates bury their treasure persevered thanks to works of fiction. Most pirates would not dare to do this. One pirate who did was William Kidd who lived during the 17th century. Authorities found some of his treasure buried on Long Island, New York, which was then used as evidence to convict Kidd. People still look for more of Kidd's buried treasure to this day, but the majority of pirates held onto their riches. 'Cause, like, why wouldn't you?

4. PIRATES WERE OLD-FASHIONED AND BARBARIC. 

Actually many pirate crews were pretty progressive for their time. For instance, some experts claim that pirates had some of the original homosexual marriages, known as matelotages. According to the book Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, this was "linking a buccaneer and another male—most often a youth—in a relationship with clearly homosexual characteristics." Sometimes this would extend to sharing each other's property and being your partner's sole heir. Other common prejudices at the time were ignored too, like many pirate crews included freed and runaway slaves. It's estimated that 60 percent of Blackbeard's crew was black. Women were rarely welcomed by pirates, though.

5. PIRATES WERE OLD MEN. 

Actually, the majority of pirates were probably in their 20s, and this is because many people turned to piracy after trying their luck as merchants or sailors, which were jobs for young men. It also probably helped that men in their 20s were less likely to have attachments at home, so they were more willing to become pirates. This checks out—one study estimates that only 4 percent of pirates between 1716 and 1726 were married.

6. PIRATE SHIPS WERE HUGE.

Well-known pirates like Blackbeard got their reputations because they had these large, intimidating ships, so it really depended on the pirate, but many ships were fairly small and there were advantages to that. Smaller ships were faster and it was easier for them to approach shallow waters to do all their pirating business.

7. A LOT OF PIRATES HAD MISSING EYES AND WORE EYE PATCHES.

Alright, so the evidence for pirates wearing eye patches is sketchy at best, but if they did it probably wasn't because they were missing an eye. When you go from a bright area to a completely dark one, it might take your eyes almost half an hour to completely adjust, so pirates might have chosen to keep one of their eyes adjusted to the dark at all times. That way, when they went from the bright decks of the ship to the dark below areas, they'd be able to use the eye that was normally covered by the patch to see. I would call this a stupid idea, but I'm not a pirate.

8. PIRATE SHIPS WERE CHAOTIC.

Actually, so many pirates were successful because they laid down the law and kept their ships in order. Pirate codes were not uncommon: some banned the crew from gambling and smoking and some had limitations on drinking, so it was no fun, guys. No fun to be a pirate.

9. PIRATES HAD PEOPLE "WALK THE PLANK."

First of all, it wasn't the decision of one person, the captain for instance. Many crews were actually democratic and would vote on the fate of a traitor. And having prisoners walk the plank was rare, but that doesn't mean they were nice guys necessarily. If they had a prisoner they needed information out of, torturing the person wasn't out of the question.

10. PIRATES NO LONGER EXIST.

Oh no, they do. Modern pirates have been known to hijack ships and hold them for ransom. According to The Economist, an average ship provides a crew of pirates with $2.7 million, meaning they might get $75,000 each. And piracy is a huge problem because they travel around and commit crimes in many countries, meaning it often needs to be dealt with on an international level.

Thank you for watching Misconceptions on mental_floss video. If you guys have a topic for an upcoming Misconceptions video that you'd like to see, leave it in the comments and we'll check it out and maybe we'll do it, it'll be a lot of fun. Bye!

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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