Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

It always comes down to medicine

Matthew Turner
Washington, United States


Pirate with scraggly beard and smoke trailing off of the sides of his head gesturing to loot to be brought onto a ship
Blackbeard the Pirate. Published as “Capt. Teach alias Black-Beard” in A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. to which is added, a genuine account of the voyages and plunders of the most notorious pyrates. Interspersed with several diverting tales, and pleasant songs. And adorned with the Heads of the most remarkable Villains, curiously engraven on Copper by Daniel Defoe and Charles Johnson. London: Oliver Payne, 1736, plate facing p. 86. John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Via Wikimedia.

For six days, the brigands held a knife to the city’s throat.

Outside a handful of settlements far to the northeast—which any of the city’s inhabitants would firmly tell you didn’t count—Charleston was the jewel of England’s possessions in the New World. The wealth that the port city generated had fattened the Crown’s coffers for a century. The abominable slave trade flowed in one direction, while back to Europe went rice and precious indigo that dyed the clothes of the nobility.

A series of forts lay around the harbor, meant to defend it from attack from the other major powers of the day. The Spanish Empire was not what it had once been, but it still looked on jealously from its outposts in St. Augustine. The French were always eager to burn and raid English possessions, and the native nations—Cherokee, Creek, Cusabo, and Catawba—were quickly growing tired of the ever-expanding colonists. The city’s garrison manned the walls every day, and ships of the King’s Navy routinely patrolled the coast on the watch for these powerful foes.

But never had anyone expected the city to be laid low by pirates.

It was almost embarrassing. Charleston had held for a century against disease and war and raiders and economic collapse, yet the single ship that floated in the city’s harbor had effortlessly smashed every defense the city had thrown up against it. Parts of the forts still burned and bodies from the half-dozen sunken warships still occasionally floated in with the tide. Every so often, one of the city’s few remaining cannons still dared to take a petulant shot at the pirate vessel.

But it was all useless. Blackbeard, an English pirate, had a death grip on the most important city for half a thousand miles, and he would never let go.

A week passed. Panic grew in the city with each passing day.

Where’s the army? the terrified citizens demanded.

Captain Trant, commander of His Majesty’s garrison, fled in the night on the third day, taking a wagon loaded with valuables on his way out.

Where’s the bloody Royal Navy?

The HMS Lizard, a small frigate based out of the West Indies, attempted to pull into the harbor the morning of the fifth day. Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge immediately reduced its hull to matchsticks and its crew to paste.

Where’s my money?

The Bank of Charleston practically collapsed under the weight of the frantic mob trying to rescue their savings from the brutal sack that was sure to come.

Where’s my food?

The farms just outside the city were meant for producing indigo. While the plantations further out had plenty of rice available, no farmer in his right mind would have dared to go within the doomed city’s walls. Every day, the food shortage in the city grew worse. By the morning of the seventh day, a loaf of bread was worth its weight in silver, and there was nary a stray cat or dog to be found.

The city council called an emergency meeting, but it was already clear to all of the participants that the pirates had left them with just one recourse: groveling. Very reluctantly, the governor emptied out the city’s treasury in preparation for the exorbitant bribe that Blackbeard would doubtlessly demand. Just to be sure, he also placed an emergency “tax” upon Charleston’s citizens to scavenge as much cash as they could. Better to pay a king’s ransom than to have the entire city burn!

At last, the money was gathered and secured in the governor’s mansion. The wealth was staggering—a small nation could have been purchased with such a sum. It was the sort of treasure that men had dreamed of for millennia. The governor could scarcely bring himself to look at it without weeping. Better to lose this than to lose my head, he tried to tell himself, but the words rang hollow.

The pirates landed later that day. They were a rough, evil-looking bunch, but most frightening of all was the massive man that led them. All the whispers about Blackbeard were true: he stood nearly a head above every other man, with coarse black hair that hung like a mane over his scowling features. The entire city fled in terror before him.

For a few hours, the pirates amused themselves at a local tavern, the crew drinking and gambling while Blackbeard sat and silently glowered at the terrified bartender.

Meanwhile, the governor paced back and forth in his mansion, waiting for the knock at his door. What if they don’t take it? He chewed at his fingernails in a nervous frenzy. Mother of God, help—what if it’s not enough? What if they want more?

At last, the knock came. He opened his front door and stared up in horror at the giant that loomed over him.

“C-come in,” the governor stammered. He took a step back and allowed the pirate to pass over the threshold. This creature is inside my house! And just a few feet away, hidden in the next room, lay the greatest treasure ever gathered in the colonies.

Blackbeard did not say a word. He touched the sword at his belt—still decorated with a few red specks that made the governor cringe in terror—and turned to face the ruler of England’s wealthiest North American possession.

“Th-the ransom,” the governor stuttered. He nervously raised his hand to point into the other room. “I—I h-have—”

“Two boxes,” the pirate lord rasped. His voice was dark and deep. “I want two boxes.”

“Two?” the governor blinked in surprise. “I don’t—”

“Mercury,” Blackbeard snarled. “I want two boxes of mercury.”

Mercury? The governor could not quite comprehend what was happening. But the money—“Why do you want mercury?” he asked.

To his utter astonishment, a faint blush grew across Blackbeard’s cheeks, and the pirate looked away. “Never you mind,” he said gruffly. “Give us the mercury and we’ll be gone, Governor.”

The rest of the afternoon passed as if it were a dream. The governor dumbly stood at the docks and watched as the pirates sailed back to their ship, two boxes of mercury sitting at Blackbeard’s feet. For a terrifying few minutes he thought the Queen Anne’s Revenge would stay in place and continue the crushing blockade—but then the ship raised its anchors, extended its sails, and soon was sailing out of sight over the horizon.

“What,” the governor gasped in disbelief, “What just happened?”

Not until the next week, when the relief fleet sailed into the harbor, loaded down with an army’s worth of soldiers and cannon, did he learn what the mercury was meant for.

In the end, all the wealth of Charleston was nothing compared to the treatment for syphilis.



MATHEW TURNER is a current transitional year intern at Madigan Army Medical Center. He is interested in the intersection of medicine and history.


Summer 2022  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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