With enough imagination, you can see the Bath that Blackbeard saw when he sailed into North Carolina’s first town 292 years ago.
It’s sailing around the corner out there, way out there, beyond the pier, beyond the point, beyond the mouth of the river, beyond view for people who don’t believe.
It’s a pirate ship — a sloop, to be accurate — and it’s carving up the creek. It has eight cannons, five swivel guns, a large mainsail, a staysail, two jibs, a square topsail, and behind the wheel, it has one commander. Blackbeard.
The most celebrated pirate of all time steers his sloop right around that corner, right toward Bath, right toward that pier, right toward Jimmy Taylor’s house, and right inside Jimmy Taylor’s mind.
“If you look far enough and long enough,” Taylor says from his waterfront living room, “you’ll see it.”
It takes far more than good eyes to see this ship. It takes imagination, something Taylor has a bounty of. (Story continues below video.)
As North Carolina’s oldest town, Bath lays claim to a long, rich, and colorful history. See how Bath celebrated its 300th birthday and learn more about this pirates’ playground in a segment from the television program “Our State.” Produced by UNC-TV and Our State magazine with generous support from BB&T. First produced 2006.
Taylor is a likeable, if curious, man, tall and skinny and a little jumpy, and he scratches his knee feverishly when he gets excited. He may be 66 years old and a grandfather, but he’s still boyish: For fun, he searches for buried treasure, collects rocks, and builds model boats. And right now, sitting on his couch, looking out his back window at the water, he’s drifted completely out of a conversation and into a fantastic daydream about pirates.
“It’s not what you see,” Taylor says. “It’s what you don’t see.”
Taylor lives at the front edge of the town of Bath, the first town in North Carolina, the first port in North Carolina, and the last place people around the world might think of when they think of Blackbeard. Taylor’s home is situated at the farthest point out on the peninsula, where the creek first meets the town, where waves hit the first bulkheads and bounce back out to sea.
It’s hard not to wonder, as the water comes in and goes out, whether any of the ripples that lap against Taylor’s land once licked the bottom of a real pirate ship. Water never stays still. There is no piece of water truly occupied; there are only shifting particles. But an overall body of water maintains its appearance, year after year. So, while the land around Bath takes on different shapes and is built up and torn down through time, the water looks just about like it always has. The view from the point behind Taylor’s house is the same as it would have been for anybody standing there some 300 years ago, when Blackbeard really did sail around that corner.
So it’s easy to insert whatever you want into this water scene, easy to imagine anything, looking out there. It’s easy to believe that if you walk out to the end of Taylor’s lawn and reach down, cup both of your hands and splash your face, Blackbeard once did the exact same thing with the exact same drops of water.
Believe it. Why not?
Between learning to speak and the age of 6 or 7, most children have yet to learn to deal with reason, or cause and effect. Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss psychologist, called this the preoperational stage of development. It’s during this time that we start to believe a broomstick could be a horse, or a rock could be a pet, or a closet could be a time machine. It’s a time when we learn about the world through fantasy.
It’s a time when we learn how to imagine.
Dr. John M. Diamond is the head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, located about 30 miles west of Bath. In his 26 years of studying children’s minds, Diamond has learned that the extent to which we use our imaginations as we grow older is completely up to the individual.
“There are plenty of adults who can still get in touch with that,” Diamond says. “Some people want to. Some people can’t.”
One other characteristic of the preoperational phase, Diamond says, is the child’s inability to understand the conservation of matter. This can be explored through a simple test.
Find a tall, skinny glass and a short, wide glass. Take equal amounts of water, show the child that you have equal amounts of water, and pour it in each glass. Then ask the child which one has the most water. He’ll choose the tall glass because it looks more full.
He should probably see it one way. But he still sees it the other way.
Several theories about the mystical Blackbeard circulate throughout the world. The pirate has been claimed by places from England to the Caribbean islands to Virginia to Ocracoke. One of the loosest theories out there is that Blackbeard not only received his king’s pardon in Bath in 1718, but also he was a native son of North Carolina’s first town — despite the fact that Bristol, England, has claimed him for centuries.
Jimmy Taylor chooses to see it that way. So do several other people in Bath.
“I’m from here, so that’s the one I want to believe,” Taylor says.
Taylor’s unabashed belief makes a child psychiatrist chuckle admirably.
Summers were the best. Growing up on his family’s property on the peninsula, Taylor and his neighborhood buddies were up at 7 a.m. every day. That’s when a local retired auctioneer would take all of them out on his boat to go fishing. Then, they’d come back for lunch. They would spend the afternoons swimming. But they wouldn’t go straight from lunch to the water, of course, “because if you swim right after you eat, you’ll die or something,” Taylor still says, as if he wants to believe it. So between lunch and swimming, the boys learned how to play poker.
Taylor and his friends filled the other time in other ways. In the sand, they’d shove the toe of their shoe to make a hole. Then they’d stuff toads in the hole, creating what Taylor and his friends called a “toad-frog house.”
When Taylor, a grandfather of four, sits out on his front porch these days, with his back to the water and his eyes toward his town, he doesn’t see many children.
There’s little to attract young families to Bath, little in the way of industry or jobs. Down the street is Blackbeard’s Slice and Ice, one of only two restaurants. Just up the road is a general store and market. The hospitality industry consists of a visitors center, one motel, and one bed and breakfast. Most residents, frankly, like it this way. They’re either long-time family property owners, like Taylor, or retirees who’ve made enough money elsewhere to be able to buy a view of sunsets over the water for the rest of their lives. As historically important as Bath is, it is a mostly forgotten corner, a colorful and enchanting town along the inner banks of North Carolina, a jewel of a spot for anybody who owns a piece of its quiet waterfront.
But there aren’t many children.
“I fear that one day there will never be another toad-frog house here in Bath,” Taylor says.
Pat Mansfield is prepared. She takes a seat at a table at Blackbeard’s Slice and Ice with her arms full of folders and books that document the story of Bath, the story she wants to tell.
Mansfield is a friend of Taylor’s. She’s a tall and trim retired college professor, with glasses resting low on her nose. Her eyes are deep blue, and her earrings and bracelets match her eyes. She moved here from Wisconsin 13 years ago with her husband, and they were going to live on a boat and just sail. They love water; it matches her eyes.
Instead, they bought a piece of property on the creek just outside of town, on a street named Blackbeard View Road. Then they designed and built a house that’s an exact replica of a lifesaving station. Mansfield can tap into imagination. She is a believer.
“Everybody’s stealing our pirate!” she says, rising and straightening her back at the Slice and Ice.
The worst offender, Mansfield claims, is England. On the Bristol, England, visitors web page, under the heading “Famous Residents of Bristol,” he’s listed: “Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach).”
Truth is, little is known about Blackbeard’s early life or his life in general. He was a pirate, after all. The lack of knowledge has made him an exotic character for authors and screenwriters who have turned him into the iconic symbol of the Caribbean pirate, one with smoke coming out of his whiskers.
Bath’s claim to him is this: In July 1718, only five months before his death at Ocracoke Inlet, he turned his sloop Adventure up the Pamlico River to meet with North Carolina Secretary Tobias Knight to discuss a pardon. This is all according to the book The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate, by Kevin Duffus, a Raleigh writer who scoured documents from England to Pennsylvania to North Carolina while researching the pirate.
When Blackbeard arrived at Knight’s home, the pirate “bowed courteously.” No whisker-smoke. And Knight’s reply was this: “Well, well, young Edward. I was not sure I would ever see you in Bath Town again. … I know your families will be most glad to see you, too.”
See Bath again? His families?
John H. Oden III, a postal carrier in Bath who died in 2003, chased that quote for years. He tried to link the pirate to a man named James Beard, who owned 375 acres on the west side of Bath Creek, not far from Knight’s land. Oden believed Beard was Blackbeard’s father, and that Edward Teach was actually named Edward Beard.
Nothing exists to prove it.
But nothing exists to disprove it, either.
So what’s a modern-day Bath believer to do with such a tease? Well, Mansfield is building a boat. A sloop, to be accurate. It will have eight cannons, five swivel guns, a large mainsail, a staysail, two jibs, and a square topsail.
Mansfield is the creator of the Blackbeard Adventure Alliance, a nonprofit organization that is raising funds to create a replica sloop of the one Blackbeard steered into Bath in 1718. Plans should be completed by spring. Mansfield envisions the sloop being a traveling museum, moving around North Carolina and beyond, promoting the pirate.
Officially, it will be docked in Washington, just up the Pamlico River. But its port of registry will be Bath. Finishing the ship is Mansfield’s mission. It’s why her arms are full of folders. It’s what she dreams of at night, while she sleeps in her house that looks like a lifesaving station.
“Why shouldn’t we?” Mansfield says of claiming Blackbeard for Bath. “I didn’t make up Blackbeard. He walked these streets.”
Then she pauses to reconsider the theft of the pirate.
“They haven’t stolen it; we’ve let them have it,” she says. “Somehow, we lost our imagination.”
To get to the attic above Jimmy Taylor’s garage requires a big step around some junk and several little steps up into a steamy loft with more junk. He reaches into a bucket and pulls out a handful of detritus: glass fragments, pieces of pipes. To him, it’s not junk; it’s treasure, collected during years of digging.
Taylor was 11 when Blackbeard first crept into his mind. It was 1955, and Bath had a festival commemorating its 250th anniversary, and Taylor learned the pirate once walked the same streets he was walking. He started digging then. And he hasn’t stopped.
Into his teens, he’d venture to places along the water and pick up rocks and glass. He’d go around town asking elderly people questions, trying to trace pirate footprints. “When you were a kid, where do you remember an old house that was rotting down?” he’d ask.
But like everyone, he had to grow up. He graduated from high school in 1963 and went to Norfolk, Virginia, to begin working on tugboats. He then veered into the United States Coast Guard for a few years before returning to tugs. The job took him to Florida, where he was the engineer for a boat based out of Cape Canaveral. There, his job was to drive several miles offshore and pick up a barge carrying the fuel tank for the first stage of NASA’s Saturn V rocket. Taylor beams when he talks about his role in the space program, even though he never grew up to be an astronaut.
When Taylor retired from tugboat work in 2004, he moved back to Bath with his wife, built his home on the water on his family property, and resumed digging.
His mother’s maiden name was Boyd. He knew there was a pirate who once lived near Bath named Robert Boyd. He started tracing his family history.
Robert Boyd was supposedly hanged in Virginia alongside Edward Salter, another Bath pirate legend. It’s been proven that Salter was not hanged; he later signed a letter to the king asking for funding to help build a small church in Bath — St. Thomas Church, now the oldest active church in the state.
Taylor believes that Boyd, too, avoided hanging. And he believes Boyd is his ancestor.
“I’m a descendant of a pirate from Bath,” he says proudly. “That’s about the most famous thing that’s ever happened in our family.”
Taylor believes he found remnants of Boyd’s home near Pinetown, just north of Bath. A construction crew tore up the property one day, and Taylor snuck out there the next day to see what was unearthed. He then took some pieces back to the steamy loft, and put them alongside the other treasure. He’s been talking to archaeologists about what era the pieces might be from.
Taylor still does a lot of digging around Bath, trying to find whatever he might find. But he can’t do as much as he’d like.
“When I was a kid, I could just go anywhere and dig, and they’d just run me off,” he says. “Now, at this age, they’d probably lock me up.”
Bill Zachman inches his Lexus down South Main Street, pointing out historical homes and markers, but talking mostly about pirates. He stops at Bonner’s Point, where Main Street ends at Front Street, which runs along the water.
Bonner’s Point is adjacent to Taylor’s property. It is public land at the corner of the peninsula, and benches are set up so visitors can have a view of the water.
Zachman is a friend of Taylor’s and Mansfield’s. He’s a C.P.A., and he has white hair and a round, friendly face. He’s lived here for 20 years, just outside the town limits, on a breezy point on a hill way back in the creek. He knows all the roads around Bath, and all the roads into Bath.
Bonner’s Point is one of Zachman’s favorite spots because it’s where the roads end and the water begins. It’s a place where one can look out at the scene and insert any picture, with the right imagination.
Zachman — like Taylor and Mansfield — sees an opportunity out there, coming around the corner. For years, Bath has been the first place of history in North Carolina and the last place of residence for many retirees. Now these three pirates want to make it the town of Blackbeard. They see sails coming around the corner and tourists and business coming with them. Instead of promoting the famous old church and the handful of other landmarks around this first town, they’re promoting a maritime history, one filled with pirates.
“The real entrance to Bath is out there; it’s not the bridge,” Zachman says. “To really see Bath, you need to see it from the water.”
Yes, it seems that when it comes to Bath, you can look at things one way. Or, you can look at them the other way.
In plain sight out of the window of Jimmy Taylor’s home, dolphins swim in the creek. Taylor barely breaks from talking when he notices them. “Oh, yeah. They’re always out there.” There’s no stopping his mind now. He’s sitting upstairs on a couch, talking about pirates. He’s talking so fast he almost forgets the other boat in his life — the model boat.
On a shelf near the couch is a 2½-foot-long replica of the tugboat Mars, the first tugboat Taylor worked on after leaving the Coast Guard. When he was living in Florida in the 1970s, Taylor walked every inch of the Mars, recorded every dimension, and drew up plans for a perfectly scaled model.
He started by buying a plastic model of the hull. He sliced it in half and traced the hull’s ribs on graph paper. Then he measured the real boat and figured out the scale, using the graph paper. He went to a hobby shop and bought pieces of balsa wood, sliced them thin, and pasted them around the plastic hull.
That’s about all the money he spent on it. Nearly every remaining piece of this perfect model was made from household items. For the fenders — which are made of rope on a real tugboat — he used little pieces of an old mop. For other bumpers, he used tires from his kids’ toy cars. For the handrails, he used strips of plastic he found inside those same toy cars. For the life rings, he painted metal washers. For the boat’s emblem, he simply cut out a piece of company stationery.
It took him 400 hours to make. But it barely cost him anything because almost every piece was already there, inside his home, right in front of him. He just needed to look at it from a different perspective.
“I just look in a drawer and see something,” Taylor says casually, “and I see it can be something else.”
Taylor’s mind just works like that. In the window above his garage, at the back of the steamy room where he stores his pirate treasure, Taylor created a life-size pirate mannequin, complete with stringy black wigs for hair and a beard. He has it positioned in front of a canvas backdrop with a light in front of it. And every night he’s home, Taylor flips the switch and lights up a big Blackbeard doll for all of Bath to see. Just for fun.
It’s quiet at the entrance to Bath. The engine is off, and the only sounds are of water splashing softly against the bottom of the boat. The wind tosses Jimmy Taylor’s hair; he brushes it back into place with one hand and scratches his knee feverishly with the other.
This 66-year-old grandfather still spins with the enthusiasm of an 11-year-old boy. He’s a pirate — or, at least, the descendant of a pirate.
Taylor whirls around on the back of the boat, pointing from one place to the other, noting all the spots he’s been
digging up for years. To the west is Tobias Knight’s property, where Blackbeard came for his pardon. Just north of that is James Beard’s property, where Oden believed Blackbeard’s father lived and Edward Teach was, in fact, named Edward Beard. To the east is Plum Point, where another local legend has it that Blackbeard owned property.
Duffus, the author and researcher, writes in his book that Blackbeard was only here for two weeks. He was in Philadelphia by the end of July 1718.
“Everybody’s got a theory,” Taylor says, “and they’re sticking to it.”
Taylor believes Oden’s theory, of course, because it’s the one in which Blackbeard is a pirate son of Bath, just like Taylor.
From this waterfront entrance to Bath, Taylor’s house is impossible to miss. His pier reaches toward the boat. At the end of that pier, a black flag with a skull and crossbones flaps in the wind, the same wind that tosses Taylor’s hair on the boat.
All around him is water, ever moving and never occupied, going in and coming out, same as it did some 300 years ago when that sloop came around the corner out here, and Blackbeard carved his path into the creek and into Bath and into the minds of generations of dreamers.
From this spot out here, they say, during the August lunar phases, there are a couple of evenings when you can see the sun drop over the western side of the Pamlico at precisely the same time the new moon rises over the eastern side. During those two perfect nights of the year, they say, there is a brief moment when half of the sun is on one horizon and half of the moon is on the other. And in the middle of it all is this entrance to Bath.
They say it’s beautiful.
They say you really have to see it to believe it.
Inn on Bath Creek
116 South Main Street
Bath, N.C. 27808
Five comfortable guest rooms, a welcoming sitting area, a sitting porch, and a homemade breakfast each morning give visitors four more reasons to linger in Bath.
Michael Graff is the associate editor of Our State magazine.