BEAUFORT, N.C. — Even sitting in the family CRV, seeing the house Blackbeard allegedly once lived in is creepy. It’s a combination of the 300ish years it’s been around and that the dread and hirsute pirate, they say, hanged his wife from an oak tree in the backyard. There are also apparently bloodstains on the floor that won’t come out and other stories as well.
The house, built around 1709, is, today, a normal house. There is a compact car in the driveway and a canoe rack on the other side of the backyard overgrowth. Somebody cuts the grass and checks the mail. But it’s a former eighteenth-century inn now known as the Hammock House. It’s about six blocks from main-drag Beaufort, a little town of 4,000 people in the Outer Banks. Once, the town hosted pirates. Now, it hosts tourists. Formerly, it was a nice place to hide from the Royal Navy and maybe get syphilis from an underage whore. Today, you can buy ice cream, wind chimes and tours in a boat designed to look like a buccaneer ship. Front Street is a place where families eat lunch, buy snorkels, and old married couples wear matching shirts and hold hands.
All the houses in this part of Beaufort are pre-1900s and many are pre-1800s, built in a time when life seems like it was really hard. The average lifespan was 30-something (with less than a full mouth of teeth and probably V.D.) and everything could kill you — the month of February, water, a dental cleaning. Childbirth was a risk and so was being born. (Anyone who says things today are getting worse should be disenfranchised and made to pass a test before procreating. In 1718, death was everywhere. Now, it’s possible to live two or three decades without knowing someone who has died.)
Then there was the night. In 1718 — the year Lieutenant Robert Maynard beheaded Blackbeard off Ocracoke Island, took his head for a souvenir and tossed his body into the Atlantic — much of what would be the United States was nature. Terrible, murderous nature.
In my imagination, the forests of 1718 were full of hell and magic. And in 1718, Beaufort had fewer than 20 houses. Thanks to the Outer Banks’ labyrinthine, shallow-water arrangement of isles and inlets, it and towns like it were popular pirate stops. The smaller pirate ships navigated the region easily, out-maneuvering the huger warships of The Man. Blackbeard did this, possibly to get to the Hammock House, which is named for a kind of physical feature, not a hammock you’d take a nap on.
It’s white, Bahamanian and two stories, with columns, a porch swing and a tree out front that looks like it could mark an entrance to the underworld. From the CRV, it was impossible to see the makeshift-gallows oak tree, if still exists after three centuries. But there are stories that you can still hear Blackbeard’s hanged wife screaming. I went at 3 in the afternoon and did not hear any ghosts screaming from a noose.