Interview with Pat Croce: Pirate Soul
Travel Interviews: M.B. Roberts asks the founder of Pirate Soul Museum in Key West, Florida, about the enduring appeal of pirates
10.29.09 | 3:56 PM ET
As a motivational guru, entrepreneur, author and former president/minority owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, Pat Croce has thrown himself into many endeavors over the years. No matter the situation, Croce, now 54, always approaches life’s challenges with gusto, which he credits in part to his lifelong obsession with pirates.
In 2004, Croce realized a long-held dream when he opened the impressive $10-million, 5,000-square-foot Pirate Soul Museum in Key West. He’s written seven books, two of them piratical: the extensive Pirate Soul: A Swashbuckling Journey through the Golden Age of Pirates, and the interactive children’s picture book, My Pop-Pop is a Pirate.
For years, Croce and shipwreck explorer Burt Webber have been pursuing the exclusive rights to survey and salvage the Oxford, Captain Henry Morgan’s legendary pirate ship that sank off Haiti in 1669. Croce also has a movie in the works about a guy named Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard). For the record, Croce sports a skull and crossbones tattoo on his left hand and has a tiny pirate head imprinted on one of his dental caps.
I interviewed him at the museum and followed up with a phone call.
World Hum: Why are people so fascinated by pirates?
Pat Croce: Pirates, like dinosaurs, cowboys and mobsters will last forever. Really. We all have a pirate soul. We all have that spirit that wants to be adventurous. We want to be bold. We want to be daring. But we stay in cubicles and we lie on the couch and watch TV. But I think people really love that old swashbuckling era where if you wanted something, you went after it. Not all pirates were outlaws, although they were against the law. I’m not saying that all pirates were good guys, either. But there’s something about them that makes us say, if I lived in that era, I’d be a pirate. I’d go after my goal, or my gold. Maybe entrepreneurs of today were the pirates of yesteryear. Like Jimmy Buffet says, I’m a pirate born 200 years too late. I think I was a pirate in a past life.
When did your personal pirate curiosity begin?
I was really young. I was a puppy. I was watching Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood.” That’s a 1935 flick, the first film he ever starred in. I remember watching it with my dad. And “The Sea Hawk” from 1940. I just loved that movie. John Wayne movies were OK, but those movies ... ah!
I loved the bravado and the sense of adventure. I used to carve skulls and crossbones into my ruler in elementary school.
Which pirates do you find most intriguing?
The ones from the golden age of piracy, roughly 1680-1730. Blackbeard is from that era. When you think of a pirate, you think of him. That’s why we’re doing the Blackbeard movie. Here’s a guy that stood 6’4” when everyone else at the time was 5’6”. He’d strap six guns across his chest and he had a sword and dagger inserted into his belt. He had long black hair interwoven with slow-burning canon fuses which he would light and the smoke would circle his big, black beard.
He used psychological warfare because he wanted to scare the bejesus out of sailors who were superstitious. He wanted them to strike their colors and give up before there was any drawing of blood or before anybody got hurt or they had to sink the prize.
You had to love the guy. His death is better than anything in fiction; it will make a great ending to a movie.
Was Blackbeard always a bad guy?
He started out as a privateer. Many pirates did. They were privateers working for Mother England and keeping most of the bounty and giving her 10 or 20 percent. That’s how she fought the Spanish and the French using all these private captains in their private boats and they got to keep most of the bounty. Their job was to pester the Spanish ships.
Then, in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed and with the stroke of a pen, England was at peace with France and Spain. Now there was no war but all these guys, Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Henry Jennings and Charlie Zane who were great privateers for Mother England continued to plunder. Unemployment didn’t pay anything back then! So they kept doing what they did best.
What are your favorite treasures in the museum?
My number one favorite is the treasure chest of Captain Thomas Tew. It’s the only one in the world—the only one—that has provenance to a pirate. There isn’t another treasure chest in existence that an actual pirate carried on his ship. That’s why I just love it. It’s got a fake lock on the front and it’s heavy; it weighs several hundred pounds. It’s magnificent.
When you think of pirates, you think of buried treasure and you think of the skull and crossbones. So, my second favorite would have to be the Jolly Roger flag, which is one of only two in the world.
The most beautiful thing about Pirate Soul is its authenticity. The artifacts are genuine whether it’s the journal with Captain Kidd’s last voyage or the gold from Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s revenge or the treasure chest of Captain Thomas Tew. Everyone has the dream of opening a treasure chest and that one is the real deal.
Why did you decide to build Pirate Soul Museum in Key West?
I love Key West. I have a home there and I thought what better place for a pirate museum than a Caribbean island within the continental United States? You’ve got this island with the blue seas around it and when people go down there, they kind of throw their stoic, disciplined lifestyle out to the wind. It’s a Caribbean island where you can drink the water! It turned out to be the perfect place.
Is there anywhere you’ve not traveled to that you’d like to visit?
There’s something I would like to do, but not the normal way. I would have liked to cross the Panama Canal when it was the Isthmus of Darien, back when buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake, then 100 years later, Bartholomew Sharp and Captain Morgan, crossed that 50-60-mile stretch. That was the first time they saw the South Seas, which we now know is the Pacific Ocean. I think that would be pretty cool.
But I’d like to do it the way they did it. Not knowing what we know now. Not going through all the locks in the canal. I’d love to do that.