The blindfolded captive, prodded at cutlass-point out onto a narrow beam dangling over the sea, has been as much a part of pirate lore as the buccaneer snarling “Argh!” However, there is no proof that swashbucklers ever made their enemies and victims walk the plank. Instead, real pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries were fonder of equally unpleasant punishments such as flogging and marooning; if they ever did want to drown somebody, they probably just threw them over the side of the ship. The idea of the plank-walking, though, was just too good to drown, true or not.
“Robinson Crusoe” scribe Daniel Defoe was the first English writer to make his characters walk the plank. In his 1724 book “A General History of the Pyrates,” Defoe described ancient swashbucklers in the Mediterranean running a ship’s ladder out over the waves and telling their Roman captives they were free to go, so long as they were willing to swim for it.
In the 1800s writers like Charles Ellms, Robert Louis Stevenson and Howard Pyle turned Defoe’s ship’s ladder into “the plank” and brought it into the golden age of piracy. Ellms’ 1837 page-turner “The Pirate’s Own Book” included the drawing of a prisoner tumbling off the “death plank” into the sea, apparently drawing on Defoe’s description. Stevenson and Pyle took “the plank” from there. Billy Bones tells “dreadful stories” of “walking the plank” to Jim Hawkins at the beginning of Stevenson’s 1884 masterpiece “Treasure Island.” And in 1887, Howard Pyle’s dramatic painting of “walking the plank” for a Harpers Weekly article turned the plank into a visual icon for all the pirate storytellers to come.