Shiver Me Timbers
September 20th, 2017 by Pamela A. Keene

Members of the St. Augustine Swashbucklers give a big cheer in front of the Pirate & Treasure Museum. Their leader, Commodore Mayhem, is front and center. He is the face and voice of the St. Augustine museum.
Photos courtesy of Bill McRae

Commodore Mayhem seeks to shift perception of pirates to do-gooders as leader of St. Augustine swashbuckling group

He wears no eye patch, but has a true heart of gold. People in northeast and central Florida know this career pirate as Commodore William Mayhem.

The St. Augustine native, whose legal name is William McRea, came by his occupation honestly as an entertainer and professional magician in Las Vegas for 40 years before returning to his hometown in 2006.

Bill has embraced his pirate persona, dressing the part “nine days a week,” he says, raising money for charities and giving other pirate enthusiasts the chance to live the seafaring life through the St. Augustine Swashbucklers LLC—a 130-member group of businesspeople and volunteers who stage festivals and games dressed as pirate characters.

Becoming Commodore Mayhem “was sort of accidental because when I moved back, I’d do the pirate thing, magic and card tricks in local pubs to earn some money,” Bill says.

The distinguished-looking white-bearded man—whose father was in the military—was born in St. Augustine. As with most military kids, he moved around during childhood. As a young adult, he ended up in Las Vegas working as an actor—not in pirate films, he says—and a magician at The Dunes, The Debbie Reynolds Hotel Casino and The Improv.

Bill visited St. Augustine for a reunion in 2004 and started thinking about moving home.

Two years later, he and his wife, Cece—who also has a pirate persona—were back on the East Coast.

“The character of William Mayhem just developed over time as a gentleman of fortune who had traveled the world,” Bill says. “Now, not many people even know my real last name because they always see me as Commodore Mayhem when I’m around town.”

Contrary to the public’s legendary view of pirates as criminals, thieves and ne’er-do-wells, Bill uses his pirate skills all for good.

In 2009, he became commodore of the St. Augustine Swashbucklers LLC—a group that had been in existence since 2001 to raise money for charities through festivals and parade appearances.

Its main recipients are Give Kids the World, based in Orlando, and Dreams Come True out of Jacksonville. It also works with St. Augustine’s St. Francis House homeless shelter. During the holidays, the Swashbucklers collect toys for underserved children.

“We give $30,000 to $35,000 a year to charitable organizations, and our members get to have fun being pirates at the same time,” Bill says.

The group charges annual membership dues. Those funds provide the bulk of the organization’s yearly operating expenses.

Many of the Swashbucklers’ events take place on weekends, but Commodore Mayhem seemingly never sleeps. In addition to managing the paperwork and setting up festivals, he is a much-sought-after tour guide at the Pirate and Treasure Museum, which moved from Key West to St. Augustine in 2010 and is owned by Pat Croce.

As the voice and face of the museum, Bill has conducted more than 1,800 school and public tours.

Bill regularly teaches actors, tour guides and re-enactors who come to the Ancient City for seminars. He also is Commodore Mayhem at corporate events and meetings around the state.

In 2012, Bill was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Leviathan—an international group that recognizes pirates and their service to their communities.

The Old City Pirate Fest—one of the Swashbucklers’ major fundraising celebrations—is the fourth full weekend in January. The 2018 event, set for January 26-27, features pirate-goods vendors, re-enactments, black-powder and sword demonstrations, entertainment on two stages and historical tours of the quarter.

“I’ve always been fascinated by history, ever since I was young, from the Civil War, World War II and American history in general,” Bill says. “My goal is to bridge the gap between what people think pirates might have been and how they’ve been portrayed in movies and all the good that pirates did and still do today.”