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The Greatest Maritime Mystery Ever?
The Mary Celeste (not ‘Marie’ Celeste as is often stated) and its doomed crew have gone down in folklore and myth since their disappearance in the Atlantic Ocean over 135 years ago.
All kinds of weird and wonderful hypotheses have been put forward by people looking to solve the mystery. These theories range from sea monsters, aliens, seaquakes, giant squids, sea spouts, piracy and mutiny, to other more mundane rationales.
Here I will try to lay out the basic known facts and bring to light the most likely scenario for what happened to the crew members of the Mary Celeste ‘Ghost Ship’.
It Was Not Lost in the Bermuda Triangle
One myth I want to put to bed right away is that it happened in the Bermuda Triangle. It actually took place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Mystery Begins
The Mary Celeste was found drifting aimlessly between the Azores islands and mainland Portugal, on December 5th 1872.
These are an autonomous group of volcanic islands with Portuguese affiliation, lying directly to the west of southern Portugal. When discovered, the ship was utterly devoid of passengers and crew, yet mysteriously everything else was still in-situ, and the ship was still seaworthy.
So what happened? Where did the crew go, and why did they leave the vessel, presumably to their deaths, as none of them was ever heard from again?
Origins, Salvage and Specifications
The ship was a brigantine design, built on Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was initially named ‘The Amazon’ with a British-held registration. Its ownership was transferred to an American merchant company in 1868, one year after running aground on Cape Breton Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and there being salvaged. It was after this salvage and subsequent restoration that she acquired her new (and now famous) name, the ‘Mary Celeste’.
Four unremarkable years later, after changing hands a few times and an extensive refit in New York, the ship began its fateful journey from ‘The Big Apple’ to Genoa, Italy. Its gross weight was around 282 tonnes, with a length measurement of 103 feet and 25.7 feet wide. She was carrying a cargo of 1,701 barrels of poisonous denatured alcohol, more commonly known as methylated spirits.
The captain for the fateful journey was Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs of Wareham, Massachusetts. He was a very religious man, married with 2 children and aged 37, with a reputation of being a good captain who enjoyed a high standing in his chosen profession.
He invested his life savings in the Mary Celeste, owning one-third of the vessel. The rest was owned at this stage by a New York consortium headed by James H. Winchester. Briggs was therefore very keen to hand-pick his crew for the trip, selecting people he had worked with before and sailors who were recommended by those he had chosen himself.
It seems he did an excellent job because it was known that Briggs was delighted with his men, and his wife wrote a letter to her mother also expressing her admiration of the job they were doing.
His wife, Sarah Cobb, who was also his cousin, and their 2-year-old daughter Sophia accompanied him on the voyage, but their 7-year-old son, Arthur, was of a school age and was left behind to attend, in the care of his grandmother. Arthur went on to live a full life and didn't pass away until October 31st, 1931.
A total of 10 crew, including the captain, were on board when she set sail.
The Journey Begins
They set sail on Tuesday, November 5th, with Briggs having written a letter to his mother two days prior saying “Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage.”
He had no premonition of problems and was happy that his vessel was ship-shape and capable of completing its mission safely. The weather was not great, however, and they anchored up off Staten Island in New York harbour to allow the worst of it to pass. During this time Sarah wrote her final letter to Briggs' mother.
The weather eased and they upped anchor and continued their intended crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Close Connections to the Dei Gratia
Also of note at that time was that the ship that subsequently found the abandoned Mary Celeste, the Dei Gratia, which is Latin for ‘By the grace of God’, was close by in New Jersey. She stocked up her cargo of petroleum and left New Jersey eight days after Briggs and the crew of the Mary Celeste on the 15th November. Ironically, this British-registered brigantine was also setting sail for Genoa in Italy, via Gibraltar.
Discovery of the Deserted Mary Celeste
At latitude 38°20'N. longitude 17°15'W, on December 4th, 1872, the captain of the Dei Gratia, David Moorehouse, was alerted by his helmsman to a stricken vessel about six miles away, haphazardly coming towards them.
After noticing the strange setting of the craft's sails and upon receiving no reply to his signals he suspected that something was wrong. With the craft getting closer, Moorehouse ordered two of his men to investigate in the ship’s boat. The two men established from the name on the ship that this was the Mary Celeste and climbed on board to find it completely devoid of activity or crew.
Mary Celeste's Condition Upon Its Discovery
The vessel was found in the following condition:
- The hatch to the main hold was intact and in place, although the fore and aft lazarette hatches were open and the covers lay discarded on the deck.
- Some of the sails were missing and others were damaged and only partially set while the rigging was also mostly damaged and hanging loose in places.
- The ship's compass was out of place, with the glass broken and absent from the binnacle where it is usually housed.
- Around 3.5 feet of water had amassed in the hold, a large but not particularly alarming amount of water, and also a makeshift sounding rod used to gauge the water in the hold was found discarded on deck. ** (note)
- One of the ship's pumps was found to be partially disassembled. ** (note)
- A snapped rope was found dangling from the stern. ** (note)
- The cabin interiors were wet, as though water had come through both the doors and skylights.
- More than enough food and water was still aboard in the galley to complete their journey, although the myth that steaming mugs of coffee and breakfast sat untouched on the tables is not true.
- The ship’s cargo of methylated spirits was also mostly intact with just nine barrels being empty.
- Most importantly as far as I am concerned, the lifeboat was missing along with the captain’s navigational equipment and ship’s papers, which I will come back to.
- The logbook was found in the first mates' cabin and the final entry logged had been entered at 8 in the morning on November 25th, nine days prior to the ship being found. In this final entry was recorded the Mary Celeste’s position, 37°01'N, 25°01'W, just off the Azores Island of Santa Maria, about 400 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 1.5 miles extra for every 10 land miles so this would equate to 460 land miles) from the position the Dei Gratia discovered her.
All in all, everything pointed to an orderly evacuation of the Mary Celeste, for reasons unknown.
On to Gibraltar
Captain Moorehouse and his crew decided to sail the Mary Celeste back to Gibraltar with them as a salvage claim. A further distance of 600 nautical miles (690 miles) with which the crew would by necessity have to be spread between the 2 vessels.
He ordered his first mate and 2 of his most experienced sailors to man the salvaged ship, while he and the other 4 crewmen remained aboard the Dei Gratia.
What this shows is that despite the water in the hold, the damage to pump and sails etc. the Mary Celeste was still very much seaworthy. This adds to the confusion as to why Captain Briggs would have ordered her abandoned.
Despite the relatively calm weather and mainly due to the level of manpower on each ship, the final part of the journey to Gibraltar was slow. Eight days later the Dei Gratia arrived into port, with the Mary Celeste limping in a day later.
Upon arrival, the Mary Celeste was impounded by the Vice-Admiralty Court pending the salvage hearings to take place.
The court considered various possibilities for what could have occurred on the Mary Celeste, including mutiny by the crew, piracy by the crew of the Dei Gratia or other ships unknown.
Why they considered other ships is a mystery in itself considering that nothing of value was missing.
Insurance or salvage fraud were other considerations. No evidence was ever given to support any of these theories, yet despite this, the salvage award of £1,700 eventually paid to the Dei Gratia’s captain and the crew was a mere fraction of between one-fifth and one-sixth of the ship and its cargo’s true worth in less suspicious circumstances.
Because of this, the stain of doubt would have followed the Dei Gratia’s crew around for the rest of their careers.
The Ship's Final Demise
The ship was finally released on February 25th of the following year with new owners.
The final demise of the Mary Celeste occurred in less than glorious circumstances in 1885, when her captain deliberately wrecked her off the coast of Haiti, in the Caribbean Sea for the sole purpose of intended insurance fraud.
Theories About What Happened
So, those are the facts, what about the theories? There have been many expounded after all.
- Creatures From Below . . . and Above?
- Natural Disaster?
Piracy of the Mary Celeste by the crew of the Dei Gratia.
This was the favoured theory of the man who heard the Gibraltar court proceedings, Frederick Solly Flood, although it isn’t certain why he so firmly believed this. He was known as a man with a certain pomposity to him and an arrogance that meant when he made a decision, he couldn’t be easily swayed from his belief. Maybe it was just a snap judgement on his part and he tried desperately to make everything prove him right and failed.
There is no evidence to support Flood's belief, indeed it is likely that Briggs and Moorehouse were at the very least acquainted with each other and possibly friends. There is even anecdotal evidence that they had dinner together just before the Mary Celeste left New York harbour.
One of the reasons this was a favoured scenario of the court could have been because the Mary Celeste seemed to carry on her journey's route despite supposedly having no crew (although it wasn't quite right, drifting too far north.)
Anne McGregor who made an investigative documentary of the incident recreated this journey. Rather than explain it myself and not do her justice, I will add a photograph from the website to highlight the pertinent bit, and also include a link to the article.
This scenario cannot be wholly ruled out, but I think it unlikely amongst seafaring acquaintances. There is quite a robust moral code amongst seafaring men and piracy is the realm of desperate men, not men carrying out a lucrative journey of their own.
Piracy by a ship of unknown origin: This seems quite preposterous to me since no other vessel was seen by the Dei Gratia and her crew in the vicinity. Add to this the fact that the valuable cargo and crews personal belongings remained untouched in the hold and cabins. I think this can quickly be ruled out.
Anne MacGregor's Documentary Recreation
Full Story of Anne MacGregor's Investigations
2. Creatures From Below . . . and Above?
Sea monster attack: Really?
Giant squid attack: While giant squids do indeed exist, there is only very vague and purely anecdotal evidence of them attacking people or ships. Current expert estimates put the maximum size of giant squids at around 39–46 ft. A ship the size of the Mary Celeste would face little danger of an attack from such a creature and it also doesn’t explain why the lifeboat was taken. This can be ruled out too.
Aliens abducted the crew: Really?
Mutiny by the crew members of the Mary Celeste.
One theory that did the rounds in the 19th century was that the crew had drunk some of the methylated spirits and mutinied.
Again this cannot be ruled out, but if so, what was their goal?
Did they disappear without a trace without taking anything?
Mutinies usually occurred on ships where the captain was either making terrible decisions or imposing cruel conditions on the crew. Neither of these is likely in the case of the Mary Celeste and Captain Briggs. I haven't seen any evidence ‘out there’ to make this a plausible theory.
4. Natural Disaster?
Sea spout: Again if this was the cause of the disappearance, why would the lifeboat be missing and everything else be in good order on board? No, this doesn’t make any sense to me.
Seaquake: An earthquake on the seabed cannot be ruled out because there are other cases of this reportedly happening in maritime history.
Just 13 years after the Mary Celeste was found drifting, in 1885, the Alhama of Arendal from Norway was also abandoned supposedly due to a seaquake in the area, as was the Joyita, a ship found adrift near the island of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean in 1955.
However, if we look at the relatively small amount of damage and water taken on board, any reputable captain would surely not abandon his ship without it being in dire straits and we know that the Mary Celeste was still in seaworthy condition when discovered by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Captain Briggs had a stellar reputation and for these reasons, I have my doubts about the seaquake theory.
My Explanation . . .
So what do I think happened?
No theory can be stated as a categorical fact so long after the event, so any theory that people may hold, including my own, is subject to much debate. However, some of the things we do know can lead us to plausible explanations that involve nothing weird or paranormal having taken place.
The Missing Lifeboat
You will remember that I said the lifeboat was missing from the ship and that a snapped piece of rope was dangling from the stern of the Mary Celeste. This indicates to me that the lifeboat was temporarily running behind the vessel and attached to the stern so that the crew could stay with her.
The question now becomes why? What made Captain Briggs decide to man the lifeboat rather than stay aboard his ship?
There must have been some real or perceived danger to make them decide on this course of action. However what I conclude from the decision to tie the lifeboat to his ship is that he hadn’t completely given up hope of going back aboard, maybe once the danger had passed?
We know that there had been a lot of stormy weather during their crossing of the Atlantic, which may or may not have had some telling effect on the workings of the ship or stability and safety of the cargo of highly flammable and explosive alcohol. We also know it was still seaworthy, however, so I can’t put it down to just that.
The Disassembled Pump
One of the two pumps on the ship had been disassembled, which reduced their ability to pump water from the hold by 50%. This could have had a bearing and was apparently of some concern to Briggs because a makeshift measuring rod to gauge the water’s depth was found on the deck.
Again, it doesn’t seem enough to force a captain to abandon his ship.
One of the reasons which I find very compelling for the pump being out of order is the theory that coal dust from the Mary Celeste’s previous cargo haul, had worked its way into the pump and once the water had got into it, formed a congealed mess that rendered it useless.
That would explain why it was taken apart, but not why it wasn’t reassembled. Which may imply they had no time left to reassemble it before getting off the ship.
The Nine Empty Barrels
The nine empty alcohol barrels cannot be ignored either. If they had leaked during the voyage then vapours could have built up and caused an explosion of some magnitude. Maybe by one of the crew members being careless with a pipe, opening the hatches for ventilation.
Maybe they had lit a fire in the galley for a hot meal after days of being tossed around in heavy seas and eating cold provisions?
Or maybe it was merely the fear that the cargo could explode imminently?
There Was an Explosion—or Fear of One
For me, the only logical explanation for Briggs and his crew to have tied the lifeboat and trailed along behind was due to an explosion, or the fear of an imminent explosion. No traces of fire or soot were found on the ship. However, a recent experiment carried out by a scientist from the University College of London in conjunction with Channel 5, showed that the methylated spirits vapour could have exploded in the same way that butane gas does, leaving no trace of either fire or soot, but being more of a pressure-wave kind of explosion.
I favour the fear of explosion idea over an actual explosion having already occurred because this would explain why they tied themselves at a distance behind the ship. Surely if there had been an actual explosion already, it would have caught the tiniest of vapours from the rest of the cargo around the barrels that exploded and destroyed the whole cargo, and most likely the ship with it?
Why This Theory Explains the Evidence
I think the ship had started taking on water after being battered during a heavy weather crossing. Briggs discovered the hold was filling with water and ordered it pumped out.
This would lead to the discovery of the malfunctioning pump, and the construction of a temporary water depth gauge in an attempt to assess how much water they were carrying. It may also have led to the discovery of 9 barrels of alcohol that had leaked into the hold.
The fear of potential explosion could also explain why the hatches were open, to release some of the vapours from the hold, although I'm not sure why the main hatch would have been left closed if this was the case.
So, whilst someone was trying to fix the pump, another trying to assess the depth of the water in the hold, Briggs could well have decided that there was an imminent threat of explosion and decided on the ‘wait and see’ tactic.
This way he wasn’t deserting his ship, but at the same time, he was protecting his crew, which would be in keeping with his reputation as a good captain.
It would also explain why the captain took his navigational equipment with him, but not personal possessions. He would be able to keep an eye on the course of the ship, even though he couldn’t directly alter it.
While it may be said the provisions were intact in the galley, I would assume they took enough to last them a day or so while they rode out the danger and hoped for it to pass. It would have been a very sensible decision to make in my view, especially with the island of Santa Maria being within striking distance for a small craft.
What Happened in the Lifeboat?
Something apparently went wrong though, and I would suggest that a combination of the heavy seas and the weight of the full crew in the small lifeboat was too much strain for the rope to take, causing it to snap and thus creating one of the biggest maritime myths ever.
UCL Butane Gas Experiment
Video of a Search for the Whereabouts of the Wreck of the Mary Celeste
Questions & Answers
Question: Whatever happened to the Mary Celeste afterwards?
Answer: On January 3, 1885, the Mary Celeste was deliberately run into a well-charted coral reef in the West Indies - the Rochelois Bank, wrecking her beyond repair in an attempt to get the insurance value. I believe they failed.
© 2018 Ian
Ian (author) from Durham on October 17, 2018:
That surprises me Latisha. It's a very famous story. I hope you enjoyed the article anyway?
Latisha Thomason from Sunset on October 16, 2018:
Never heard about it