It was on this day in 1872 that the American merchant brigantine, Mary Celeste, was found adrift and deserted about half way between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. No one ever found out what became of her crew.
The ship was built in Nova Scotia and launched in 1861. She was then a British ship called Amazon. Her maiden voyage did not go well. She was to load up with timber and take it to London. As soon as the cargo was loaded, the captain fell ill and soon died. A new captain was appointed and the voyage continued. The Amazon ran into some fishing equipment off the coast of Maine. Then, on her return journey from London, she crashed into, and sank, another ship in the English Channel. Things then went okay until 1867 when she was driven ashore by a storm and abandoned as a wreck. But she was salvaged, refitted, re-registered as an American ship and given the name Mary Celeste.
The Ship’s captain, Benjamin Briggs, came from a sea-faring family and chose a crew of experienced sailors for his voyage from New York to Genoa in Italy. He was so confident that things would go well that he took his wife and two-year-old daughter with him. Their cargo of methylated spirit was loaded at pier fifty on the East River and then she moved into New York Harbour. While preparing to sail, we know that he met the captain of another ship, the Dei Gratia, called David Morehouse. The Dei Gratia was preparing to take the same course with a cargo of petroleum. The Mary Celeste set sail on November 7th and the Dei Gratia followed on November 15th.
On December 4th, around 1pm, the helmsman of the Dei Gratia spotted a ship about six miles away. It was moving erratically and heading straight for them. Something appeared to be wrong. Their signals received no response and, as the they drew closer, they could see no one on board. Two of the crew went to investigate, and when they saw the name Mary Celeste, they boarded her. The sails were partly set, but in poor condition and some were missing all together. The rigging was damaged and there were ropes hanging loose over the sides. The main hatch was fastened but two of the smaller hatches were open. The case that held the ship’s compass had been moved and the glass broken. They found about three and a half feet of water in the hold, which is a fair bit, but not a worrying amount. There was also a sounding rod on the deck, which is a device used to measure the depth of water in the hold. The ship’s only lifeboat was gone and there was no one on board. They found the ship’s log, its last entry had been nine days earlier, on November 25th, when it’s position was recorded some 400 nautical miles (740km) from where they encountered her. The cabins were found to be in reasonable order and the cargo seemed intact. In the captain’s cabin, they found a few personal items, including a sword under the bed. But most of the ship’s papers and the captain’s navigational equipment were missing. Everything in the galley was neatly stowed, no meal was being prepared but there were ample stores for the rest of the journey. All evidence pointed to a fairly orderly departure from the ship by means of the lifeboat.
Morehouse divided his small crew between the two ships and headed for Gibraltar. There he expected to receive a substantial reward for salvaging the ship and its cargo. In fact, he was only awarded around one fifth of the total value of Mary Celeste and her load of methylated spirit. There was a hearing in which the judge was sure that foul play must be involved. He was sure that the crew had drunk the meths, gone wild and murdered the captain and his family before escaping in the lifeboat. He was sure that blood had been found on the captain’s sword and on the ship’s rails, and that some suspicious looking cuts in the bow of the ship had been man-made to make it seem as though she had run aground somewhere. All these accusations turned out to be false.
Later theories, which are also unlikely include insurance fraud, which was disproved. Some thought that Morehouse had overtaken the Mary Celeste and murdered her crew for the salvage. This is impossible as the Dei Gratis was eight days behind and a much slower ship. Some thought perhaps Briggs, his family and crew had been attacked by pirates. But this is unlikely as there were some quite valuable personal items left behind on the ship. One man even suggested that Briggs had been overcome by a fit of religious mania, killed everyone on board and then himself. This was a terrible theory and he was made to apologise to the Captain’s remaining family.
It could be that the ship encountered a severe waterspout, which is a kind of tornado over water. The accompanying low barometric pressure might have caused water to rise in the bilges, making the crew think they were taking on more water than they in fact were. This might have led them to abandon ship and would also explain the state of the ship’s sails and rigging. Or it could be that their very flammable cargo was leaking and they feared an explosion making them open the hatches to let the fumes escape and leave the ship as a temporary measure, while they watched how things went.
We’ll probably never know what really happened on the Mary Celeste and her story has become very confused by myth and by a few fictional accounts that were written later. Perhaps the most influential was written by a young Arthur Conan Doyle in 1884 called ‘J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ about a ship called the ‘Marie Celeste’. In it, there is a fanatical crew member who kills everyone and sails the ship the West Africa. Jephson survives because he possesses a scary magic charm. This, and all other accounts that later appeared, depended on there being a survivor to tell the tale and, as we know, there were none. So any stories you’ve heard about then all being eaten by sharks whilst swimming, or that they stole another ship filled with silver and gold, or even that there was a meal left, untouched on the table, are all fantasy. Others have suggested the Bermuda Triangle, which it was nowhere near, and even flying saucers. In 1904, Chamber’s Journal suggested that the ship had been attacked by a giant squid. While this is possible, I don’t think the squid would have been very interested in the lifeboat or the captain’s instruments of navigation.