In 1882, the Mary Celeste was found adrift, undamaged yet abandoned. What happened to the crew and passenger’s to abandon a seaworthy ship?
On December 5th 1872, the British ship Dei Gratia was sailing about 400 miles from the Azores Islands when it spotted a ship in the distance. Looking through his spyglass, Captain David Morehouse found it unusual not to see anyone on board. He changed course and sailed closer to ensure the ship and it’s crew were alright.
Upon pulling closer to the ship, Morehouse dispatched a few members of his crew to go investigate.
They were surprised to find that the ship was the Mary Celeste. They had been docked near her in New York City only a month earlier on November 7th. The Mary Celeste departed for Genoa, Italy, and the Dei Gratia departed only a few days later.
Morehouse knew that the Mary Celeste had a crew of seven, captained by his friend Benjamin Briggs. On this trip was Brigg’s wife Sarah and their two year old daughter.
VANISHED WITHOUT A TRACE
As the crew boarded the Mary Celeste, they found the sails mostly raised and some that had been ripped loose. The ship’s one lifeboat was missing, but otherwise nothing was damaged or amiss. Except for the obvious lack of crew and passengers.
Searching below deck, the men found no crew, but some unusual clues. The crewmen’s belongings were still there, along with the cargo: 1700 gallons of industrial alcohol. Nine of the barrels appeared to be empty.
The ship’s six month supply of food and water remained, but the navigation tools, ship’s register and navigation book were all missing. Left behind was the Mary Celeste’s log book. Reading through, they discovered two weeks of entries describing poor weather leading up to their arrival at the Azores islands, and reports of a faulty chronometer. The last entry was from the morning of November 25th, claiming that they were within sight of the Azores, only 6 miles from land.
One of the ships pumps was taken apart, and there was about three feet of water inside the hold. Besides having taken on some water from the rough Atlantic seas, the ship was in fine condition and suffered no damage. In fact, it was deemed completely sailable.
INVESTIGATING THE INCIDENT
At a loss for explaining what occurred, Captain Morehouse decided to recover the abandoned ship and bring her along to alert the appropriate authorities. Some crew members of the Dei Gratia sailed the Mary Celeste more than 800 miles to Gibraltar.
Maritime Salvage Law declared that those that recovered a ship were entitled to compensation based on the value of the property. By bringing the ship to the port in Gibraltar, the Dei Gratia would be able to receive their reward.
With little evidence and only the testimony of the Dei Gratia’s crew, an investigation was conducted. After three months it was determined that no foul play had occurred. Despite this, the crew of the Dei Gratia was only compensated for 1/6th the value of the Mary Celeste.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CREW OF THE MARY CELESTE
PIRATES, MONSTERS AND WATERSPOUTS
As is usually the case with old unexplained disappearances, wild theories emerge to explain what may have happened.
Perhaps they were attacked by pirates and forced off the ship; an unlikely theory as the cargo and supplies were untouched. Despite this, even a New York Times article from 1873 speculated the same.
In the rough Atlantic sea, a waterspout could have formed and hit the ship, or maybe a sea monster devoured the crew. Again, an unlikely theory, as the ship was undamaged and in good condition when it was discovered.
A popular theory is that the crew of the Mary Celeste mutinied against Captain Briggs and killed him and his family, or pushed them off into the lifeboat, only to then have met some misfortune that forced them to abandon ship themselves.
This has been regarded as highly unlikely because Captain Briggs was known as a fair captain and was well liked. Further, he likely would not have brought his wife and daughter aboard to sail with an unfamiliar crew that he did not trust.
FOUL PLAY BY THE DEI GRATIA
While the investigation into what happened aboard the Mary Celeste found no indication of foul play, it is a possibility that the crew of the Dei Gratia had a role in the disappearance of her crew. The fact that the Dei Gratia crew was awarded so little suggests that there may have been some doubts if the Dei Gratia had any involvement into the incident.
We only have the word of those on the Dei Gratia that investigated the Mary Celeste as to what they found, and no way to verify that their testimony is true and accurate. However, Captain Morehouse was friends with Captain Briggs and it is unlikely that he would have been involved in their disappearance just to receive compensation.
Due to the fact that the navigation tools and logs were taken and the lifeboat was gone, we must speculate that the ship was ordered to be evacuated. The last log entry on November 25th had them in sight of land, so it would have been likely to occur at this location on this date. During the investigation, it was determined that the ship could have drifted hundreds of miles to where the Dei Gratia eventually found it.
Perhaps a storm forced the crew to abandon ship. Records show that they had experienced bad weather and rough seas for two weeks before they reached the Azores.
It’s unlikely that the experienced crew would have abandoned their ship for a lifeboat that was much smaller and more dangerous in poor weather unless it was necessary. However, when the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste, she was in good condition and sailable. The experienced Captain Briggs would not have likely ordered the ship to be abandoned if it was in good shape.
Interestingly, on it’s pervious voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried a sizeable cargo of coal. The dust of which may have clogged the pumps, leading to them being disassembled to be cleaned. Without one pump, water in the hold, they may have thought they were quickly taking on water and evacuated.
PRESSURE WAVE EXPLOSION
One of the most interesting theories is that some of the liquor may have leaked out of their barrels, as nine empty barrels were found. Perhaps the fumes from the alcohol led them to believe that the ship would explode, and they abandoned ship. Strangely, the crew of the Dei Gratia smelled nothing when they found the Mary Celeste. And no burn marks in the ship.
Despite this, in 2006, an experiment at University College London gave some credibility to this theory. A replica of the Mary Celeste’s hold was built and filled with butane gas to simulate leaked alcohol in the cargo. When a flame was lit, a pressure wave explosion blasted air out, blowing open doors and hatches, but not creating a burning fire.
Perhaps the leaking alcohol vapors could have caught fire, sparking a similar pressure wave explosion, forcing the crew to flee the ship. As this would have left no trace behind, this would explain the state of the ship when discovered.
A HISTORY OF MISFORTUNE
While the Mary Celeste is infamous for this incident, this is not the first case of misfortune it has experienced.
Originally, the Mary Celeste was called Amazon, but was renamed to distance itself from a streak of unfortunate events. It’s first captain was stricken with a sudden illness and died. Later the Amazon even collided with another ship in the English Channel.
THE FATE AND LEGACY OF THE MARY CELESTE
After being sailed back to Gibraltar by the crew of the Dei Gratia, the Mary Celeste continued to sail under different owners and captains for another twelve years, until finally a captain sailed it aground in Haiti in an attempt to commit insurance fraud.
The mystery of the abandoned Mary Celeste would have been lost to time, if not for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a short fictional story about the ship in 1884. His sensationalized tale of the mystery reinvigorated the public’s interest and brought this unexplained tale back to the front of our minds.
- Blumberg, J. (2007, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
- De Kay, O. (1981). The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste. AMERICAN HERITAGE. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.americanheritage.com/mystery-mary-celeste
- Johnson, A. (2019, October 29). What Really Happened to the Mary Celeste? Museum Hack. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://museumhack.com/mary-celeste/
- Lee, A. (2022, May 6). Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. UCL News. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2006/may/solved-mystery-mary-celeste
- MARY CELESTE. National Underwater and Marine Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://numa.net/expeditions/mary-celeste/
- Pruitt, S. (2015, July 21). What Happened to the Mary Celeste? History.com. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/what-happened-to-the-mary-celeste
Originally published on Medium’s Illumination Publication on November 19, 2022.