The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

Nov 19, 2022 | Unexplained Mysteries

November 19, 2022
12 min read

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.

Engraving of the Mary Celeste. RedCoat10 at en.wikipedia (Original text : No illustrator given.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sarah Elizabet Cobb, épouse du capitaine de la Mary Celeste et leur fille Sophia-Matilda. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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.


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.




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.

Mary Celeste NY Times 1873 February 26. Boston Post, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.


Benjamin Briggs, Captain of the Mary Celeste. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.


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.


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.

Storm at Sea. Willem van de Velde the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.


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.


Mary Celeste as Amazon in 1861. Unconfirmed, possibly Honore Pellegrin (1800–c.1870). This speculative attribution is suggested in Paul Begg: Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea. Longmans Education Ltd, Harlow (UK) 2007. Plate 2, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.


Originally published on Medium’s Illumination Publication on November 19, 2022.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *