Have you ever heard the eerie tale of the Mary Celeste?
It’s a fascinating story which is quite true.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1861, a 282 ton brigantine sailing vessel named the Amazon was constructed at Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s purpose was to transport cargo to and fro across the ocean. In 1868, it was sold to American Richard W Haines and was renamed the Mary Celeste. Over the next several years, it underwent structural changes and eventually came to be owned by a group of investors which included Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs.
On November 7th, 1872, the Mary Celeste set sail from New York City harbor with the final destination being Genoa, Italy. On board, were Captain Briggs, his wife Sarah, their 2 year old daughter Sophia, seven other members of the crew, a cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol, and enough food and water for 6 months.
On December 5th, the sailing ship Dei Gratia, under the command of Captain David Morehouse, was moving through choppy seas when something unusual was spotted. It was the Mary Celeste. The strange thing was that the crew of the Dei Gratia would not have seen anyone on the top deck. Suspecting something was wrong, a group from the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste in order to investigate. They found the cargo hold full of barrels of alcohol, charts strewn about below deck, belongings of the crew still in their quarters, and plenty of food and water. They discovered that one of the ship’s two water pumps had been disassembled, and they found the Mary Celeste’s sounding rod, a device used to measure any water in the cargo hold, on the top deck.
But what they did not find were any humans. They were gone and would be never seen again.
The lifeboat was missing too, but otherwise, the ship was in remarkably good condition. The Mary Celeste’s logs were still present, the last entry being at 5:00 a.m. on November 25th. Captain Briggs noted that he was about 6 miles from and within sight of Santa Maria Island of the Azores. Some of Dei Gratia’s crew were assigned to take over the Mary Celeste and sail it to Gibraltar where a British vice admiralty court conducted an inquiry led by the local attorney general Frederick Solly-Flood. The purpose of the proceedings was to decide if the Dei Gratia crew would receive salvage rights since they found the Mary Celeste.
So this leaves us with the enduring question: what happened to the crew?
A number of theories have been proposed over the years. Some are very plausible while others are outrageously ridiculous. For example, we can safely rule out the idea of attacking sea monsters.
Apparently, Frederick Solly-Flood may have been at least a little bit suspicious of the Dei Gratia crew’s actions and thus seemed to conduct a more thorough investigation than usual. A potential scenario would be the Dei Gratia sailors boarding the Mary Celeste and murdering its crew in an attempt to fraudulently claim salvage rights of the ship and its cargo. But the inquiry found no evidence of this and after more than 3 months, ruled in favor of giving salvage rights to the Dei Gratia crew. Although it should be noted that they ended up receiving only 1/6th of the estimated $46,000 value of the ship and cargo.
Another theory that has been considered is the idea that members of the crew might have mutinied and murdered everyone else after which they would have fled the scene in the lifeboat. Two German Brothers, Volkert and Boye Lorenzen, have been proposed by some as potential suspects because their personal belongings were not found on board the Mary Celeste, whereas the rest of the crew’s possessions were. Descendants of the crew don’t believe they would have done this, and it does not appear that the boarding party found any evidence of murder. No blood was reported. As to why the two brothers had no belongings on board, one of their descendants has explained this by saying that earlier in the year, their possessions had been lost when the ship they had been aboard wrecked.
Another scenario that has been proposed over the years is the idea that perhaps alcohol vapors from the cargo had escaped and expanded in the tropical heat. The theory is that the crew detected this and quickly abandoned ship for fear of an impending explosion. Of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol, nine were found to be empty. Apparently these nine were made from red oak which is more porous and probably led to the barrels leaking. But according to reports, these were the only ones found empty. It should also be noted that the Dei Gratia boarding party said the cargo hatch was secured and did not report the smell of any alcohol fumes. If the Mary Celeste crew had detected alcohol vapors in the hold, you would think they would have opened the hatch to let the fumes vent out.
The last theory I’ll discuss is probably the most likely one, although it’s pretty safe to say that we will never know for sure. When it was discovered, the Mary Celeste had about three and a half feet of water sloshing around in the cargo hold, and the sounding rod was on the top deck which could indicate its recent use. Also remember that one of the two water pumps was apparently not working since it had been found disassembled. We should also consider that because the cargo hold was so full, Captain Briggs may have had a difficult time getting measurements, and as a result, he could have believed more water was present than really was. According to the logs, they had gone through some bad weather. Briggs had also recently ordered the ship to alter course in order to head north of Santa Maria Island, possibly seeking safety. The thinking is that perhaps the captain believed the Mary Celeste was in the process of sinking because of the water in the hold. Remember that the last log entry on November 25th stated that Santa Maria Island of the Azores was in sight. After the Azores, the ship would have been in open water for hundreds of miles before reaching land again. And since vessels in those days had no radios or wireless communication, abandoning ship in the open ocean was about the last thing you wanted to do because the odds of surviving would be extremely slim. So it would make sense that if Captain Briggs believed the ship was sinking, he would have abandoned ship while in sight of land in order to increase their chances of survival. Another potential factor which could have played an added role is that some researchers believe that during the last five days of the voyage, Captain Briggs may have been having navigation problems, perhaps from a faulty chronometer. An oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts examined the evidence and has said that the Mary Celeste may have been as much as 120 miles to the west of where Briggs thought he was. The result would have been that the ship may have arrived at Santa Maria Island days later than the captain expected. If this is true, it could have been a factor that created added concern to the situation. Either way, the idea is that Captain Briggs may have believed there was too much water in the hold, and with at least one of the pumps out of action, he might have thought they were about to sink. This would explain their abandoning ship into the lifeboat. When the Mary Celeste didn’t sink, it would have been moving too fast for them to catch up, being in the small lifeboat. After that, something must have happened, whether the lifeboat overturned, sank, or was unable to reach land.
While this last scenario is likely the closest to what may have happened, we will in all probability never know for sure. And you know what? That’s okay.
Because most people enjoy a enduring eerie mystery.
Have you ever heard the eerie tale of the Mary Celeste?