The Curious Case of the Mary Celeste

Dear reader, it is time, I have decided, for a story about a ship. This one, I promise, is a rather good one, as it is not just about the Mary Celeste herself, but rather the mystery that surrounds her, and more particularly her crew. But we shall get to that in due course.

The Mary Celeste was a merchant sailing ship, a brigantine to be more precise (2 masts, fore mast square rigged, main mast at least partically gaff rigged). As built, she had a length of 99.3 ft, a beam (width) of 25.3 ft, and a draught (depth) of 11.7 ft, though later she would be rebuilt slightly larger in all dimensions. Made principally of timber, she was launched from Nova Scotia as the Amazon in 1861, at a displacement of around 200 tons. Her early history was rather eventful, with a few changes of captain, and quite a few times colliding with things like fishing equipment that she had no business colliding with.

After colliding with an island in a storm, she went on to be acquired by a new owner in 1868, who renamed her Mary Celeste, which she would carry thereafter. The damage sustained in the run in with the island was also repaired, and the ship was registered in the USA. Following a few changes in ownership, the ship was then put in for refit, during which time (as mentioned) the ship was made slightly larger, the internal layout was changed, and her tonnage increased to just over 280 tons.

None of this was particularly remarkable for the time, and indeed the ship would probably have been forgotten had it not been for what happened next. On November 7th, 1872, she sailed from New York bound for Genoa, Italy, with 1,701 barrels of alcohol (sources differ as to exaclty what kind, but it was not for drinking. Most likely it was denatured alcohol or similar). This was ironic as her captain, one Benjamin Spooner Briggs, was reported to be a non-drinker. Also on board were the Captain’s wife Sarah, and their 2 year old daughter Sophia, in addition to the rest of her crew, who were by all accounts competent.

At around the same time, on the 15th November, the Canadian Dei Gratia, another Brigantine (though slightly newer than the Mary Celeste) set sail for Genoa, her cargo being petroleum. Her Captain, one David Morehouse, is presumed to have known Briggs, but how well the pair knew each other is disputed. Some sources claim they dined together the night before the Mary Celeste sailed. This may not be true, but suffice to say they did at least have a passing familiarity.

The Dei Gratia went about her business as usual, braving the North Atlantic weather. On the 5th December 1872, Dei Gratia was approximately 400 miles east of the Azores when her crew sighted a ship behaving erratically on the horizon, with her sails not correctly set for the strong winds. Morehorse decided to get closer in the hopes of assisting the vessel, whereupon he identified the vessel as the Mary Celeste. Morehouse knew that since she had left 8 days before he had, she should already be in Genoa.

Attempting to signal the Mary Celeste, the Dei Gratia received no response. No activity was observed on the deck of the stricked vessel, leading Morehouse to send a boarding party to inspect the vessel. They found that water had entered through skylights, and the cabins were wet but otherwise in reasonable order. They found that food stores were ample, but the galley was in a poor state. The main hatches were closed. They found the hold had 2 to 3 ft of water in the bottom, but the cargo was largely intact. One of the pumps had been disassembled – not broken, just disassembled. What they did not find, alive or dead, were Captain Briggs, his wife, or his daughter, or any of the crew. The ship’s single lifeboat was also missing.

What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste? Nobody knows for sure, but nobody ever saw them again, alive or dead. The Mary Celeste herself was recovered by the crew of the Dei Gratia to Gibraltar, and went on to be used again, before finally meeting her end (weirdly in an insurance job) years later, having collided once again with an island.

While we may never know for certain what happened, we can certainly speculate. Let us go through the scenarios, starting with the least plausible.

Scenario 1: Sea Monster!

Likelihood: Very unlikely

So in this scenario a sea monster of some kind comes along and somehow kills all the crew. However, it is odd that the ship’s hull did not appear to be damaged, despite some damage to the rigging. It is also odd that no sea creature large enough and aggressive enough to somehow dislodge every single crew member from the ship has ever been found.

Scenario 2: Pirates!

Likelihood: Very unlikely

In this scenario, pirates of some description come along, and somehow dispose of the crew. Pirates are, however, known for stealing bounty, so it seems very strange that the cargo (the alcohol) was largely intact, save for a few barrels (which turned out to have been made from a weaker wood than the rest). Furthermore, one would expect a pirate ship to have been spotted and reported at some point. It seems odd to me that pirates would attempt to take the ship in relatively poor Atlantic weather, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility I suppose.

Scenario 3: Mutiny by the crew

Likelihood: Less than average

In this scenario, the crew decide that they do not like Captain Briggs and they mutiny. Some unfortunate circumstance meant that neither the Captain (who in this version of events would presumably be put off in the lifeboat) nor the crew survived. There are a few issues with this idea however. Firstly, it only explains why the Captain was missing, not the rest of the crew or the family. Secondly, there were no signs of a struggle on the ship, no blood, no bulletholes, nothing.

Suffice to say, this case has none of the typical hallmarks of a mutiny.

Scenario 4: Crew of the Dei Gratia attempting to steal the ship

Likelihood: Less than average

It was suspected at the time that this may have been the cause of the mystery. Even if they had not stolen any of the cargo, they would have been entitled to some money for “salvaging” the ship, for insurance reasons. However, by all accounts the crew of the Dei Gratia were upstanding people who would not sink to this level, and they were cleared of this after an investigation at the time.

Scenario 5: Freak Weather

Likelihood: Above average

While there is no record of a freak wave, there were high winds around at the time. Furthermore, although the log book of the Mary Celeste has no entries that mention anything unusual, the locations listed may well be inaccurate due to faulty navigational equipment. She may well have been heading for poor weather and her Captain may have failed to secure the ship in preparation. During the bad weather, Briggs may have felt he had to abandon ship, and the lifeboat may have been destroyed or simply lost.

However, even this most likely theory does have some flaws. The damage to the ship was not going to sink her and being an experienced sailor Briggs really should have known that. He should also have known that the crew had a much better chance of survival on board the Mary Celeste than in a tiny lifeboat, and although it has been said he wanted out of the shipping business, it still seems odd that he should choose to sacrifice himself and the entire crew rather than surviving and exiting the business by conventional means.

Much has been written about this mystery, most of it fiction. Even given the peculiar nature of the mystery, the whole affair may well have been lost to history had Arthur Conan Doyle (later to write the Sherlock Holmes series) not felt the need to dramatise it further in a short story, where he slightly renamed the vessel Marie Celeste. Almost everything in this short story was fictionalised, including the route of the vessel (which he changed to be from Boston to Lisbon, rather than New York to Genoa).

I am sure that you will have your own ideas, so please feel free to write them in the comments. Please do also feel free to share this about if you found it even mildly interesting, and make sure to have a lovely evening/morning/day/life.

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