In early November 1872, Captain Benjamin Briggs was ready to make his maiden voyage at the helm of the 100-foot brigantine Mary Celeste. He had spent weeks supervising the loading of her cargo, 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol, and had selected the seven-man crew with care. The journey from New York to Genoa, Italy would be a relatively short one, but Briggs had good reason to be cautious. Not only had the master mariner used his life savings to buy a stake in the Mary Celeste, his wife, Sarah, and two-year-old daughter, Sophia, would also be accompanying him on the voyage.
On Sunday, November 3, Briggs addressed a letter to his mother in Marion, Massachusetts. “Our vessel is in beautiful trim,” he wrote, “and I hope we shall have a fine passage.” Four days later, he, his family, and his crew were finally on their way.
They were never seen again.
Eight days after the Mary Celeste left New York Harbor, the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia set sail on the same course to Genoa. It was a routine voyage until the afternoon of December 4, when crew members saw a strange sight midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal: a ship drifting erratically in the choppy waters of the North Atlantic, with only a few to its sails flying. After trying to signal the Mary Celeste and receiving no response, Captain David Morehouse sent three of his men to investigate. They found a scene from a ghost story.
Not a soul was left on board. The ship’s wheel spun aimlessly on the empty deck. A damaged sail hung from the foremast; many of the other sails were missing altogether. The only lifeboat was gone and one of the ship’s pumps had been disassembled. Except for a few damaged barrels, the cargo was secure and the hull was filled with three and a half feet of standing water—not enough to cause serious concern. The galley was fully stocked with six months’ worth of provisions. Rain and seawater had spilled below decks through an open hatch, but the cabins were otherwise in decent order. The crew had left behind their foul weather gear, tobacco, and pipes. In the captain’s quarters, Sarah Briggs’s sewing machine and parlor melodeon (a small organ) were undisturbed. A soggy mattress was indented with the shape of a sleeping child.
The logbook’s final entry, dated November 24, was filled with routine detail, but it placed the Mary Celeste nearly 400 nautical miles west of where the Dei Gratia first spotted her. With no explanation for why Captain Briggs had abandoned a perfectly sound ship in the middle of the ocean or how the vessel could have traveled so far under partial sail, Captain Morehouse decided to bring the Mary Celeste to the Port of Gibraltar. Under maritime law, he was entitled to a share of the combined value of the ship and its cargo. It was a decision he and his crew would come to regret.
The hearing to determine the fate of the derelict ship was conducted by Frederick Solly-Flood, Attorney General of Gibraltar. He quickly came to believe that a serious crime had been committed under the influence of alcohol—never mind that the industrial variety in the ship’s hold was poisonous. As evidence, Flood pointed to reddish stains found on one of the ship’s rails and a sword in Captain’s Briggs’ cabin, as well as cuts made to the bow. His theory was that the crew had mutinied, killing the captain and his family in a drunken frenzy. To cover their tracks, they damaged the bow to make it look like the ship had been in a collision, then set sail in the lifeboat with most of the ship’s papers and the captain’s navigational instruments.
Captain Morehouse and the crew of the Dei Gratia also came under Flood’s suspicions. He believed they were lying about where they’d located the Mary Celeste and had gone so far as to doctor the abandoned ship’s log. Although the attorney general’s wildest claims were soon disproven—tests on the reddish stains came back negative for blood, and a U.S. Navy inspector ruled that cuts on the bow weren’t man-made—a dark cloud of suspicion would hang over Captain Morehouse and his crew for the rest of their careers.
Nevertheless, the story of the Mary Celeste might have been buried in the annals of maritime history if it hadn’t been for a young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle. In one of his earliest published works, Doyle changed the name of the ship to Marie Celeste and spun a tale of bloody mutiny led by a “half-caste” from New Orleans who murdered his captain and officers and sailed to West Africa, where he intended to establish an empire. “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” was published in January 1884 and was so convincing that the U.S. consul in Gibraltar, who had taken part in the initial investigation, inquired if any part of the story might be true.
From there, interest in the story of the ghost ship took off. Countless theories have emerged in the 145 years since the Mary Celeste was found adrift, including a pirate attack, an encounter with a killer giant squid, a catastrophic waterspout, and abduction by aliens. More plausibly, the damaged barrels in the ship’s hold have fueled speculation that a seaquake caused a leakage of combustible alcohol fumes. The resulting explosion might have panicked Captain Briggs into issuing a premature order to abandon ship. But if that were the case, wouldn’t the crew of the Dei Gratia have smelled the lingering fumes or found evidence of a fire?
In 2007, documentarian Anne MacGregor drew on newly discovered documents and interviews with nautical experts and the descendants of Captain Briggs and his crew members to offer what might be the most likely scenario yet.
In The True Story of the Mary Celeste, MacGregor focuses on the disassembled water pump and a makeshift sounding rod found on the ship’s empty deck. This evidence, along with a detailed analysis of the ship’s log book and contemporaneous weather conditions, leads her to believe that a combination of faulty equipment, rough seas, and bad luck sealed the fate of the Mary Celeste. According to the documentary, coal dust and other debris from the ship’s previous cargo interfered with the crew’s ability to determine exactly how much water they’d taken on during a sustained period of bad weather. To make matters worse, a broken chronometer convinced Briggs that he was more than 100 miles west of his true location. As a result, he sighted the Azores three days later than he expected to. Anxious for the safety of his family and crew, he made the decision to abandon ship within sight of land—and inadvertently caused his worst nightmare to come true.
In truth, we’ll likely never know what happened to the ten people who vanished in the North Atlantic sometime between November 24 and December 4, 1872. The available facts are too few, the possibilities nearly limitless. But the final destiny of the Mary Celeste is clear—in January 1885, she was deliberately wrecked on a coral reef off the coast of Haiti. Her captain, Gilman C. Parker, had conspired with a group of Boston shippers to commit insurance fraud. Somewhere, Attorney General Flood rejoiced. The ghost ship would never sail again.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons