The Mystery of the Mary Celeste: Crew Vanishes from Seaworthy Ship
On 4 December, 1872, a ship now known as the Mary Celeste was found adrift in the choppy seas of the Atlantic. The ship was in full sail and in sound and seaworthy condition with ample provisions, but when it was boarded it was found to be completely empty – the crew had vanished without a trace. It is a mystery that has endured for more than 135 years.
In January 1885, a ship slammed into Rochelois Reef, and was wrecked off the island of Haiti. The captain, Gilman Parker, sold the salvage rights to the American consul for $500, and made an insurance claim for the alleged value of the ship’s cargo. This was the end of one of the most infamous ships to have sailed the seas, the Mary Celeste. However, it was the incident 13 years prior to Parker’s wrecking of the Mary Celeste that made it one of history’s most enduring mysteries.
The Rochelois Bank in the Gulf of Gonâve, Haiti, where the Mary Celeste met its end. The Rochelois Bank is faintly discernible in the southerly channel between the island and the mainland. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Mary Celeste was a merchant brigantine that was launched under British registration in 1861 as Amazon. Seven years later, she was transferred to American ownership, and was re-christened as the Mary Celeste. The ship continued to sail uneventfully until her 1872 voyage from New York to Genoa. The ship’s captain was Benjamin Briggs, a man said to be a staunch abstainer from alcohol and a devout Christian. Captain Briggs was also described as a brave officer who would not abandon his ship unless to save his life. The first mate, Albert Richardson, was also considered fit to command, and was hand-picked by Captain Briggs. Additionally, Captain Brigg’s wife, his infant daughter, and six other crew members were on board the Mary Celeste.
The Missing Crew of the Mary Celeste. From Left to Right: Benjamin Briggs, Captain of Mary Celeste; Albert C. Richardson, First mate; Sarah Briggs, wife of Benjamin Briggs; Sophia Briggs, daughter of Benjamin and Sarah Briggs (public domain)
Towards the end of October 1872, the loading of the ship’s cargo – 1701 barrels of poisonous denatured alcohol began. On the 7th of November, the Mary Celeste left New York Harbour, and sailed into the Atlantic. On the 4th of December, the British brigantine Dei Gratia discovered the Mary Celeste sailing aimlessly between the Azores and Portugal. Upon closer inspection, the crew of the Dei Gratia discovered that there was no one on board the Mary Celeste, and the last entry in the ship’s daily log was written on the 24th of November. In spite of this, the ship was still in seaworthy condition, her cargo still largely intact, and her food and water supply sufficient for six months.
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It was also noted that the crew of the Mary Celeste had left their pipes for smoking behind. According to the explanation of the Dei Gratia’s captain, David Morehouse, this was a sign that the crew had left the ship in a panic. Moreover, the ship’s single lifeboat, as well as her chronometer and sextant, were missing. It was also revealed during the cross examination of Augustus Anderson (a seaman of the Dei Gratia) in the Admiralty inquiry that the main halyard, a sturdy rope about 8cm in circumference, was found to be broken and hanging over the side of the Mary Celeste. From these bits of evidence, a possible scenario may be pieced together: Something happened on the Mary Celeste that made the captain panic, and he ordered the crew to get into the lifeboat, and abandon ship. The halyard was used then tied to the lifeboat, and the captain and his crew trailed behind the Mary Celeste to see what would happen to her. The panic turned out to be a false alarm. Unfortunately for Captain Briggs, his family and crew, the halyard snapped during the raging storm, and they were unable to get themselves back to the Mary Celeste.
A memorial to the crew of the Mary Celeste, who vanished without a trace (lost-at-sea-memorials.com)
Explanations for the Abandonment of the Mary Celeste
The above scenario is perhaps one of the more logical and plausible explanations for the disappearance of the Mary Celeste’s crew. Nevertheless, there has not been any real consensus as to the cause of Captain Brigg’s panic, and numerous theories have been put forward. According to one sea captain, David Williams, the Mary Celeste was abandoned due to a seaquake, a relatively common phenomenon in the Azores. Williams argues that the seaquake caused nine barrels of the denatured alcohol to spill. As a result, there was fear that the alcoholic fumes would cause an explosion, prompting the captain to abandon ship. It has also been suggested that an explosion might have actually happened. As no signs of a fire or an explosion were discovered on the Mary Celeste, this has been discounted. A scientist from UCL, however, has demonstrated that a pressure-wave type of explosion might have happened. Whilst a spectacular wave of flame is produced, it is followed by relatively cold air, leaving neither soot, nor any marks of burning or scorching behind. Therefore, it is also possible that a huge but relatively harmless flame had terrified Captain Briggs into abandoning the Mary Celeste.
While this may provide one plausible theory, it has not stopped the dissemination of wild rumors and speculations regarding the final fate of the crew members. Over the decades, various suggestions have been made including crew mutiny, or the murder of a drunken crew by the crew of the Dei Gratia, who found the Mary Celeste. Others have suggested death by giant octopus or squid, or that the crew came upon a derelict ship containing treasure and deserted the Mary Celeste, living happily ever after in Spain.
If new evidence comes to light in the future, we just might be able to gain a better understanding of what happened to the Mary Celeste on her fateful voyage in 1872, and perhaps solve this mystery once and for all.
Featured image: A painting of the Mary Celeste as Amazon in 1861. Photo source: Wikimedia.
Blumberg, J., 2007. Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. [Online]
Collins, P., 2011. Ghost Ship. [Online]
Lee, A., 2006. Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/inthenews/itn060522
Ricketts, B., 2014. The Mary Celeste Mystery. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mysteriesofcanada.com/nova-scotia/mary-celeste/
Williams, D., 2015. Mary Celeste Was Abandoned During a Seaquake!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.deafwhale.com/maryceleste/