The Mary Celeste
by Christian Petrie
There are many events in history where you mention a name and everyone knows what you are talking about. You mention the name Mary Celeste and many people will recall a ghost ship. The ship where everyone vanished without a trace. However, can they name where it was headed to, how many people vanished, and what happened to it? As with history there is more to it than a name. When you learn the story of the Mary Celeste, you find there’s a lot of history behind the ship originally named Amazon in Nova Scotia that found a final end in Haiti.
The Mary Celeste began life as the Amazon and was a brigante, or also known as a hermaphrodite brig. Her length was between 100 to 103 feet in length. She was built in 1861, near the end of the Age of Sail, at Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia. She continued life as the Amazon, until late 1868/early 1869, when she ran aground at Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. After this accident, she was repaired and put up at a New York salvage auction, where she was sold for somewhere between $3,000 and $10,000 and renamed to the Mary Celeste The new owners were James H. Winchester, Sylvester Goodwin, and Benjamin Spooner Briggs.
On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste shipped out from Staten Island, New York, headed toward Genoa, in Italy. The night before leaving port, Captain Briggs had dinner with Captain David Reed Morehouse, captain of the Dei Gratia. This is important to note, because the next ship to see the Mary Celeste after it left port, was the Dei Gratia. The cargo consisted of 1,701 barrels of alcohol. This cargo plays a hand in the fate of the Mary Celeste, and other theories about the disappearance of the people on board.
It was between the Azores and Portugal when she was seen again, on the 4th of December. Captain Morehouse first spotted the Mary Celeste, noted that it was drifting, and followed it for almost two hours before sending men over to it. Popular mythology has the Mary Celeste in perfect condition, with food still left on the table, as if the people got up and left it behind. This is not quite from the case. You have to keep in mind the Mary Celeste was sailing across the Atlantic ocean in winter, which can be rough for any ship at that time of year.
When the men from the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste they found ship to be completely soaked. There was lots of water between the decks, with about 3 feet of water in the hold. Of the two pumps used for pumping water out, only one of them was operable. In the hold the cargo appeared to be intact, even though it was unbalanced. When the cargo was unloaded, it was later found out that nine of the barrels were empty. In addition there still was a six month supply of food and water still on board.
On the upper deck of the ship the forehatch and the lazarette (a hatch located in the aft of the ship), were both opened and the main halyard was found broken and hanging over the side. Important navigation tools like the sextant and marine chronometer were missing, the compass destroyed, and the ship’s clock was not functioning. The captain’s logbook was there, with the last entry was dated November 24th. The ship’s slate, last dated November 25th, showed she had made it past the island of St. Mary. The crew had also left behind their oil skin boots and pipes. The obvious question arose: Where did everyone go?
After some discussion, it was decided to split the crew of Dei Gratia with one half going on board the Mary Celeste, to sail it to Gibraltar. Once in Gibraltar, in order to claim the salvaging rights for the Mary Celeste, the crew of the Dei Gratia had to go through a Court Hearing. It would have been a simple hearing, if it had not been for CourtFrederick Solly Flood. From the beginning he started to turn it into a trial of the crew of the Dei Gratia. He believed that they had something to do with the disappearance of those on board the Mary Celeste.
Because of the events that happened in Gibraltar, the Mary Celeste started to become a famous ghost ship. The simple method is write the ship off, give the Dei Gratia crew their money, end of the story. The hearing starts what becomes in time, the different stories of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste.
Frederick Flood starts by saying that the Dei Gratia got drunk on the alcohol that the Mary Celeste was shipping, then in their drunken state killed the crew. This theory is eliminated because the alcohol on board the Mary Celeste would probably kill you if you drank it. The next theory, Briggs and Morehouse conspired together, with Briggs killing the crew then meeting up with Morehouse, who killed him. Well, this falls flat because the money from salvaging ship would not cover the costs of owning the ship, which Briggs was a part owner. Additional accusations brought up, until the Admiralty Court brings it to an end. Though instead of the full amount for the salvage, the court awards the crew of the Dei Gratia a partial salvage.
From the court hearing, any type of crew murder can be discounted, because no blood was found the Mary Celeste. Testimony by crewman Oliver Deveau and Dr. J. Parton show that no blood was found on board the Mary Celeste. This still did not prevent additional speculations over time have involved murder, even a 1935 movie staring Belia Lougsi. The accusations of murder did increase interest in the story of the Mary Celeste, but eventually people started to forget about it, for the time being. It would not be until after the Mary Celeste was gone did interest began again.
Even though the salvage rights had been settle, what to do with the Mary Celeste? The Mary Celeste went through many hands for the next 12 years, until a fateful trip to Haiti. On its final trip, the Mary Celeste was loaded with boots and cat food, then deliberately ran aground on a coral reef, in order for it to sink and the owner to collect the insurance money for it. Unfortunately for the owner, the ship did not completely sink, and the case of insurance fraud was found out. The Mary Celeste was left to be consumed by the coral reef.
Interest in the Mary Celeste had died down, but what started to make it so memorable after all these years. At the time the crew and passengers vanished off the Mary Celeste, other similar incidents occurred as well. The interest had increased because of Fredrick Flood, but once the case was settled it went away. Then in 1884 a story was published called J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. This story talked about a ship called the Marie Celeste and how its crew vanished. When it was found, the tea was still hot in the cups on board. Many people took this story to be the actual story about the Mary Celeste. Examples from the book started to mix in with the true story, that people believed the fiction. It did help its author find some fame, his name was Arthur Conan Doyle.
From this point additional stories or theories started coming out. There was one person who claimed to be a stowaway on the ship who watched the crew get eaten by sharks, you had people claiming giant squids attacked the ship, or that the Bermuda Triangle was involved. Movies and TV added their own twists for stories as well. But what did happen to the crew?
When you do a search on the Mary Celeste you will come across different theories, but there is one the appears to be most likely what happened. If you remember back to the story, when they opened the barrels of alcohol up, a few of them were empty. Before this voyage, Captain Briggs never took a shipment of this type of alcohol before. Depending on circumstances, it could explode. Based on recent tests, what probably happened is the crew opened the holds to check on the alcohol and either smelled the leaking alcohol, or the rush of air in caused a large rush of fumes and steam out of the hold.
Either way the captain, or everyone, thought the ship was about to exploded. They boarded the lifeboat, and floated a safe distance away. Then the rope attaching them to the ship broke and they could not catch up with the ship. This explanation backs up the open hold doors, the missing life boat, and the rope over the edge of the rails. Another sound explanation is the ship encountered a waterspout, a water tornado, that gave the effect of the ship sinking, in which case everyone boarded the lifeboat and the similar event occurred where the rope broke.
Unfortunately, with how much time has passed, we might never know the definite answer to the mystery of the Mary Celeste, but it is one ghost ship that will continue to fascinate us.