Ghost Ships - The Mary Celeste (The greatest maritime mystery of all time?)

Post by: Dee White
17 December 2012

On November 5th 1872, the Mary Celeste, a brigantine merchant ship, commanded by Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, set sail from Staten Island, New York, bound for Genoa, Italy. She carried a cargo of commercial alcohol intended for fortifying Italian wines, worth about $35,000. The ship and cargo were insured for $46,000. The crew of seven included one Dane, four Germans and two Americans. All spoke fluent English and were considered to be trustworthy, capable and experienced seamen. In addition the vessel carried the captain's wife and two-year-old daughter.

Waiting for his cargo to arrive before setting sail on a similar course, was an old friend of Briggs, Captain David Reed Morehouse of the Canadian ship "Dei Gratia". Briggs was the first to leave while Morehouse had to wait another seven days. Although there had been some bad weather reported in the Atlantic during October, the "Dei Gratia" did not encounter any of it and had an uneventful journey until, on December 4th, the helmsman sighted a ship 8 km off their port. He noticed that there was something strange about the vessel as she was yawing slightly and flying torn sails. Moving closer they saw that the ship was the "Mary Celeste", who should have reached Italy by this time, having had a head start. The crew's account states that they approached to 400 yards from the "Mary Celeste" and observed her for two hours as she sailed erratically on a starboard tack, heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. No-one could be seen at the helm or on deck, so they concluded that the ship was drifting, even though she was flying no distress signal.

The first mate of the "Dei Gratia" was the first to board the "Mary Celeste". According to his report there was a lot of water between decks and in the hold and only one operational pump, (two having been disassembled). However the vessel was not in danger of sinking and was still seaworthy. But where were the captain and crew? He found no-one on board, the ship's papers, sextant and marine chronometer were missing, the deck hatches were removed, the clock was not working, the compass was destroyed and the only lifeboat was gone. The cargo seemed intact, but when finally unloaded in Genoa, it was found that nine barrels were empty. A six-month supply of food was found, there was fresh water and the crew's personal possessions looked untouched. This seemed to rule out the possibility of piracy. The vessel had apparently been abandoned in a hurry, but there was no sign of any sort of struggle or violence. Strangely, a long, strong rope was found dragging behind the vessel, attached to its stern but frayed at the other end. It seems that stories of untouched breakfasts and warm cups of tea on the cabin table developed from fictional accounts based on the story of the "Mary Celeste".

Captain Morehouse put his first mate in charge of the "Mary Celeste" and they headed for Gibraltar, where an investigation was held. The enquiry lasted for three months and excited the worlds press. The ship was examined by a surveyor, diver and marine expert and the whole vessel was found to be in good order, with no trace of anything to show that she had suffered any accident and no evidence of mutiny, struggle or violence. Eventually the salvagers received payment of one-sixth of the insurance covering the ship and cargo and the remainder of the alcohol was taken to Genoa as intended. Consuls and port officials were instructed to report sightings of anyone matching the description of Briggs and his crew and to look out for any of the missing items from the "Mary Celeste". Nothing was ever found!

Can a ship be cursed?

The "Mary Celeste" had had a chequered history even before Briggs took over as captain. Originally named the "Amazon", her first captain, Robert McLellan contracted pneumonia only nine days after taking command, and died at the beginning of her maiden voyage. John Nutting, the next captain struck a fishing boat and while his vessel was being repaired, a fire broke out on the ship. Her next captain collided with a vessel in the English Channel and was dismissed from his post. During an uneventful but profitable six years she transported a wide range of cargoes to the West Indies and Central and South America, but then ran aground during a storm in 1867. After she was salvaged she was renamed "Mary Celeste" and Briggs became one of the four joint owners.

What could have happened?

Newspapers of the time reported that the incident was no mystery but an insurance fraud, others favoured the idea of mutiny by a drunken crew, or that the vessel was a victim of piracy. Fiction writers confused public thinking by producing wild tales that were later published by the media as true accounts. Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of the most widely read authors inspired by the boat's disappearance. In fact if it were not for fictional retellings of the story, the disappearance of the "Mary Celeste" may well have been forgotten. One theory, published on the front page of the New York Times, was that the crew had got at the alcohol and murdered Briggs and his family in a drunken frenzy, but this idea was later changed in favour of a conspiracy between Briggs and Morehouse.

Many stories blame freaks of weather for the catastrophe. Some believe that the vessel encountered a waterspout, rogue wave or sea-quake, but in that case some heavy damage would be expected to be sustained, and none was found. Sea monsters too have been blamed for the disappearance of the crew, though the idea of such a monster picking off all the crew in turn, including the missing items of equipment, is highly improbable.

One of the favourite theories is based on the nine empty barrels found when the vessel reached Gibraltar. It seems that the majority of the barrels were made of white oak, which is watertight, (the reason why it is used for liquids). The nine empty barrels were apparently made of red oak, which has open pores and is usually used only for dry goods. The alcohol in these barrels would have soaked through them and although alcohol evaporates quickly the smell would have permeated the ship's hold. The removed deck hatches imply that the crew were trying to disperse the flammable fumes, but as alcohol vapour is heavier than air, it is unlikely that they could have got rid of it easily. In this scenario the slightest spark could have caused an explosion and the crew could well have been frightened enough to take to the lifeboat. The captain would have taken with him the bare essentials needed for navigation, such as sextant and chronometer, but left behind the non-essentials. Does the presence of the strong line, imply that they secured the yawl to the "Mary Celeste" until the danger was over and it had become accidentally severed, casting the whole crew adrift? Unable to catch up the ship, had they tried to reach the Azores, but become swamped by the ocean and sunk without trace? The fumes may well have had time to disperse, so that none of Captain Morehouse's crew would have smelled anything.

Over the years so called "survivors" have come forward claiming to have the true account of what happened aboard the "Mary Celeste", but without exception these have been proved to be hoaxes.

A twist to the tale.

In 1884 an old, unkempt, "Mary Celeste" was bought by Gilman C. Parker, loaded with freight and insured for $30,000. She headed for Port-au-Prince in Haiti, but on January 3rd 1885 she ran aground on a coral reef. The insurance companies regarded Parker's claim with suspicion and found that he had loaded his vessel with rubbish, deliberately run her aground and set her alight. Parker was charged with fraud and criminal negligence, but managed to get off because of a legal technicality, in spite of evidence seeming to prove that he was guilty of a whole range of maritime crimes. So he and his fellow conspirators walked free, or did they? Perhaps the curse of the "Mary Celeste" was still working its gruesome magic. It was not long before Parker went bankrupt and died in poverty and disgrace. One of his associates went insane and was committed to a mental institution where he died. Another committed suicide.

So – was the "Mary Celeste" simply unfortunate or cursed? We shall never know what happened on that fateful journey and no doubt many more theories will be put forward to explain her plight. Undoubtedly though she remains the archetypal "ghost ship" and her name will be forever linked with unexplained disasters.