The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste sometimes referred to (incorrectly) as the Marie Celeste, was originally named the Amazon a 282-gross ton brigantine [1] built in 1861 by the shipbuilders of Joshua Dewis, Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia. She was discovered December 4 or 5 (exact day uncertain) 1872 by the Dei Gratia some 600 miles west of Portugal purportedly abandoned yet still under sail and heading for the Strait of Gibraltar. The disappearance of the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste has been a subject of speculation and controversy for almost a century and a half and has been referred to as one of the greatest maritime mysteries of all time.

The fateful voyage began normally enough, the Mary Celeste after taking aboard a cargo of commercial alcohol, worth at the time about $35,000 and heavily insured, set sail November 7, 1872, from Staten Island, for Genoa, Italy, under the command of Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs an experienced seaman and master mariner.

Along with the Captain and a capable carefully chosen crew (a Dane, four Germans and two Americans) were the Captain’s wife and their two year old daughter.

Prior to sailing Briggs and his wife had dined with an old friend, David Reed Morehouse, the Captain of the Dei Gratia (also a brigantine) and his wife. During the conversation it came to light that both ships were bound for the Mediterranean. As fate would have it, however, the Dei Gratia was delayed waiting for cargo, finally sailing seven some say eight days later. If the ships had left together perhaps the mystery would have never been a mystery at all.

In any event approximately a month later (December 4 or 5) the Dei Gratia overtook the Mary Celeste and after cautiously observing her for 2 hours determined she was abandoned and drifting. The Dei Gratia’s chief mate, Oliver Deveau, finally boarded the brigantine reporting back that the ship was crewless and partialy flooded but still seaworthy (only one pump was operational, the other two having been disassembled).

The Captain’s logbook was found but other papers were missing. The forehatch and storage locker were open but the main hatch was sealed. The sextant and chronometer were missing, the clock broken, the compass destroyed. The ships lifeboat, a yawl, was also missing, a rope, perhaps a halyard, was found trailing in the water its end frayed.

Stories of untouched food and still warm cups of tea on the cabin table are apparently untrue, Deveau stating he saw no prepared food or drink in evidence.

The two ships were sailed to Gibraltar (the Dei Gratia was a British Empire vessel) arriving a week and a half apart. Two investigations were held, first by the British then by the Americans.

Even though no evidence of piracy, foul play, mutiny or violence was ever found (an initial finding of blood on a sword and in the Captain’s cabin was discovered to be rust) the salvagers only received a sixth of the insurance money, suggesting investigators were not totally convinced of their innocence. [2]

The cargo was eventually delivered to its destination (Genoa) as per the original contract.

During the following 13 years the Mary Celeste change hands 17 times, until her last captain and owner G.C. Parker deliberately ran her aground off Haiti January 3, 1885. This rather lame attempt at insurance fraud proved unsuccessful, however, when in spite of also being set afire
the vessel failed to sink. Parker was arrested following an investigation but died before his trial.

A number of theories relating to the mystery have been advanced, some listed below:

Piracy: Six months of stored food and water along with the crew’s personal effects were found, this along with a lack of visible signs of struggle make piracy unlikely.

Insurance fraud: Unlikely, the insurance on ship and cargo though substantial (in current money approximately $680.000)
was not a great amount per person when split amongst both crews all of which would have to keep the secret some having to assume new identities.

Mutiny: Unlikely, both captain and crew had excellent reputations.

Storm: A freak storm might have caused the crew to abandon ship in the missing lifeboat (there was extra water in the bilge). Unfortunately no storms were reported in the area.

Seaquake and the risk of explosion: Nine of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol were empty, perhaps jarred open by an undersea quake (seismic activity is common in the area). If the leaking containers had filled the hold with combustible fumes, the possibility of explosion might have panicked the crew causing them to abandon ship. Unfortunately no smell of alcohol was reported. [3]
Rogue waves: Extreme or abnormal waves [4] are a threat even to large modern ocean-going vessels and might have washed crew and passengers overboard. Once thought to be folklore, modern satellite images have confirmed their existence.

And finally a “Bermuda Triangle” like event, though the Mary Celeste’s route (between New York and Gibraltar) was in the North Atlantic nowhere near that infamous region.

[1] The brigantine, its name derived from the Italian word brigantino and a favorite of Mediterranean pirates, was originally a small ship carrying both sails and oars; later the term came to mean a merchant ship with two masts, the mainmast being fore-and-aft rigged while the foremast is square rigged.

[2] A watch at various ports was put into place, but nothing untoward ever came to light.

[3] Upon returning to the Dei Gratia, Deveau had allegedly reported the cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol to be intact; upon unloading in Genoa, however, nine barrels were found to be empty.

[4] Not to be confused with tsunamis (triggered by undersea quakes) rogue waves seem to occur where fast currents and strong winds converge.

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