Discoveries: The Mystery of the Ghost Ship 'Mary Celeste'

Part of the fun of doing family history research in old newspapers is the occasional strange, unusual—and even mysterious—story you run across. Such certainly is the case with the merchant ship Mary Celeste.

Illustration: an 1861 painting (artist unknown) of the British ship Amazon,
later sold to American owners and renamed Mary Celeste. Credit: Wikipedia.

There have been many incredible tales about ships, sailors and the sea, but perhaps none quite as puzzling as the true-life story of the mysterious ghost ship Mary Celeste. This strange case baffled the world when it occurred in December 1872, and we are no closer to understanding it today. The Mary Celeste remains a mystery, with secrets the ocean has never revealed.

New York Herald (New York, New York), 15 March 1873, page 8

This much is known. On 5 November 1872, the Mary Celeste took on a cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol in New York City for Meissner Ackermann & Co. The alcohol was to be transported to Genoa, Italy, for use in strengthening Italian wines. The ship was seaworthy with an experienced captain and capable crew.

The Mary Celeste sailed out of Staten Island, New York. One month later it was discovered, under sail and in good shape, off the coast of southern Portugal—completely deserted. All ten people aboard had vanished without any sign of violence or struggle, and were never heard from again. What happened to them, and how the ship managed to sail merrily along for almost ten days without any crew, are enduring mysteries.

The captain of the Mary Celeste was Benjamin S. Briggs, who came from a seafaring family and had commanded other ships and made many successful voyages. He was known as a fair, pleasant man who was always appreciated by his crews. He was also a deeply religious man and a teetotaler. On this fateful trip, the captain was accompanied by his wife Sarah (who had made several other voyages with him) and their two-year-old daughter Sophia. Because of school, the couple left their seven-year-old son Arthur behind in Marion, Massachusetts, with the captain's mother. The other seven people on board were the crew: two Americans, one Dane, and four Germans, all with solid reputations who spoke good English.

The weather during their crossing of the Atlantic was fine, the crew harmonious and competent, the captain experienced and a good man to have in charge of a cargo of alcohol. Nothing should have gone wrong on this trip. And yet something did go terribly wrong...

On 4 December 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered by a passing ship, the Dei Gratia, heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar under sail and in fine, seaworthy condition. After observing the Mary Celeste for two hours without seeing signs of anyone on board, men from the Dei Gratia boarded the other ship and found it deserted. Everything else they found only deepened the mystery.

There were no signs of a violent struggle and the ship was not flying a distress signal. The cargo was intact, and there were personal belongings and valuables left in the cabins. The captain's watch was found hanging by his bed. The ship still had six months' supply of water and food. However, the lifeboat was gone, and all the ship's papers—except for the captain's log, which recorded nothing unusual—were missing. A rope was fastened to the end of the ship, whose frayed end was found trailing behind in the water.

The captain of the Dei Gratia, David Reed Morehouse, ordered some of his men to sail the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar to be claimed as salvage. Because of the suspicious circumstances a three-month inquiry was made by the Vice Admiralty Court, but in the end the crew of the Dei Gratia was cleared of any wrongdoing and granted a salvage award. As to what happened to the Mary Celeste and its missing crew, no answers could be found.

Newspapers were rife with speculation. There were three main rumors, but none of them withstands careful scrutiny.

One rumor was that the Mary Celeste had been overcome by pirates. However, what were originally thought to be drops of blood were shown by scientific tests to actually be rust stains. What is most convincing in debunking the pirate theory is this: there were no signs of a struggle, the cargo of alcohol was untouched, and valuables were left in the cabins. Can you possibly imagine pirates capturing a ship crammed with barrels of alcohol, with many valuables in the cabins, and not taking anything? The Mary Celeste would have been a dream prize for any pirate, and we can safely assume it was not captured by buccaneers.

The second rumor is that a mutiny occurred on board the Mary Celeste, but, again, the lack of any sign of a struggle seems to rule this out. Additionally, the reputations of the captain and crew make it almost a certainty there was no mutiny.

The third rumor was that the Mary Celeste was the victim of an insurance fraud, but this seems as implausible as the other two rumors. It is inconceivable that Captain Briggs, a man of sterling reputation, would go along with any such scheme—especially one that entailed abandoning his ship and forcing his wife and little girl to face the dangers of the sea in a lifeboat. Briggs also wrote his mother a letter shortly before the Mary Celeste departed, speaking optimistically of the voyage ahead and expressing his strong desire to see her and his little boy when the ship returned in the spring. This is hardly the background for a man planning to commit a half-baked and dangerous insurance fraud.

In recent times a theory has been proposed that, at first, seems plausible—but does not stand up to scrutiny any better than the 1872-1873 rumors. When the cargo was eventually delivered to the owners in Genoa, 9 of the 1,701 barrels were found to be empty. These nine barrels—and only these nine—were made of red oak, a more porous wood than the white oak used in all the other barrels. It has been speculated that the nine barrels leaked, and the crew became alarmed when they smelled the overwhelming vapors and feared an imminent explosion.

According to this theory everyone jumped into the lifeboat, fastened by a strong rope to the stern of the Mary Celeste, to wait for a period of time to see if an explosion would occur. Then for some reason the rope snapped, the lifeboat drifted away, and the Mary Celeste managed to sail on without her crew.

There are two important facts that contradict this theory. For one, when the men of the Dei Gratia entered the hold of the Mary Celeste less than ten days after it was abandoned, they smelled nothing. If the hold was reeking with alcoholic fumes so powerful that Captain Briggs and his crew were convinced an explosion was imminent, a strong smell would still have been prevalent. Especially because of fact number two: the main hatch of the Mary Celeste was still sealed when the ghost ship was discovered. If the crew feared an explosion from the build-up of alcoholic vapors, they would have opened the hatch to let the ship air out while they waited in the safety of the lifeboat. But they did not do that.

No, reason cannot solve the puzzle of the ghost ship Mary Celeste, for there is no explanation. It remains what it has been since its startling discovery on 4 December 1872: a mystery of the sea.