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Mystery of the “Mary Celeste”

Of all the unsolved mysteries of the sea, none has excited such interest and speculation as the fate of the “Mary Celeste”, which was found in December 1872 under full sail and in perfect order, but without a soul on board

The Mary Celeste in 1861

THE MARY CELESTE IN 1861, when she was named the Amazon. She was a two-masted brigatine built in 1861. The Mary Celeste was 98ft long with a beam of 25ft and a draught of 11ft, and a registered tonnage of 282.

THE crew of the Mary Celeste vanished for ever in November 1872; but even today the mystery of their fate provides, and probably always will provide, an enthralling subject for speculation — and interminable argument.

Go where you will, anywhere on the Seven Seas, and it is almost certain that before long someone will bring up the old, unsolved and apparently insoluble puzzle which, at one time or another, has intrigued and baffled all who take any interest in the sea — from experienced officers and grizzled seamen down to landsmen who, as the phrase has it, “don’t know a binnacle from a bull-whanger”.

Nor is this difficult to understand. Many who have never even seen the sea have some recollection — it has stuck in their memory because it was so utterly inexplicable, so entirely outside their experience — of hearing about a ship found on the high seas, in calm weather, with sail set, in perfect trim alow and aloft, and without a soul on board. Nearly all such stories refer to the Mary Celeste. Her story was not the first of its kind, nor the last — but it is by far the best-known, the best-authenticated and the most baffling. By common consent —a s evinced by the deep and abiding interest which it has excited throughout the years — it is the greatest mystery of the sea.

Nor is that all. Many mysteries have their day, and pass into limbo — they are forgotten or they are explained. The mystery of the Mary Celeste is far from being forgotten, and no entirely satisfactory explanation has ever been advanced. Moreover, it appears in the highest degree unlikely that any satisfactory solution will ever be found.

This has not been for want of trying. One way and another the number of suggested explanations is considerable. Over a dozen (excluding the frankly silly) have been published. At various dates several dying statements, confessions and so on have been published, each professing to give the true story of the Mary Celeste, and to have been written either by some survivor of that ill-fated ship or by some of the miscreants who pirated her or perhaps murdered her crew. Unfortunately, scarcely one of these remarkable documents is deserving of the slightest credence — by contrasting them with the known facts it is not difficult to expose most of them, as being, at best, the product of self-deception, and, in some instances, deliberate lies.

Separating Facts from Fiction

So far as is known, no one who sailed in the Mary Celeste from New York in November 1872 was alive a month later. Some of the attempted solutions too have been given in the form of fiction. It becomes necessary, therefore, first to disentangle the true facts of the story, so far as these can be established, from the mass of half-truth, rumour, speculation and sheer fiction which has gradually accumulated round them.

On November 6, 1872, the little brigantine Mary Celeste was lying alongside a wharf at New York, completing her stowage before leaving for Genoa. Not far from her lay the brig Dei Gratia, of Nova Scotia. This vessel afterwards found her derelict in the Atlantic.

The Mary Celeste was a small wooden ship, only 98 feet long by 25 feet beam, with a draught of 11 feet. She was a two-masted vessel (square-rigged on the foremast, fore-and-aft on the main), built at Parrsborough, Nova Scotia, in 1861, with a registered tonnage of 282. She seems to have been originally named the Amazon, this being afterwards changed to Mary Sellars, and this again —by a painter’s error — into Mary Celeste. The Mary Celeste had several part-owners, the principal being Captain J. H. Winchester, of New York. She was commanded by Captain Benjamin S. Briggs, of Massachusetts, who also held a share in her, and shipped a crew of seven men all told. In addition, Captain Briggs’ wife and his little daughter, aged two, sailed with him, making ten persons in all on board. The Mary Celeste carried a cargo of commercial alcohol, in barrels, consigned to a firm in Genoa and ultimately delivered safely at that port. On November 7 she sailed.

On the afternoon of December 5, 1872, the brig Dei Gratia, bound from New York to Gibraltar and then about half-way between the Azores and the Portuguese coast, found herself slowly overhauling a small brigantine. Both ships were on the port tack, the sea being calm and a light north wind blowing. About three miles to starboard was a steamer, afterwards ascertained to have been a German tramp outward-bound for the West Indies. She signalled the brigantine, and, having received no reply, held on her course.

As the Dei Gratia came up with the brigantine the skipper, Captain Morehouse, recognized her as the Mary Celeste. He and Captain Briggs were old acquaintances, and had dined together in New York the evening before Briggs sailed. Accordingly, Morehouse signalled her and was considerably surprised when he received no reply. Nor was this the only surprising thing. He knew Briggs for a good seaman and a “taut hand”, yet here was his ship yawing to and fro, luffing up into the wind one minute and falling off a point or two the next and, wonder of wonders, sailing on the port tack with her jib and foretopmast-staysail set to starboard. Putting his glass on to the helmsman’s position — by this time the ships were not more than half a mile apart — he discovered that there was no one at the wheel. Nor was anyone visible on deck anywhere.

Morehouse’s perplexity deepened into anxiety. When neither an “urgent” signal-hoist nor a full-throated hail at close quarters had drawn any acknowledgement from the silent little ship, he shortened sail, lowered a boat, and sent his first mate, Oliver Deveau, to investigate.

Deveau, having left one of his two men to tend the boat, climbed on board, abreast of the foremast, with the other. A glance round the decks revealed nothing beyond the fact — eloquent in itself of mischief — that they were entirely deserted. He accordingly sent the boat back for his skipper.

Morehouse and Deveau made their way cautiously aft, and entered the main cabin. It was deserted and its tidy appearance left them baffled. There was a sewing-machine on the table, and beside it a reel of cotton, a thimble and a small oil-can — objects which any violent roll would at once have flung to the deck. The table also bore the remains of a meal, and hanging from the lamp-bracket over it was Briggs’s watch. Here, too, was an unfinished letter begun by Richardson, the mate.

The bunks and Briggs’s little sleeping-cabin told the same tale of perfectly normal affairs. The bunks had been neatly made up, except one, on whose pillow the impression of a child’s small head was still clearly showing. Briggs’s small stock of ready cash was, apparently, untouched, as were a number of trinkets, including at least one gold locket. His clothes were neatly stowed in the drawers and his wife’s trunks — containing, most pathetic sight of all, the baby girl’s full outfit —stood full and untouched. On the other hand, one of the store-room drawers, normally containing tins of preserved meat, seemed to have been hastily cleared. Although the ship’s log was still on board, no trace could be found of her papers (the bills of lading, health-sheet, muster-lists, etc.) or of any chronometer or sextant.

Thoroughly mystified, the two men continued their search. The ship’s galley was in perfect order and so was the fo’c’sle. Here Morehouse and Deveau found the seamen’s chests standing, and full. Washing was hanging up to dry. There were razors, still bright and sharp. There were various small amounts of money and intimate personal effects, including tobacco and pipes.

The Dei Gratin’s officers lifted the hatches and sounded the well. The Mary Celeste was perfectly dry, and her cargo was in excellent order, the barrels properly stowed and, so far as they could see, unbroached. Moreover, as any seaman could tell at a glance, her masts, yards and rigging presented no obvious defect of any kind and she was amply provided with food and fresh water.

The log gave the searchers little help. Negligently kept, as might be anticipated in a small cargo vessel, its brief account of a month’s voyage contained only seven entries relating to the ship’s position. The last of these put her, on November 24 (eleven days before), in 36° 56' N., 27° 20' W. — rather more than 100 miles west of the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. The “rough slate”, however, on which such positions would normally be jotted down for transcription into the ship’s log, contained one more entry. From this it appeared that at 8 a.m. on the following morning (November 25) the Mary Celeste was 6 miles north-north-east from the eastern point of Santa Maria. There was no further entry and the doings of the ship and her crew from November 25 to December 5 remained entirely conjectural.

Valuables Left Behind

All that Morehouse and Deveau could glean from their long and thorough examination was that the ship had been abandoned, for some unknown reason, at almost a moment’s notice. Why else should her crew have left behind not only their clothes and personal trifles, but even their money and, most surprising of all, their pipes and tobacco? They had not even stopped to get the canvas off the ship, and Briggs — or whoever was in command at the moment — had not only left his valuables behind him, but also had gone with nothing whatever except the ship’s papers, his navigational instruments and a few tins of food. Most curious of all, his wife must have left without making any provision for either her own needs or her baby girl’s, beyond the clothes in which they stood.

The Mary Celeste’s small boat, which normally hung at its davits across the stern, was missing. Morehouse and Deveau had seen its falls trailing in the water before they came on board. Presumably, then, the ship’s company — if all were still alive when the ship was abandoned — had crowded into the boat.

Two slight clues offered. One of the hatchway covers had been removed. It lay, upside-down, close to the hatchway it normally closed. A cutlass, exhibiting what were thought to be traces of blood, was also discovered. One of the wooden upper-deck rails displayed a gash which might have been made by an axe, and close by, on the deck, were two or three spots, apparently of blood.

One thing at least was certain. The Mary Celeste was derelict — found abandoned on the high seas. Morehouse must tow or convoy her to the nearest suitable port, and there claim salvage. This he did, leaving Deveau and two hands on board with instructions to follow him to Gibraltar. The Dei Gratia arrived there in the evening of December 12, and the Mary Celeste on the following morning.

As was to be expected, the authorities at Gibraltar did not accept Morehouse’s extraordinary story without the most searching investigations. As soon as the Mary Celeste had been safely berthed, and her finding reported, the Admiralty Proctor at Gibraltar, Mr. Solly Flood, promptly had the ship “arrested in the customary manner”. Thereupon Morehouse at once put in his claim for salvage, supporting it by affidavits from Deveau and the brig’s crew. Normally, it is probable that such a claim would at once have been admitted; but, as Mr. Flood remarks, “the account which they gave of the soundness and good condition of the derelict was so extraordinary that I found it necessary to apply for a survey”.

THE TRACK OF THE MARY CELESTE up to the last entry found in her log

THE TRACK OF THE MARY CELESTE up to the last entry found in her log. That entry was made on November 24, 1872 (eleven days before her discovery by the Dei Gratia), and gave her position as 36° 56' N., 27° 20' W., rather more than 100 miles west of Santa Maria, an island in the Azores. A rough note, however, had been made of her position on November 25, which was given as 6 miles north-north-east of the eastern extremity of Santa  Maria. What happened to the Mary Celeste’s people has never been discovered.

THE TRACK OF THE MARY CELESTE up to the last entry found in her log

He had the ship rigorously examined by experts — including a diver and the local Surveyor of Shipping — who made an affidavit of their findings. Not content with this, he then made a personal examination, attended by the Marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court, four naval post-captains, and a colonel of the Royal Engineers. In addition, the supposed “bloodstains” on the deck and on the cutlass were analysed by a local doctor. Captain Shufeldt, of the U.S.S. Plymouth — then visiting Gibraltar — examined the Mary Celeste independently.

These various investigations brought to light scarcely any fresh evidence bearing upon the mystery. On the other hand, they showed that some portions of the evidence already available were of no great importance. For example, the smears on the cutlass were discovered to be rust, not blood.

The survey reported that the Mary Celeste’s hull was perfectly sound, not leaking in any way and exhibiting no trace of any collision, grounding or other injury. On either side of the bows, a couple of feet or so above the waterline, was a groove about an inch wide, three-eighths of an inch deep, and 6 or 7 feet long — apparently made recently, and with some sharp instrument. There were no other injuries discoverable either outside or inside the hull, nor was there any trace of an explosion or a fire, “or of anything calculated to create an alarm of an explosion or fire”. The ship was seaworthy, well-found and well-provisioned.

An Untenable Theory

Captain Shufeldt concurred in these findings, except as to the marks under the bows. He regarded them as due to the action of the sea, the planks having splintered along the seams, and the splinters having been afterwards torn off by the waves. Mr. Flood’s official report contains several errors of fact, and he observed:

“My own theory, or guess, is that the crew got at the alcohol, and in the fury of drunkenness murdered the Master, whose name was Briggs, his wife and child, and the chief mate; that they then damaged the bows of the vessel, with the view of giving it the appearance of having struck on rocks, or suffered a collision — and that they did, some time between the 25th November and the 5th December, escape on board some vessel bound for some North or South American port or the West Indies”.

The “mutiny” theory of the Mary Celeste’s abandonment has often been considered since; but it is quite un tenable. In the first place, Mr. Flood’s report led the U.S. authorities to circularize its Customs officers, instructing them to keep a sharp lookout for any seamen who might either have taken part in the supposed mutiny or have picked the mutineers up. None such were ever reported — and, in all probability, none such ever existed. Men do not mutiny for fun, but for revenge or for gain.

Briggs was a good-hearted, religious man and a staunch teetotaller, not in the least capable of hazing a crew into mutiny. Moreover, nobody but a landsman would ever regard the marks under the bows as indicating a faked shipwreck. If Mr. Flood had tasted the barrel which he — and no one else — suspected to have been broached, he would have found its contents (crude alcohol) nearly undrinkable. Why, on this theory, did the mutineers leave the Mary Celeste afloat, undamaged and with sail set, instead of scuttling her? If they wanted to make it perfectly certain that a hue and cry would be raised which would probably end in their being hanged for piracy they could scarcely have acted differently.

On March 25, 1873, the Vice-Admiralty Court at Gibraltar gave judgment. It awarded £1,700 to the Dei Gratia for services rendered, this sum representing about one-fifth of the sworn value of the Mary Celeste and her cargo.

Two months later it seemed for a moment that the fate of the Mary Celeste’s crew was in a fair way to being definitely known. Some fishermen off Cape Ortegal, the north-western promontory of the Spanish peninsula, reported having fallen in with two rafts, roped together, and bearing six dead bodies. One raft bore a stumpy mast, from which an American flag was flying.

Although it was, and remained, unconfirmed, this report seems, at first sight, to be inevitably associated with the Mary Celeste. But there are almost insuperable difficulties in the way. To build even one raft requires time and wood. So far as we know the Mary Celeste’s crew had neither. To all appearance, they left her at a moment’s notice. Moreover, none of her woodwork was missing, and she had no deck cargo or wood-store from which — even if time had permitted — rafts could have been improvised. Again, no seaman would either build or use a raft when a boat was available. Even if rafts and boats had been at hand, why should at least six men choose to drift

about on the rafts, leaving at most two men, a woman and a baby to man the ship’s boat?

The Mary Celeste remained afloat for twelve years, but, as might be expected, no one was anxious to sail in her. Captain G. W. Blatchford took command of her at Gibraltar, raised a crew with difficulty, and continued the voyage to Genoa, where her cargo was discharged. At the same time, the ship was “hove down” and her bottom carefully examined. No trace of any injury or weakness, however, was discovered.

Once back in America, she changed hands frequently. She was a “hoodoo ship” and seamen did their best to avoid her. She made her last voyage at the end of 1884, clearing from Boston for Haiti with a mixed cargo. On January 3, 1885, she ran on to Roshell’s Reef, off the Haitian coast, and became a total wreck. Investigation showed that her owners had induced the skipper to commit barratry — to run her ashore for the sake of her insurance. It was a disastrous venture for all concerned. The Mary Celeste’s skipper died before the case was adjudicated. His mate followed him three months later, one of the shippers committed suicide, all of the firms who had a hand in the fraud went bankrupt, and the very ship which rescued the Mary Celeste’s crew was wrecked, with loss of life, on her next voyage.

In attempting to solve the Mary Celeste mystery, it is useful to notice various other instances of the kind. On April 31, 1849, for instance, the Dutch schooner Hermania was picked up about ten miles south-east of the Eddystone by the fishing vessel Fame, of Rye. The schooner was dismasted, and had obviously been in collision, but was quite sound. Valuables were found on board, and clothing indicating that the captain’s wife and child had been with him. Her only boat was lying in its chocks, uninjured. Nothing was ever heard of the crew.

On February 28, 1855, the Marathon, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, fell in with the James B. Chester, a good-sized sailing ship, in about 30° N. and 40° W. She, too, was in perfect order, but abandoned. Her papers were missing, and it is uncertain whether all her boats were on board. A similar instance occurred during the war of 1914-18. The three-masted schooner Zebrina was discovered aground off Rozel Point, near Dielette, France, in October 1917. She was in good order, but abandoned. It was considered that her crew of five had probably been washed overboard during bad weather.

Finally, on November 27, 1919, the three-masted schooner Marion G. Douglas of Nova Scotia, with a cargo of timber, was found drifting off Bryher Island, in the Scillies. Ship and cargo were in good condition, and all the boats, including a motor launch, were on board. An explanation, however, was forthcoming. She had been abandoned in heavy weather a month earlier, her crew being taken off by another vessel.

It seems highly probable, however, that no satisfactory solution will ever be found to the Mary Celeste mystery. The established facts are almost incredible. Presumably, then, the true solution of them, if it were ever offered, would be similarly regarded. It would almost inevitably be something so far removed from ordinary experience that many plausible objections could be, and no doubt would be, raised against it. It could never hope to meet with general acceptance.

Panic Terror

There has been a suggestion that the abandonment was a put-up job between Briggs and Morehouse. Briggs, however, as part-owner of the ship, would have been personally liable for his share of the salvage costs. His share of ill-gotten gains could not possibly have amounted to much. Furthermore, he would have had to sink his identity and forsake his American home, to spend the rest of his life at the mercy of any one of his crew who chose to blackmail him. In addition, he and Morehouse were both men of excellent character and reputation.

The view that an outbreak of plague killed some of the crew and drove the remainder to abandon the ship is also untenable. The chance of escaping such contagion would be far less in the boat than on board the ship.

In a discussion of the problem in 1924 by a circle of nautical experts, these and several other theories were examined and rejected. But a new and in many ways seductive suggestion was put forward by Captain J. L. V. Millett, who had once served in the famous Cutty Sark.

Captain Millett’s theory was that the Mary Celeste, having cleared the Azores, had been blown out of her course towards the African coast. As she lay becalmed near the shore, a party of Riffs set out to board her — and the crew, as their only chance of escape, abandoned ship in all haste. The raiders, however, first sank the boat and all in it. Then, making for the deserted ship, they found her sails filled by a rising breeze, and were run down and sunk while attempting to board her over the bows — hence the marks found at Gibraltar. The Mary Celeste then would have drifted aimlessly on her way, until picked up by the Dei Gratia.

It is an excellent theory, but there is at least one fatal objection to it. An officer serving at Gibraltar in 1872 asserted that, of his own knowledge, exhaustive inquiries had been made at the time on the African coast. Nothing whatever, not even the vaguest rumour, could be heard of any ship having been attacked by the Riffs, and news travels fast and far in Africa.

Mr. John G. Lockhart, who has devoted much research to the mystery of the Mary Celeste, has since put forward another theory, which he inclines to regard as being the truth. He suggests that on November 27, 1872, when the Mary Celeste was a few miles off Santa Maria, a smell of gas, or rumbling noises, indicated that the cargo (crude alcohol) was on the point of exploding. Briggs ordered one of the hatches to be uncovered, to let the gas disperse. As this was being done a slight explosion occurred, overturning the hatch. Fearing that the ship might blow up at any moment, he gave orders to abandon her. The boat may have been capsized when getting clear or, possibly, wrecked when attempting to land. Meanwhile the Mary Celeste sailed on.

It is unnecessary, however, and probably incorrect, to suppose that the ship was abandoned off the Azores. The only evidence for this is the log — and that evidence is negative. If we knew that it was customary to write up the log every day, we should certainly assume that the absence of any entry after November 25 showed that the ship was abandoned on that day — but the log was written up only at long intervals.

While no theory has ever been produced which explains all the facts, and while it is most unlikely that such a theory will ever be produced, there is, however, a certain measure of agreement among the best of them. If they agree in nothing else, they agree upon the cause which drove the men and women of the Mary Celeste pell-mell over the side of a perfectly staunch ship into a frail open boat, there to take their chance of life or death in mid-Atlantic. That cause was not rebellion against authority, or greed of gain. It must have been stark fear, that panic terror against which even the bravest have sometimes no defence. But whether it was,. as seems most likely, the fear of imminent death, or the fear of the hereafter, or those darker fears engendered by the many superstitions to which seamen are prone — that, we do not know. It is not likely that we ever shall know.

You can read more on “Captain Bligh”, “Dramas of Salvage” and “The Menace of the Derelict” on this website.