Mary Celeste – The Unsolved Mystery of Her Lost Passengers and Abandonment
The Mary Celeste was an American ship that was found adrift and abandoned near the Azores Islands on December 5, 1872. The mystery surrounding her has to do with what happened to her passengers and crew and why she was abandoned in the first place, as she was still seaworthy at the time.
Mary Celeste was originally a British ship called Amazon built in Nova Scotia. She completed her maiden voyage in 1861. Seven years later, she was sold to some Americans who changed her name to Mary Celeste.
Four years later, the ship’s owners, a group of New York businessmen, decided to completely overhaul their ship. They increased her length from 99.3 feet to 103 feet, added a second deck, replaced many of her timbers, and extended the poop deck. They also hired a new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs.
Captain Briggs was in his mid-thirties and had a wife and two children. He also owned a share of the ship and hoped to earn enough money from that investment to finance his retirement from sea so he could go into business with his brother. He hired seven crewmen and arranged to have his wife and daughter travel with him, while his school-age son stayed home.
The new captain’s first voyage was to Genoa, Italy to deliver some industrial alcohol. After making the appropriate preparations, he and his crew departed from New York Harbor on November 7, 1872. A Canadian vessel, Dei Gratia, departed from Hoboken, New Jersey a few days later. She was also bound for Genoa and thus took the same general route as the Celeste.
Some weeks later, on December 4, the crew of the Dei Gratia found a ship sailing unsteadily towards them. As the two ships drew closer, the crew noted that there did not seem to be anybody aboard the other ship. When they boarded the ship, the Dei Gratia crewmen found that the one lifeboat was missing, and that the crew of the Mary Celeste had left behind their belongings and six months’ worth of food.
The Dei Gratia’s crew towed the drifting ship to Gibraltar where the British maintained a vice-admiralty court. They called a salvage hearing to determine what the ship’s insurers owed the crew of the Dei Gratia. Frederick Solly-Flood, the attorney general in charge of the hearing, suspected foul play, however. It took the court three months to investigate the case and rule out foul play. Even so, they paid the salvagers only $46,000 – which was about a sixth of what the ship and its contents were worth.
Speculation and Fantasy
The mystery surrounding the Celeste sparked people’s imaginations. In 1884, Conan Doyle, who would eventually create the character Sherlock Holmes, wrote a short story about the ship that was supposed to be from the point of view of a survivor. He blamed the ship’s fate on an ex-slave seeking revenge. A 1935 movie cast Bela Lugosi as a murderous sailor.
Over the years, many people proposed different theories to explain the ship’s abandonment: pirates, sea monsters, waterspouts, and mutiny were among them.
Anne MacGregor, a documentarian known for her use of modern forensic techniques to investigate historical mysteries, became interested in the mystery in 2002. She began by quickly ruling out the more improbable scenarios. The ship had been seaworthy when the crew of the Dei Gratia had found it, which meant it had not been damaged by a waterspout or attacked by some creature. MacGregor just as quickly decided against pirates, for they would not have left the cargo behind. After interviewing descendants of the crewmen, she decided that mutiny did not fit what was known about the sailors’ characters. Captain Briggs had been an experienced and respected commander who would have needed a very good reason to abandon ship as he had apparently done.
The last log entry, dated November 25, stated that the ship was six miles from Santa Maria, one of the Azores Islands. MacGregor noted that most captains who give the order to abandon ship only do so in sight of land – and Santa Maria was the last land around for hundreds of miles. It was thus the last available possible haven for a ship in distress. In addition, Captain Briggs had not sighted the island until three days after he had expected to find land, which suggests he had probably gone off course. Phil Richardson, an oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was working with MacGregor, found data that indicated Briggs had indeed gone 120 miles west of where he thought he was.
The crew of the Dei Gratia had also found a disassembled pump when they boarded the Celeste. MacGregor had discovered records describing how the Celeste had transported coal right before its refitting. Both coal dust and construction debris could have fouled the pump and caused the ship to take on water—and historical records indicated it had just weathered some rough seas. Finally, the ship’s hull was jammed with cargo so that Briggs couldn’t even tell how much water it had taken on. MacGregor concluded that Briggs, fearing the ship might sink, gave the order to abandon it after reaching Santa Maria.
Dr. Sella’s Experiment
Dr. Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London (UCL), also believed that Briggs had abandoned ship, albeit for a different reason. Earlier investigators had speculated that there had been an explosion on board, but many people had dismissed this idea because of the absence of burn marks and other damage.
In 2006, Dr. Sella built a replica of the ship’s hold and filled it with paper cubes rather than wooden barrels. He then used butane gas to mimic an explosion caused by barrels leaking alcohol in the hold. While the blast sent a fireball upwards, it did not burn the paper cubes or scorch anything else in the hold.
The ship’s records reported that 300 gallons of alcohol had leaked out of their barrels – more than enough to produce an explosion. The explosion could have easily been produced by two barrels rubbing against each other and producing sparks or by a pipe-smoking crewman opening the hatch. The explosion would have likely blown the hatches open and terrified people into abandoning the ship.
Did an explosion trigger an abandon ship order? Are sabotage or revenge to blame? Pirates? Exactly what happened to the Mary Celeste and her passengers and crew remains one of the many unsolved mysteries of history.