It’s December 1872 and Captain David Morehouse and his crew are sailing through the Atlantic Ocean, past the Azores. But somewhere between these islands and the Portuguese coast, the sailors stumble across something incredibly bizarre. In the distance, a mysterious vessel suddenly appears before their own ship, the Dei Gratia.
As this curious boat drifts closer, the crew of the Dei Gratia notice that all isn’t as it should be. Although the vessel appears to be in working order, she is moving across the water in a strange way. Moreover, her decks are deserted – and no crew members appear to answer their calls.
Concerned, Captain Morehouse sends two crew members to investigate – and they soon report back with troubling news. Apparently, the vessel is the Mary Celeste and her crew are nowhere to be seen. But how did these people simply disappear in the middle of the ocean? Even today, nobody can answer this question for sure.
Back in the mid-19th century, the United States had the second largest merchant fleet in the world. In fact, it was second only to Great Britain. And even while the U.S. was on the brink of Civil War, shipbuilders across North America continued to forge vessels destined to carry valuable cargoes around the world.
Among these Civil War-era vessels was a ship called the Amazon, built by Joshua Dewis of Nova Scotia in 1860. A merchant brigantine almost 100 feet long, she set sail on her first voyage in June 1861. However, she was dogged by ill-fortune from the start. And just weeks into her maiden journey, the Amazon’s captain contracted an illness and died.
Strangely, that wasn’t the only unfortunate incident to befall the Amazon and her crew. Apparently, the vessel was also involved in a collision off the coast of Maine and later managed to sink another sailing ship somewhere in the English Channel. Nevertheless, she remained in service until October 1867, plying the waters of the West Indies, England and the Mediterranean.
That month, however, the Amazon was wrecked on the Nova Scotia coast and abandoned by her owners. Bought as a derelict, the ship was eventually sold to a New York mariner named Richard W. Haines for less than $2,000. And after an expensive renovation project, the vessel was renamed the Mary Celeste in December 1868.
The following year, Haines found himself in financial trouble and the Mary Celeste was seized by creditors. The ship was then sold to a collective of owners based in New York. And by November 1872 she had undergone an extensive renovation. And she also picked up another captain named Benjamin Spooner Briggs.
Born in the Massachusetts town of Wareham in April 1835, Briggs was always destined to go to sea. Apparently, his seafaring father had five sons – and only one of them decided to pursue a career on land. The other four found work in the maritime trade, with Briggs and one brother eventually obtaining the rank of captain.
A devout Christian, Briggs was known to study the Bible diligently and attend regular prayer meetings. In 1862 he tied the knot with Sarah Elizabeth Cobb. And three years later, the couple’s son Arthur was born. Arthur was then followed by a daughter named Sophia Matilda in 1870. By then, Briggs was at the height of his professional career.
Despite his successes, however, Briggs began to yearn for a life on land. But when a business venture with his brother Oliver failed to materialize, he decided to purchase a share in a merchant vessel. As fate would have it, he decided on the Mary Celeste. And soon he found himself installed as captain on the doomed ship.
In October 1872 Briggs was preparing the Mary Celeste for her first sailing since the renovation work carried out in New York. And for such an important journey, he went to great lengths in order to select a competent crew. Eventually, he assembled a team of seven seamen whom he trusted to carry the ship safely to Genoa.
However, Briggs and his crew of seven were not the only people due to set sail on the Mary Celeste. Tragically, the captain also invited his wife and their young daughter to join him on the ill-fated voyage. In fact, only Arthur, who was due to attend school, was left behind.
On October 20, 1872, the Mary Celeste moored on New York’s East River so that the crew could begin loading her cargo – more than 1,700 barrels of industrial alcohol. And two weeks later, the captain penned a letter full of hope for the voyage ahead. “Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage,” he reportedly wrote.
Two days later, the Mary Celeste set sail for Genoa. But at first, bad weather halted her progress before she had even left the American coast. Eventually, after lingering near Staten Island for two nights, the ship abandoned the safety of the harbor and ventured out into the wide Atlantic Ocean.
Tragically, the crew of the Mary Celeste would never be seen again. On December 5, 1872, the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia was around 400 miles off the coast of the Azores islands in the North Atlantic. Also bound for Genoa, she had left New Jersey eight days after Briggs’ vessel. And now she was trailing roughly in her footsteps en route to the Italian coast.
On the afternoon of December 5, the helmsman of the Dei Gratia reported something strange to Captain Morehouse. Apparently, he had spotted a vessel some six miles away, drifting erratically in their direction. And taking a closer look, the captain realized that something was amiss with the mystery ship.
As this vessel neared the Dei Gratia, Morehouse was unable to spot anyone on the deck. And despite appearing to be in a seaworthy condition, the ship apparently looked to be drifting without control. Eventually, the captain decided to send two of his crew members over to assess the situation.
On board the mystery vessel, the two men were in for a surprise. Shockingly, they discovered that she was the Mary Celeste – the same brigantine that had left port just eight days before the Dei Gratia. But somehow all of her ten passengers and crew had disappeared – leaving only a sinister ghost ship behind.
According to reports, the men found the Mary Celeste deserted, her sails and rigging set – although damaged in places. But broadly speaking, the whole ship was actually in good working order. And furthermore, the vessel’s cargo and the possessions of her crew members were still safely stowed on board.
As the men continued to explore, the mystery deepened. Apparently, the Mary Celeste’s cabins had been soaked through – probably as a result of unsecured skylights and doors. Indeed, over three feet of water was discovered sloshing around in the vessel’s hold. And although the main hatch to below decks was sealed shut, two others had been left open.
But despite the water found on the Mary Celeste, it was clear that the vessel wasn’t in danger of submerging. So what had happened to everyone on board? In the captain’s cabin, the men discovered that Briggs’ navigational equipment and papers were gone. So had he decided to abandon ship with his crew and family in tow?
According to records, the Mary Celeste was equipped with just one lifeboat – which was missing from the deserted decks. But if he did voluntarily abandon the ship, what could have prompted Briggs to make such a dangerous move? Did he believe that the vessel was threatened in some way – or had something even more sinister occurred?
Unfortunately, the log book contained little that clarified the situation. Apparently, the last entry had been made on November 25, when the Mary Celeste was just off the coast of Santa Maria. This is the most southerly of the Azores islands. Since then, the vessel had covered almost 400 nautical miles.
Elsewhere, the men discovered enough provisions to sustain the crew of the Mary Celeste for a number of months. Thus, they could rule out one potential reason for the abandonment of the ship. Baffled by what they had found on board the abandoned vessel, they reported back to Morehouse. He, in turn, dispatched some of his crew to sail Mary Celeste some 600 nautical miles to Gibraltar.
In Gibraltar, Morehouse believed that he would receive a hefty reward for salvaging the Mary Celeste and her cargo. However, given the mystery surrounding her crew’s disappearance, the vessel became the subject of a lengthy trial. And at first, the authorities suspected that some kind of foul play had taken place.
Interestingly, an initial examination of the Mary Celeste revealed two marks on the ship’s bow, which investigators believed had been deliberately made. Moreover, possible bloodstains were discovered on the vessel’s rails and on a sword belonging to Briggs. With these findings in mind, the Attorney General of Gibraltar, Frederick Solly-Flood, concluded that violence had erupted on board.
According to reports, Solly-Flood believed that the crew of the Mary Celeste had gotten drunk on the vessel’s cargo. And thereafter, they attacked Briggs and his family in an intoxicated rage. With their captain dead, he proposed that they had made the cuts in the bow in order to fake a collision, eventually fleeing in the lifeboat. Furthermore, he didn’t believe the ship had sailed 400 nautical miles with no one aboard. Instead, he suspected that the log book had been forged.
However, there were several problems with Solly-Flood’s theory. One, the alcohol on board the Mary Celeste was of an industrial grade and therefore not suitable for human consumption. And even if it had been, the crew had been carefully selected by Briggs and were unlikely to have rebelled in such a way. Moreover, it was later revealed that the stains were not blood after all. And the markings, it seems, had been naturally worn by the sea.
Eventually, a new crew was assigned to the Mary Celeste and she left Gibraltar to complete her journey to Genoa. Meanwhile, Morehouse and his crew finally received the salvage payment – although it was much less than they had expected. And even though nothing had been proven, there remained a lingering suspicion that men rather than nature had played a hand in the strange disappearance.
Indeed, a conspiracy between Briggs and Morehouse is one of many theories that have been put forward over the years. Allegedly, the two captains had been acquantainces and were rumored to have dined together before their respective voyages. Had the pair devised a scam to get rich from the vessel’s salvage rights? Or might the Dei Gratia’s captain have disposed of the other ship’s crew for financial gain?
Unsurprisingly, both of these theories have flaws. For example, if Briggs intended to disappear, it seems unlikely that he would have done so without his young son. And if Morehouse had launched an attack on the Mary Celeste, how had he managed to catch up with a vessel that had left port eight days before?
However, these are far from the only theories to spring up surrounding the Mary Celeste. According to some, the mystery can be explained by marauding pirates who slaughtered those on board. However, such criminals were not common at this specific time and place. And after all, the vessel’s cargo – along with the crew’s personal possessions – were left behind.
Today, a common explanation is that some kind of natural phenomenon occurred, prompting Briggs to believe that the Mary Celeste had become unsafe. Proposed situations range from the sudden appearance of an iceberg to the perils of becoming fixed in place thanks to a lack of wind. However, some believe that a type of marine tornado known as a waterspout might have been responsible.
Apparently, a waterspout could’ve flooded the decks of the Mary Celeste and created conditions that filled the pumps with water. And this could have led the crew to believe that the ship was in worse condition than it actually was. Interestingly, a device used to measure water levels known as a sounding rod was found on the deck of the abandoned vessel.
Might the crew of the Mary Celeste have believed that the vessel was sinking, prompting them to abandon ship? Another common theory is that a seaquake could have dislodged the barrels of alcohol, releasing the potent fumes stored within. And fearing an explosion, Briggs might have launched the lifeboat in order to escape.
But although some of these theories seem more likely than others, no one has ever been able to definitively prove what happened on board the Mary Celeste. In fact, as science has moved on, the mystery has seemingly only deepened. And in 2007 the Smithsonian Channel proposed yet another solution in their documentary The True History of the Mary Celeste.
According to this theory, dust from a previous cargo could have caused the Mary Celeste’s pumps to malfunction. This might have prevented Briggs from measuring how much water the ship had taken on throughout his journey. Moreover, an inaccurate chronometer might’ve led the captain to mistake their position, prompting him to abandon a potentially unsafe vessel.
With so many theories, it’s no wonder that the Mary Celeste has gone down as one of the ocean’s greatest mysteries. In fact, her name is now used as a catchword for any kind of inexplicable disappearance. However, the fate of the ship herself was a little more prosaic. Dogged by misfortune until her last days, she was eventually wrecked near Haiti as part of an unsuccessful insurance scam.
Meanwhile, a number of legends have sprung up surrounding the Mary Celeste that have little basis in fact. For example, some believe that Morehouse’s crew found food still on the table of the stricken ship, the galley fire still burning and a log book annotated just moments before. Indeed, such tales have helped to build the myth of Briggs’ fateful vessel and have ensured her place in history.