One of the most enduring mysteries of the seas first started to unravel in 1872, when a ship was found floating adrift in the Atlantic. The sea was choppy, but not so much so that the ship was damaged; in fact, when a crew boarded the ship to investigate just why this ship was floating adrift, they found that it was entirely seaworthy and safe to sail. The ship also had plenty of provisions, including food and drink, and so it seemed like it was a perfectly safe and comfortable ship to sail aboard and to live aboard. But when the crew stepped into the ship – which was later discovered to be the Mary Celeste – they realised that it was completely and utterly abandoned. There was no crew, no captain, no-one. Their personal belongings were still on board, and there is some confusion around whether the lifeboat was still tied to the Mary Celeste or not, and some sealore even states that there was some blood found once the crew got on board. The only other things missing were the ship’s chronometer and the papers of the ship. So what happened? History is still divided. Let’s take a dive into the Mary Celeste mystery.
The Mary Celeste set sail in 1872, aiming to travel from New York to Genoa. It was stocked with alcohol – to be precise, a rather poisonous form of denatured alcohol. 1701 barrels were loaded and on November the 7th, the crew set sail along with their cargo. The crew was made up of Captain Briggs, who was well known to abstain from alcohol as he was a devout Christian. He also told his crew that he would not abandon the ship unless he absolutely had to, in order to save his own life, and that what mattered the most was the voyage. There was also his First Mate, Albert Richardson. Richardson was picked by Briggs himself because he had to be considered capable of being Captain should anything happen to Briggs, as well as another six crew members. Briggs also brought his wife and child along for the voyage, not wanting to leave them alone at home. It’s fair to say that there were plenty of talented seamen along for the trip and that Richardson, in particular, could have steered the ship should have anything happened to Briggs.
Finding the Ship
The ship was found on December 4th by the Dei Gratia, less than a month after it had first set sail. The last log for the ship was November 25th, suggesting that something awful had happened just over two weeks after the ship had first set sail, even though it was supposed to be at sea for well over six months. Once the crew of the Dei Gratia got aboard, they found a few feet of water in the bottom quarter of the boat, but ultimately, everything else was still in a relatively good condition. It didn’t appear that the ship had been damaged by the adverse weather that it had set out in, either, so just what had happened to the crew, the captain’s wife, and the captain’s infant daughter?
The Salvage Mission
The crew that boarded the Mary Celeste ship from the Dei Gratia actually ended up sailing it another 800 miles to shore, and according to British law at the time, were entitled to payment for salvaging the ship. But the courts suspected that there was some foul play on behalf of the Dei Gratia crew, and thus an inquiry was held in order to determine the circumstances surrounding just what happened to the crew and why the Dei Gratia crew spent so much effort on salvaging the wreckage. After a three-month-long inquiry, which was actually an incredibly long inquiry for the time, no evidence of foul play was found. However, although the maximum amount payable to the crew was $46,000, they were only paid a sixth of that amount, which suggests that perhaps the authorities were not entirely happy with the crew of the Dei Gratia and their explanation for the events aboard the ship.
One of the many Mary Celeste theories circulated was investigated in further detail by Anne MacGregor, a documentarian. When looking through the last log of the Celeste, it was discovered that the ship was within just six miles of the Azores Island of Santa Maria. The ship was then found 400 miles from that spot, according to the Dei Gratia crew and it was thought that it could have easily floated to that spot of its own accord. MacGregor thought that the most likely scenario was that Briggs would only have ordered the crew off of the ship whilst they were still within sight of land – so around the 25th of November. The investigation continued, and it was concluded that perhaps Briggs was well off course and that he and the crew were seeking the safe haven of Santa Maria.
The night before the very last entry in the log, there was mentions of foul weather at sea. But that alone surely couldn’t have driven the crew away from the ship. So what happened to the Mary Celeste? According to MacGregor’s theory, on the voyage prior to this failed trip, the ship had carried coal and this had damaged the pump and so Briggs was unable to tell with the broken pump and broken chronometer whether or not his ship was going to be able to continue with the voyage, which is why he abandoned ship. However, this still doesn’t explain why no notes were left behind or why no sign of the crew has ever been found.
The Lifeboat Theory
Another theory suggests that the crew got onto the lifeboat and sailed safely to shore because some accounts of the trip have noted that the lifeboat was missing and the ropes attaching the lifeboat to the boat cut. Even if this were true, where are the crew? Why were they never found?
Plenty of other theories surround the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste. Everything from pirates to the paranormal has been suggested, as well as abductions and suicide by the captain. Some people think the crew were murdered at sea, whilst others think the crew of the Dei Gratia were to blame. It may be that we never know what happened to the Mary Celeste.
Mary Celeste the Ghost Ship
That’s not quite the end of the story, however. Since the fateful end of the voyage, the ghostly image of the Mary Celeste has been seen floating at sea on a number of different occasions by sea-farers far and wide. It’s been seen on the Atlantic and has been turned into one of those spooky sea tales that sailors tell one another over a whiskey during a long voyage. It seems that the Mary Celeste is perhaps one of the most enduring sea tales of all time, and until the mystery is solved, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing her for many years to come.
We’ve also written about more real ghost ships here.