The winter of 1872 saw the worst Atlantic storms since records began. Gales and tempests ravaged the ocean making perilous transatlantic voyages even more hazardous.
Ship after ship foundered and was lost upon cruel, unforgiving seas.
Common sense advised that it was safer to stay in port til spring but in the years when trade between continents depended entirely upon shipping, there was no room for the faint hearted.
When the brigantine the Mary Celeste slipped out of New York harbor on November 7th, its captain, his family and his crew knew they were in for a stormy voyage.
What they didn’t know is that they were to become part of one of the most famous enigmas in shipping history.
A month later their ship would be discovered crew-less and abandoned thousands of miles away. Deserted without explanation, the ghostly sailing ship appeared to give no clue to the fate of its human occupants.
In the years that have followed many have attempted to solve this enduring puzzle, to offer the Mary Celeste theory that best fits the meagre facts.
To this day however, there is no consensus between those who seek to offer an explanation.
As for the Mary Celeste, she was cruelly scuttled some years later for her insurance value.
Will we ever know what happened that fateful winter’s day or did the Mary Celeste take the secret of this baffling mystery with her to her own watery grave?
The Voyage of 1872
In 1872 the brigantine Mary Celeste owned by a consortium headed by the businessmen James. H. Winchester underwent a major refit and expansion.
Built in 1860 and originally named the Amazon she was nearing the end of her working life when her investors decided to pay for a major refit.
Her cargo space was increased, a new deck was added and the cabin space was expanded to make room for a new captain and his family.
The newly appointed captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs was also an investor in the consortium.
An experienced and much respected sea captain, Briggs was reputedly conscientious and methodical in everything he did.
On the 5th November 1872 the Marie Celeste left port to sail to Genoa, Italy . On board was Captain Briggs, his wife and infant child and seven crewmen.
Their cargo was industrial alcohol. Stored safely in the hold, the captain must have been confident that his volatile cargo was no threat to his crew and family.
Immediately after leaving New York, Marie Celeste met a storm and holed up at Staten Island for two days.
Was this an omen of what was to come on this fateful journey?
We will never know.
What we do know is that the Mary Celeste truly began her journey across the Atlantic Ocean on the 7th November 1872.
The Marie Celeste was spotted at various points on her voyage and recorded in the log books of those ships who saw her.
On the 7th December 1872 she was sighted for a final time by another merchant ship the Dei Gratia. Witnessed sailing erratically near the Azores, the Marie Celeste appeared to be out of control.
At first Captain David Moorhouse of the Dei Gratia was reluctant to approach the ailing ship, fearing piracy.
Eventually though, he sent a party of men led by one of his officers Oliver Deveau, to recover the stricken vessel and investigate what happened.
What Oliver Deveau discovered as he boarded the stricken Mary Celeste was to inspire a mystery that many believe still remains unsolved.
No living creature was discovered upon the Mary Celeste.
Climbing on board Deveau first noted that the top decks were awash with water, yet there was no evidence of flooding below.
Further investigation discovered that while two minor hatches were open the main hatch to the hold was secured.
One of the ships pumps was dismantled on deck as if it was being serviced or repaired. The sounding rod which was used to measure flooding in the pumps was also found on the deck.
When Deveau sounded the pumps himself, he discovered there was less than 4 feet of water, not enough to abandon ship.
Inside the cabins, the floors were drenched with water yet items such as Mrs. Briggs’ harmonium were bone dry and undamaged.
The mouldy breakfast of a small child, lay uneaten on a table indicating that the abandonment of the ship was a hurried affair that took place in the morning time.
Inspecting the cargo hold, the Dei Gratia search party discovered all of the barrels of alcohol were intact and there was enough food and water to feed the captain, his crew and family for six months.
Deveau also discovered during his search that significant items were missing. The single lifeboat was gone as was the peak halyard, the longest rope on the ship.
Puzzlingly, working charts were found on board but not the ship’s papers or navigational tools including the chronometer.
The ship’s clock and compass were both found broken. The captain’s log, possibly one of the most important items on a ship was found in Captain Brigg’s cabin, meticulously filled in, the very least expected from a good captain.
The last entry in the log was recorded 10 days before the ship was seen aimlessly floating on the sea.
It was highly likely that the crew-less ghost ship had drifted hundreds of miles across the Atlantic before being discovered.
Assuming the crew were dead and with little other choice, the British registered Dei Gratia crew sailed the Mary Celeste into the nearest British port, Gibraltar, and claimed salvage.
Immediately, they became the prime suspects for the murder of the Marie Celeste’s crew and passengers.
Investigated by Frederick Solly Flood, a man convinced that foul play had occurred, the Dei Gratia and its captain came under intense scrutiny.
Eventually, their own ship’s log and the fact that no evidence of foul play could be discovered on board, meant that the Dei Gratia crew were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Reluctantly, Solly Flood accepted that natural causes were the probable reason for the abandonment of the Mary Celeste.
The ship was allowed to continue her journey to the port of Genoa in Italy with her cargo of alcohol. Interestingly, the disappointed De Gratia crew were only to receive one sixth of the salvage value of the Mary Celeste.
Suspicion was to hang over them for many years.
The story of the Mary Celeste may have been consigned to history if it was not for the author Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes books.
Some twelve years later, he used the essence of the mystery to write an entirely fictional version of events.
Although his work was fictional, the intrigue surrounding the Mary Celeste caught the public’s interest and a hundred theories of what happened to the stricken vessel during its fateful journey, were born.
The Crew of the Dei Gratia
The crew of the Dei Gratia were the first and most obvious suspects in the strange case of the Mary Celeste. They profited from the salvage of the Mary Celeste and could have easily murdered the crew and family on board without any witnesses.
Investigations proved however, that they left the port of New York sometime after the Mary Celeste and sailed north of the Azores while the Mary Celeste sailed south.
Careful calculations proved that the captain of the Dei Gratia was telling the truth when he said that they did not encounter the Mary Celeste until the 7th of December, 10 days after the last entry in her log.
Despite detailed searches for blood, no evidence of foul play was found on board.
The Mary Celeste was carrying a valuable cargo of alcohol on her voyage. This was a time when piracy was still rife on the Atlantic Ocean.
Piracy was ruled out when valuables and the cargo on the Mary Celeste were discovered untouched. Had pirates hijacked the ship they would have had ten days to clear the ship of its cargo and valuables.
Some people have put forward the theory that the flour on board the Marie Celeste was poisoned with an hallucinogenic called Ergot fungus.
Consumed in large amounts it could have caused someone on board to go mad and murder the others.
The theory seems unlikely until you consider that the same fungus was probably the cause of the events that led to the Salem witch hunts.
In the case of the Mary Celeste, the theory falls flat though. There were no signs of violence on board and the crew of the Dei Gratia showed no ill effects when they consumed the same flour.
When it was initially examined by the crew of the Dei Gratia, the cargo of the Mary Celeste appeared to be intact. However, when it eventually reached Genoa nine of the sealed barrels of alcohol were empty.
Immediately suspicions grew that one or more crew of the Mary Celeste had drunk the industrial strength alcohol and in a drunken rampage had killed everyone else on board.
Once again this was discounted because there were no signs of violence on board. Intriguingly the empty barrels were to give rise to another popular theory some years later.
Mutiny on Board
One of the most astonishing Mary Celeste theories arose during the years between the two world wars in the twentieth century.
Captain Briggs had written of his satisfaction with his crew at the beginning of his voyage and there is nothing to suggest that they were anything other than honest and good men.
Three of the men however, were German.
During the twentieth century the theory gathered support that they were responsible for the murder of everyone on board the Mary Celeste, before escaping in the only available lifeboat.
The fact the belongings of two of the men were not on board added fuel to the fire.
Once again the theory can be discounted because of the lack of evidence of violence on board. Sadly, it also transpired that the two unfortunate men whose belongings were missing, had nothing other than the clothes they stood up in.
They had lost everything when their previous ship had sunk and were merely trying to work their passage home.
Tsunami, Sea Quakes and Water Spouts
Many scientists have sought an explanation for the mystery of the Mary Celeste in the natural world, citing the number of natural phenomena that have occurred in this area as a possible solution.
However, any such event would have caused massive disturbance on board ship. The crew and family would be unlikely to abandon the safety of a large ship for a small lifeboat, had such a phenomena occurred.
If the disturbance was so great that they were washed overboard why was nothing else on the ship disturbed?
Plates and dishes remained on their shelves and even a small bottle of oil stood carefully balanced on Mrs. Briggs’ sewing machine.
Explosion in the Hold
The cargo in the hold of the Mary Celeste was certainly an unstable and volatile substance, industrial alcohol. When the ship finally docked at Genoa nine of the sealed barrels were found to be empty.
One popular theory purports that the alcohol leaked from the barrels, releasing violent fumes which blew open the two hatches to the hold.
Concerned that the ship was about to blow up the captain did the unthinkable. He crowded the crew and his family into the one lifeboat and using the peak halyard tied the lifeboat to the stern of the ship hoping to climb back on board when it was safe.
Unfortunately, the rope at some point snapped and was left trailing in the water behind the ship.
The lifeboat and its occupants were left unable to climb back on board and died of hunger and thirst as they drifted out to sea.
This theory certainly seems to be a valid theory until the physical evidence is carefully scrutinized.
The nine barrels had indeed leaked. Mistakenly manufactured from porous red rather than white oak, they would have been indistinguishable with the naked eye.
However, scientific investigation has proven that they would have leaked slowly. There was unlikely to be a massive build-up of gas that eventually ignited and blew off the hatches leading to the hold.
If this had been the case the smell of alcohol would still be detectable ten days later when the crew of the Dei Gratia came on board.
No smell was ever reported by the crew of the Dei Gratia who examined the barrels. The main hatch to the hold was still intact and sealed and had not blown off.
The two hatches that had been removed merely provided access to equipment and sails and did not lead to the cargo.
At the end of his career, still plagued by the mystery of the Mary Celeste, the original examiner Frederick Solly Flood re-examined the evidence again and recorded his new findings.
He could not accept that an experienced captain would abandon ship without a valid reason. Finally, convinced that foul play had not occurred he concluded that there may have been a catastrophic failure of equipment that led Briggs to mistakenly believe his ship was about to sink.
This theory has been examined by shipping experts over the years. The sounding rod was found on deck and one of the ship’s pumps had clearly been examined.
During that period in history the sounding rod was covered in ash and dipped into the pump to measure how high the water level was. The previous cargo of the Mary Celeste was coal and she had recently undergone a refit which would have generated a lot of sawdust.
Had her bilges become clogged with silt and other residue, giving a false reading?
It is possible but doesn’t explain why ten days later Oliver Deveau used the same rod in the same pump and decided the water level was safe.
Another very plausible theory is that Captain Briggs realized that he was many miles off course. Sighting the island of Santa Maria, he would have realized that the one chronometer on board, one that he had hired for the voyage, was inaccurate.
Analysis of his log book demonstrates that it was almost eight minutes off. It seems feasible that he may have tried to head to Santa Maria in the lifeboat to get the chronometer repaired or to pick up a new one.
Why then did he take his whole crew, his wife and his baby in a tiny lifeboat when they would have been safer on board? And why before he left did he destroy both the compass and the ship’s clock?
At its closest point the Mary Celeste was just a few miles away from the island, the weather would have been good and there was no reason for the small boat to sink.
Curses, aliens, sea monsters and the Bermuda Triangle, just some of the many theories that have been put forward to explain the enigma of the Mary Celeste.
Many may scoff at these suggestions but the truth is that if it cannot be discounted then it is still a possibility. The Mary Celeste theory that best fits the physical evidence is probably the most likely explanation.
The problem is that there is very little physical evidence and so many theories.
The only facts that we know for sure is that an experienced sea captain, his crew and his family, did the unthinkable and abandoned the safety of their vessel for a tiny lifeboat on a November day in 1872.
Lost forever like the Mary Celeste herself, we will probably never know the reason why.