What Happened to the Mary Celeste?

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste—a two-masted brigantine ship—set sail from New York City with a cargo hold full of industrial-strength alcohol, seven crew, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia. Its destination was Genoa, Italy.

Nearly a month later, on December 5, the crew of the Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste in the mid-Atlantic. The Dei Gratia’s captain, David Morehouse, recognized the Mary Celeste—she had sailed from the same port just eight days before his own departure, and he knew her captain. Concerned, Morehouse changed course and launched a boarding party to check on the Mary Celeste’s crew and passengers.

Morehouse’s crew found the Mary Celeste in decent shape, despite the North Atlantic’s foul disposition at that time of year. The cargo, save for a few barrels of alcohol, was intact. The ship was well stocked with enough food and water to last six months. The crewmen’s gear was still in their quarters.

But the crew, the captain, and his family were gone.1

Well, That’s Unfortunate. Free Ship, Though, Right?

Sure, that’s what the crew of the Dei Gratia thought. They sailed the Mary Celeste about 800 miles to Gibraltar, hoping to collect a salvage payment from the ship’s insurers.

The Mary Celeste, as she would have appeared when discovered by the Dei Gratia.

But, if they expected the circumstances wouldn’t raise any eyebrows among the British vice admiralty court, they were wrong. The attorney general leading the salvage inquiry, Frederick Solly-Flood, wasn’t as nonsensical as his name implied. He suspected something about this case wasn’t right, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it . . .

Oh, right. It’s because the Mary Celeste’s crew and passengers were missing, but they didn’t take their personal effects or food and water. And according to Captain Morehouse, the crew of Dei Gratia just found the Mary Celeste in solid condition, sailing itself. All things considered, it certainly looked like the crew of the Dei Gratia had murdered everyone aboard the Mary Celeste, dumped their bodies at sea, and sailed the stolen ship and its cargo to Gibraltar in order to claim salvage payment.

But did they?

Well, according to Mr. Solly-Flood and the salvage inquiry, no.

Sure, the fact that the crew of the Dei Gratia stood to gain financially from the disappearance of everyone aboard the Mary Celeste raised some alarm bells. But after over three months of stern, bewigged, British inquiry, the court found no evidence of foul play. They weren’t fully convinced, mind you, as the Dei Gratia received only one-sixth of the Mary Celeste’s $46,000 insurance policy. But the case concluded, and each Dei Gratia crewman walked away with around $830, adjusted for inflation—which is enough money today to buy one suit from Men’s Wearhouse, get another one for free, and start interviewing for a better f*cking job than ghost ship recoverer.2

“J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” Stokes Interest

If it hadn’t been for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—the author famous for creating Sherlock Holmes—that might have been that.

In 1884, Conan Doyle published a sensationalized account of the abandoning of the Mary Celeste under the title “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” It was 12 years after the event, the name of the ship was altered to the Marie Celeste, and the account was actually a short story presented as a fictional retelling of the experience from a survivor who didn’t exist, but it got people thinking about the real event all over again. Even Solly-Flood was inspired to review the case, but reached no new conclusions.3

If you’re reading this to find out what happened to the Mary Celeste’s crew, captain, and passengers, you won’t find any easy answers here. And I’m going to level with you: abandoning a well-provisioned ship in the North Atlantic, in December, in a lifeboat is a bad idea now, and it was a bad idea in 1872. People don’t usually survive bad ideas at sea.

What I can give you are some of the things we do know, and (reasonable) theories, old and new.

The State of the Mary Celeste When She Was Found Adrift, and What We Know

First, let’s take a look at what was—and wasn’t—amiss aboard the Mary Celeste when the crew of the Dei Gratia found her.

As mentioned earlier, the cargo—1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol—was still there, save for nine barrels in the hold that were empty. One of the ship’s pumps had been dismantled and there was a bit of flooding (about three and a half feet of seawater) in the cargo hold.4 5

A six-month supply of food and water remained.

Here’s an old sextant, in case you don’t know what those are. For tips on how to use one, consult the rest of the Internet or your local old-timey sea captain, because I haven’t got a clue.

The log book was still there, with a final entry dated 8 a.m., November 25. It gave the Mary Celeste’s position at the time, six miles northeast of Santa Maria, easternmost island of the Azores—close enough to see land.6

Perhaps more noteworthy is what was missing. All the people were gone, of course. Captain Briggs’ sextant, chronometer, and navigation book were all missing, as well as the ship’s register. This suggested an orderly abandonment of the ship—Briggs had at least enough time to get below deck and collect his navigational equipment before hitting the lifeboat.7

These bits of information are helpful for analyzing some of the more popular theories that have developed over the years. If you want to get into the possibility of an alien abduction, I believe there’s a History Channel show about it. Otherwise, here are three of the most realistic theories:

#1: Treachery

Treachery gets number one because it was essentially the prevailing theory during the actual salvage inquiry in 1872. Naturally, Solly-Flood and his court suspected foul play by the crew of the Dei Gratia. But, as I mentioned earlier, they could find no evidence.8

On top of that, the captains of both ships had been friends. Briggs was a seasoned seaman and well-respected in shipping circles. When the Dei Gratia first spotted the abandoned Mary Celeste, Captain Morehouse was particularly concerned when he realized that the abandoned ship belonged to his friend. They may even have shared dinner in New York’s Astor House the night before Briggs and the Mary Celeste set sail.9

It’s not impossible that Morehouse and the Dei Gratia were guilty—after all, they did stand to gain from the salvage. But, between his friendship with Briggs and the fact that no evidence of violence was found, it doesn’t feel right.

The Dei Gratia, presumably with people on it.

Theories of treachery weren’t limited to the Dei Gratia, however. Other speculation has included piracy and mutiny.

I believe we can rule out piracy, as nothing appears to have been stolen. Why would pirates kill everyone aboard, only to let a perfectly good ship, laden with cargo, drift off to sea?

Mutiny also seems unlikely. By all contemporary accounts, Captain Briggs was a competent, fair, and rational captain. It’s one of the reasons why people have been so perplexed by the needless abandoning of the Mary Celeste. It’s also doubtful that he would have hired men he didn’t know well, when traveling with his own wife and daughter aboard.10 And even if there had been a mutiny, why would Briggs’ crew abandon the ship after seizing control? It would have been suicide.

#2: An Alcohol Explosion

Another theory focuses on the ship’s cargo: those 1,701 barrels of industrial strength alcohol. The story goes that some of the barrels may have leaked noxious fumes—a theory supported by the nine empty barrels found aboard. These fumes may have built up causing a small explosion, or at least causing the ship’s crew and captain to fear an explosion.

Captain Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Sophia.

It is then possible that Briggs ordered a temporary evacuation so that all souls aboard could sail in the lifeboat behind the Mary Celeste while the vapors cleared. At some point, their tow line may have detached, leaving the lifeboat behind while everyone in it watched the Mary Celeste drift away, leaving them alone and helpless in the vast Atlantic. You know, like a nightmare.11

There was no visible evidence of a cabin fire, though this still leaves open the possibility of alcohol fumes that never combusted. Even a cool-headed, experienced captain might opt for a temporary evacuation in such a case, especially when his own family was aboard. It’s a shame that the evacuation was permanent.

#3: A Bad Pump

This theory may have the most going for it. When comparing Solly-Flood’s notes on the case (the original log book was lost in 1885, so these are the closest surviving primary source) to oceanography data, researchers found that the Mary Celeste was 120 miles west of where Briggs had thought he was, possibly due to a faulty chronometer (a timepiece), so he had cleary become disoriented. The day before the ship was abandoned, it also changed course, perhaps seeking some relief from rough seas. But bad weather and busted chronometers would not have caused an experienced captain like Briggs to abandon ship. There had to be something else.

This is where the pumps come in. On its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal in her cargo and had also recently been extensively repaired and renovated. The result may well have been a pump that became clogged with coal and sawdust. This would explain why one of the ship’s two pumps was found disassembled.

Without the pump, and with a cargo hold packed Tetris-style with barrels of industrial strength alcohol (you know how dads are when they pack up for a trip—no wasted space), Briggs wouldn’t have been able to tell how much seawater had leaked into the hull. We know from the three and a half feet of water observed by the boarding crew that there had been some flooding (they had a working pump to use), but Briggs would have been unsure of its extent.

Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia.

At this point, Briggs had been battling storms, was disoriented, and wasn’t able to determine if his ship was going to stay afloat. With Santa Maria in sight on the date of the last entry in the log book, Briggs may have ordered the ship abandoned, while he still had the chance to reach land with the lifeboat.12

As for what happened after that—who knows? Plenty can happen in six miles of open ocean while in a lifeboat.

Worse Things Happen at Sea

There’s a lot to the story of the Mary Celeste that we’ll never know. Too much time has passed, too many records lost, and everyone involved is totally dead by now (unless the Dei Gratia had any young giant tortoises in their cargo hold at the time).

And yet the story persists, not unlike our collective fascination and curiosity surrounding stories about the Bermuda Triangle, or missing jet liners. Death may be final, but the idea of vanishing from time and space captures the imagination, just as the vast unknown of the open ocean does—it’s a place where things like that can happen. It inspires both fear and curiosity, as well as creativity, if you’re Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As for the Mary Celeste, her end was far less mysterious. In November of 1884, she was sailed right into a reef just off the coast of Haiti; wrecked by a crooked captain who was trying to scam his insurance company. He was charged with fraud and died soon after.13

See? Sometimes the mystery is better.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  2. Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  3. Doyle, Arthur Conan. (Accessed March 21, 2018). J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Retrieved from http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/j-habakuk-jephsons-statement/
  4. Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  5. De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  6. De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  7. De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  8. Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  9. De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  10. De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  11. Yesterday Channel. (Accessed March 21, 2018). 5 Theories on What Happened to the Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://yesterday.uktv.co.uk/blogs/article/5-theories-what-happened-mary-celeste/
  12. Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  13. Ponic, Jason. (2017, October 25). Whatever Happened to the Mary Celeste Ghost Ship? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/maryceleste

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Blumberg, Jess. (2017, November). Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/
  • De Kay, Ormonde. (1981, February/March). The Mystery of The Mary Celeste. American Heritage, 32(2). Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/mystery-mary-celeste
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan. (Accessed March 21, 2018). J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Retrieved from http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/j-habakuk-jephsons-statement/
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed March 21, 2018). Brigantine. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/brigantine
  • Lee, Adrian. (2006, May 20). Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. Retrieved from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/inthenews/itn060522
  • Ponic, Jason. (2017, October 25). Whatever Happened to the Mary Celeste Ghost Ship? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/maryceleste
  • Pruitt, Sarah. (2015, July 21). What happened to the Mary Celeste? Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-happened-to-the-mary-celeste
  • Yesterday Channel. (Accessed March 21, 2018). 5 Theories on What Happened to the Mary Celeste. Retrieved from https://yesterday.uktv.co.uk/blogs/article/5-theories-what-happened-mary-celeste/

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