The mystery of the Mary Celeste

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The mystery of the Mary Celeste remains as unsolved and intriguing as when the sailing ship was first found adrift 150 years ago this month. What struck the first people to board the vessel was how undisturbed everything seemed. Personal belongings lay untouched. The ship’s cargo, of which more later, was intact. A single lifeboat was missing, as well as the captain’s navigational instruments, and the ship’s register. But otherwise, it was as if the captain and his ten crew and passengers – including a child of two – had vanished into thin air.

Thus almost from the moment she was found drifting in the Atlantic on December 4, 1872, the mystery of the Mary Celeste gripped the imagination of Victorian Britain. Had one of the crew gone berserk? Perhaps they had been carried off by pirates?

Theories became ever wilder: from a giant squid attack to alien abduction in the Bermuda Triangle – despite the fact she was nowhere near that area. Even the creator of Sherlock Holmes would get in on the act, with a short story – titled J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, in which he misspelled the vessel as the Marie Celeste – that gave Arthur Conan Doyle his first taste of fame.

As Dr Robb Robinson, a maritime historian at the University of Hull, puts it today: “It is a great 19th century whodunnit – or whatdunnit.”

The Mary Celeste had begun life 11 years previously in Nova Scotia, Canada. But, from the start, nothing about the two-masted brigantine – originally called Amazon – was smooth sailing.

Its first captain fell ill on its maiden voyage, and later died. It sank another ship following a collision in the English Channel. After only six years working mainly the Caribbean trading routes, the vessel was abandoned for the first time after being driven ashore in a storm. She was renamed the Mary Celeste and bought by a consortium of US businessmen.

An experienced sailor, Benjamin Briggs, was appointed captain and its crew – three Americans and four Germans – were described as “first-class sailors.” Briggs’s wife, Sarah, accompanied him, along with their baby daughter, Sophia.

“It was commonplace for ships’ masters to take wives and children to sea, even though life was exceptionally hard,” says Dr Robinson.

“The diet was appalling, the living conditions grim, and the fatality rate much higher than now.”

The Mary Celeste left New York on November 7, carrying 1,701 barrels of alcohol to be used for fortifying Italian wines once the ship reached its destination of Genoa. It was followed a week later by another Genoa-bound vessel – the Dei Gratia – whose helmsman would first spot the ship veering erratically, midway between the Azores islands and the coast of Portugal.

With no one visible on board, the Dei Gratia’s first and second mates went to investigate. They found the sails not properly set, and rigging hanging loose.

Two hatches were open, their covers next to them on deck. In the hold was more than 3ft of water. A makeshift sounding rod was found on deck.

One of the ship’s two pumps was disassembled. The galley was neatly stowed, with enough food and water to last far beyond the journey.

It was the lack of anything to suggest what had become of crew and passengers that was most mystifying. “Shipwrecks in the 19th century were reported in the newspapers as frequently as car accidents are today, and derelict ships like the Mary Celeste were scarcely more common,” says Dr Robinson.

“But normally, the crew would be reported as having been picked up by another ship and brought back or put ashore elsewhere. It was their absence that fuelled what we now call conspiracy theories.”

The Mary Celeste was impounded in Gibraltar ahead of a salvage court hearing. Blood stains on the captain’s sword and ship’s rail were disproved by tests.

“Axe” marks on the timbers were shown to have come from wear and tear. One early claim was that the crew had got at the alcohol – at least one barrel was empty – and killed everyone in a drunken frenzy.

Subsequently, suspicion fell on the Dei Gratia who had discovered the Mary Celeste. The court eventually awarded them just £1,700 in salvage – only a fifth of the ship and cargo’s total value. Myths began to surround the Mary Celeste.

Conan Doyle, a young ship’s surgeon, came up with one of the most fantastical. His short story of 1884, written three years before his first Sherlock Holmes story, involved the captain and crew being slaughtered by a passenger. But the two most plausible theories concern the cargo and the water in the hold.

The log included several entries detailing small explosions in the hold, a not uncommon phenomenon as alcohol naturally gives off combustible fumes. It was speculated that one such detonation had blown the hatches, perhaps frightening the captain and crew into abandoning the vessel. Equally, the water in the hold might also have fooled the crew.

Did the sounding rod left on deck suggest they had the impression the ship was sinking? Perhaps the pumps had been clogged from its previous trip, which might explain why one had been taken apart?

“Three feet of water in the hold isn’t healthy, but it isn’t likely to sink the ship either,” says Robb Robinson. “The most likely explanation is someone made a chronic misjudgment.”

An eerily similar incident eight years previously saw a ship called the John Linn abandoned by its crew on a passage from Bombay to Liverpool. They were picked up by another vessel.

“Those who had left the John Linn reported… nothing could be done to save her – yet when the ship was boarded, only 3ft of water was found,” says Dr Robinson.

The final entry in the Mary Celeste’s log was made at 8am on November 25. It gave her position as only six miles northeast of Santa Maria, the easternmost island of the Azores – close enough to have been visible.

Perhaps that proximity convinced those on board that safety was at hand. If so, it seems they were cruelly mistaken – they never made it ashore. Put to sea again, the Mary Celeste’s third captain died prematurely after falling ill on board.

Her final captain, Gilman C Parker, insured a worthless cargo for thousands of dollars, and then sank the ship off Haiti. An investigation exposed the plot and the claims were withdrawn. Parker was ruined, and died three months later.

One of his codefendants went mad; the other killed himself. The curse of the Mary Celeste was now firmly established.

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