Mary Celeste

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This article is about the ship. For the album, see Mary Celeste (album).
Mary Celeste as Amazon in 1861.jpg
An 1861 painting of Mary Celeste as Amazon, possibly by Honoré de Pellegrin
Career (British North America) Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Name: Amazon
Port of registry: Parrsboro, Nova Scotia
Builder: Joshua Dewis, Spencer's Island Nova Scotia
Launched: May 1861
Fate: Ran aground Glace Bay, Nova Scotia 1867, salvaged and sold to American owners
Career (United States) US flag 37 stars.svg
Name: Amazon (1868)
Mary Celeste (1869–1885)
Port of registry: Principally New York or Boston
Builder: Rebuilt 1872, New York (yard not named)
Fate: Intentionally wrecked off Haiti, 1885.
General characteristics
Tonnage: 198.42 Gross Tons as built 1861
282.28 Gross Tons after rebuild 1872
Length: 99.3 ft (30.3 m) as built, 103 ft (31 m) after rebuild
Beam: 22.5 ft (6.9 m) as built, 25.7 after rebuild
Depth: 11.7 ft (3.6 m) as built, 16.2 ft (4.9 m) after rebuild
Decks: 1, as built, 2 after rebuild
Sail plan: Brigantine

Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine which was discovered on December 5, 1872, off the Azores Islands, sailing with no one on board and with her lifeboat missing. When found by the British-North American brigantine Dei Gratia, Mary Celeste was in a dishevelled but seaworthy condition, under partial sail; the last log entry was ten days earlier. She had left New York for Genoa a month previously, and was well provisioned. Her cargo of denatured alcohol was apparently undisturbed, as were the captain's and crew's personal belongings. None of those who had been on board were seen or heard from again.

Mary Celeste was launched under British registration as Amazon, in 1861. She had transferred to American ownership and registration, and acquired her new name, in 1868. At the salvage hearings in Gibraltar following her abandonment, the court's officers harbored theories of foul play, including mutiny by Mary Celeste's crew, piracy by the Dei Gratia crew or others, and conspiracy to carry out insurance or salvage fraud. No evidence was found to support these theories, but unresolved suspicions led to a relatively low salvage award.

The inconclusive nature of the hearings helped to foster decades of speculation as to the nature of the mystery, with no general consensus, and the story has repeatedly been complicated by false detail and fictionalisation. Hypotheses that have been advanced include, besides human actions, the effects of alcohol fumes from the cargo, submarine earthquakes ("seaquakes"), waterspouts, attacks by giant squid, and paranormal intervention.

After the Gibraltar hearings, Mary Celeste continued in service under new owners. In 1885, she was destroyed when her captain deliberately wrecked her off the coast of Haiti, as part of an attempted insurance fraud. The story of her 1872 abandonment has been dramatized and fictionalised many times, in novels, plays and films, and the name of the ship has become synonmous with unexplained desertion.

Early history[edit]


Spencer's Island, photographed in 2011

The keel of the future Mary Celeste was laid in the fall of 1860, at the shipyard of Joshua Dewis in the village of Spencer's Island, on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.[1] The ship was constructed of locally felled timber, and was rigged as a brigantine; she was carvel-built, with the hull planking flush rather than overlapping.[2] She was launched on May 18, 1861, given the name Amazon, and registered at Parrsboro, the nearest port of registration, on June 10, 1861. Her registration documents showed that she was 99.3 feet (30.3 m) in length, 25.5 feet (7.8 m) broad, with a depth of 11.7 feet (3.6 m). with a gross tonnage of 198.42.[3][4] She was originally owned by a local consortium of nine, headed by Dewis; among the partners was Robert McLellan, the ship's first captain.[5]

For her maiden voyage, Amazon sailed to Five Islands, to take on a cargo of timber for passage across the Atlantic to London.[n 1] After supervising the ship's loading, Captain McLellan fell ill; his condition worsened, and Amazon returned to Spencer's Island where McLellan died on June 19.[7][8] John Nutting Parker took over as captain, and continued McLellan's voyage. According to Robert Dewis, the shipbuilder's son, in the course of this journey Amazon encountered further misadventures: she collided with fishing equipment in the narrows off Eastport, Maine, and on the approaches to London she ran into and sank a brig in the English Channel.[7]

Parker remained in command for two years, during which Amazon worked mainly in the West Indies trade, with a single transatlantic voyage, to France, in November 1861.[6] In Marseilles she was the subject of a painting, possibly by Honoré de Pellegrin, a well-known maritime artist of the Marseilles School.[9][10] Parker left the ship in 1863, and William Thompson assumed the captaincy, remaining in command until 1867.[7] Amazon's mate recalled that during these years "we went to the West Indies, England and the Mediterranean—what we call the foreign trade. Not a thing unusual happened".[6] In October 1867, at Cape Breton Island, Amazon was driven ashore in a storm, and was so badly damaged that her owners abandoned her as a wreck.[11] On October 15 she was acquired as a derelict by Alexander McBean, of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.[12][13]

New owners, new name[edit]

Within a month, McBean sold the wreck to a local businessman, who in November 1868 sold it on to Richard W. Haines, an American mariner from New York.[14] Haines paid $1,750 for the wreck, and then spent $8,825 repairing her.[15] He made himself her captain, and in December 1868 successfully applied to the Collector of Customs in New York to have the vessel registered as an American ship, under a new name, Mary Celeste.[14][n 2]

In October 1869 the ship was seized by Haines's creditors,[17] and sold to a New York consortium headed by James H. Winchester. During the next three years the composition of the consortium changed several times, although Winchester retained at least a half-share throughout. There is no record of Mary Celeste's trading activities during this period.[14] Early in 1872 the ship underwent a major refit, costing $10,000, which considerably enlarged her. Her length was increased to 103 feet (31 m), her breadth to 25.7 feet (7.8 m) and her depth to 16.2 feet (4.9 m).[18][19] Among the structural changes a second deck was added; an inspector's report refers to extensions to the poop, new transoms and the replacement of many timbers.[14] The work increased the ship's tonnage to 282.28. On October 29, 1872 the consortium reformed; Winchester kept six-twelfths, two minor investors held one-twelfth apiece, and the ship's new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, took the remaining four-twelfths.[20]

Captain Briggs and crew[edit]

Benjamin Briggs was born in Wareham, Massachusetts on April 24, 1835, one of five sons of a sea-captain, Nathan Briggs. All but one of the sons went to sea, two becoming captains in their turn.[21] Benjamin adopted his family's strong religious principles, was a regular Bible reader would often testify his faith at prayer gatherings.[22] He made good progress in his seafaring career, and by 1862, the year in which he married his cousin Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, was in command of the schooner Forest King, on which he and Sarah enjoyed a Mediterranean honeymoon. Two children were born: a son, Arthur, in September 1865, and a daughter, Sophia Matilda, in October 1870.[23]

By the time of Sophia's birth, Briggs had achieved a high standing within his profession, as "a Christian and as an intelligent and active shipmaster".[24] Not long afterwards he decided to retire from the sea and go into business ashore with his brother Oliver, also a sea-captain who had likewise grown tired of the wandering life. They did not proceed with this project but instead, each invested his savings in a share of a ship: Oliver in the Julia A. Hallock, and Benjamin in his share of Mary Celeste.[23][n 3] Benjamin agreed to captain Mary Celeste on her first outing following her extensive refit, a voyage to Genoa in Italy. He arranged for his wife and infant daughter to accompany him,[26] while his son, who was of school age, would be left at home with his grandmother.[27]

Briggs chose the crew for this voyage with care.[28] The first mate, Albert G. Richardson, was married to a niece of Winchester, and had sailed under Briggs before.[29] The second mate, Andrew Gilling, aged about 25, was Danish in origin although born in New York.[30] The steward was Edward William Head, aged 23 and newly married, was taken on with a personal testimonial from Winchester. The four general seaman were all Germans from the Frisian Islands: the brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen, Arian Martens and Gottlieb Goodschaad. A later testimonial would attest to their character as "peaceable and first-class sailors".[28] In a letter to his mother shortly before the voyage, Briggs declared himself eminently satisfied with ship and crew.[28] Sarah Briggs informed her mother: "Benjamin thinks that we have got a pretty peaceable set this time all round, if they continue as they have begun".[31]


New York[edit]

A painting of New York harbor in the 19th century

On October 20, 1872, Briggs arrived at Pier 50 on the East River, New York,[32] to supervise the loading of the ship's cargo for Genoa—1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol. This was industrial ethanol or methanol, not potable spirit, that would probably have killed anyone who attempted to drink it.[33][34] A week later Briggs was joined by his wife and baby daughter.[23] On Sunday November 3, Briggs wrote to his mother, telling her that he intended to leave on Tuesday, adding that "Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage".[35]

On Tuesday morning, November 5, Marie Celeste left Pier 50 and moved into New York harbor. The weather was unpromising, and Briggs decided to wait for a better outlook. He anchored the ship just off Staten Island,[36] where Sarah used the delay to send a final letter to her mother-in-law, in which she wrote: "Tell Arthur I make great dependence on the letters I shall get from him, and will try to remember anything that happens on the voyage which he would be pleased to hear".[37] On November 7, when the weather eased, Marie Celeste finally left the harbor and went out into the Atlantic.[36]

While Mary Celeste prepared to sail, another brigantine, the British-registered Dei Gratia, lay in nearby Hoboken, awaiting a cargo of petroleum for transport to Gibraltar.[38] Her captain, David Morehouse, and his first mate Oliver Deveau, were Nova Scotians, both highly experienced and respected seamen.[39] As fellow-captains with common interests, it is likely that Morehouse and Briggs knew each other, if only casually.[34] Some accounts have asserted that they were close friends who, on the evening before Mary Celeste's departure, dined together, but there is no direct evidence to confirm this.[36][n 4] Dei Gratia eventually departed for Gibraltar on November 15, eight days after Mary Celeste, following the same general route.[39]


A contemporary woodcut of the Mary Celeste sailing as a derelict, December 1872

At about 1 pm on Wednesday December 4, 1872 land time (Thursday December 5 sea time),[n 5] when Dei Gratia had reached a position of 38°20'N, 17°15'W, her helmsman reported a vessel about six miles (10 kilometres) distant, heading unsteadily towards Dei Gratia. The ship's erratic movements, and the odd set of her sails, led Morehouse to suspect something was wrong.[43] As the vessels drew close, they recognised that the ship was the Mary Celeste. Seeing no one on deck, and receiving no reply to his signals, Morehouse sent Deveau and second mate John Wright to investigate. They found the ship was deserted. The sails, partly set, were in a poor condition, some having blown away, and much of the rigging and ropes were damaged. The main hatch cover was secure, but the fore and lazaret hatches were open, their covers beside them on the deck. The ship's single lifeboat, which had apparently been stowed across the main hatch, was missing, while the binnacle housing the ship's compass had shifted from its place, its glass broken.[44] There was about 3.5 feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold; a makeshift sounding rod was found abandoned on the deck.[45]

The last entry on ship's daily log, found in the mate's cabin, was dated at 8.00am on 25 November, nine days earlier. It recorded Mary Celeste's position then as 37°01'N, 25°01'W, off Santa Maria Island in the Azores—nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where Dei Gratia encountered her.[43] Deveau saw that the cabin interiors were wet and untidy from water which had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order. In Briggs's cabin Deveau found personal items scattered about, including a sheathed sword under the bed, but most of the ship's papers, together with the captain's navigational instruments, were missing. Galley equipment was neatly stowed away; there was no food prepared or under preparation, but there were ample provisions in the stores. There were no obvious signs of fire or violence; the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship, by means of the missing lifeboat.[46]

Deveau reported these findings to Morehouse, who agreed to bring the derelict into Gibraltar, some 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away. Under maritime law, a salvor could expect a substantial share of the combined value of vessel and cargo, depending on the degree of danger inherent in the salvaging. Dei Gratia's complement of eight was divided between the two vessels; Deveau and two experienced seamen were assigned to Mary Celeste, leaving Morehouse and four others with Dei Gratia. The weather was relatively calm for most of the way to Gibraltar, but with each ship seriously undermanned, progress was slow. Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on 12 December 1872, and Mary Celeste, which had encountered fog, arrived on the following morning. She was immediately impounded by the Vice admiralty court, preparatory to salvage hearings.[47] Deveau wrote to his wife that the ordeal of bringing the ship in was such that "I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe. I shall be well paid for the Mary Celeste".[48]

Gibraltar salvage hearings[edit]

Gibraltar in the 19th century

The salvage court hearings began in Gibraltar on December 17, 1872, under Sir James Cochrane, the chief justice of Gibraltar. The principal officer of the court was Frederick Solly Flood, attorney-general of Gibraltar who was also Advocate-General and Proctor for the Queen in Her Office of Admirality. Flood has been described by historians of the Mary Celeste affair as a man "whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ",[49] and as "the sort of man who, once he had made up his mind about something, couldn't be shifted".[50] The testimonies of Deveau and Wright convinced Flood unalterably that a crime had been comitted,[51] a belief picked up by the New York Shipping and Commercial List on December 21: "The inference is that there has been foul play somewhere, and that alcohol is at the bottom of it".[52]

On December 23, Flood ordered a survey of Mary Celeste, which was carried out by John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping, with the assistance of a diver, Ricardo Portunato. Austin noted cuts on each side of the bow, caused, he thought, by a sharp instrument, and found possible traces of blood on the captain's sword. His report emphasised that the ship did not appear to have been struck by heavy weather, citing a phial of sewing machine oil found upright in its place,[53] without acknowledging that his examination was carried out many weeks after the abandonment, in entirely different circumstances.[25] Portunato's brief report on the hull concluded that the ship had not been involved in a collision nor had run aground.[54] A further inspection by a group of Royal Naval captains endorsed Austin's opinion that the cuts on the bow had been caused deliberately. They also discovered stains on one of the ship's rails that might have been blood, together with a deep mark possibly caused by an axe.[55] These findings strengthened Flood's suspicions that human wrongdoing rather than natural disaster lay behind the mystery.[56] On January 22, 1873, he sent the reports to the Board of Trade in London, adding his own conclusion that the crew had got at the alcohol and in a drunken frenzy had murdered the Briggs family and the ship's officers. They had cut the bows to simulate a collision, before fleeing the vessel in the yawl, to suffer an unknown fate.[56] Flood thought that Morehouse and his men were hiding something, specifically that Mary Celeste had been abandoned in a more easterly location, and that the log had been doctored. He could not accept that Mary Celeste could have traveled so far while unmanned.[57][n 6]

James Winchester arrived in Gibraltar on January 15, to enquire when Mary Celeste might be released to deliver its cargo. Flood demanded a surety of $15,000, money which Winchester did not have.[59][60] He heard rumours that Flood thought he might have deliberately engaged a crew that would kill Briggs and his officers, as part of some conspiracy.[61] On January 29, during a series of sharp exchanges with Flood, Winchester testified that Briggs and his crew would not have abandoned their ship except in extremity.[62] Thereafter, Flood's theories of mutiny and murder received two significant setbacks. First, scientic analysis of the stains found on the sword and elsewhere on the ship concluded that they were not bloodstains.[63][n 7] A second blow followed in a report commissioned by Howard Sprague, the American consul in Gibraltar, from Captain Shufeldt of the US Navy. In Shufeldt's view the marks on the bow were not man-made, but came from the natural actions of the sea on the ship's timbers.[64]

With nothing concrete to support his own inclinations, Flood reluctantly released Mary Celeste from the court's jurisdiction on February 25. Two weeks later, she left Gibraltar for Genoa, under Captain George W. Blatchford.[65] The question of the salvage award remained under consideration. The court had been infuriated by Morehouse's decision, on December 23, to send Dei Gratia on its way, under Deveau, to deliver its cargo of petroleum—although Morehouse remained in Gibraltar at the disposal of the court.[66] On April 8 Cochrane announced the award: £1,700, or about one-fifth of the total value of ship and cargo.[65] This was far lower that what might have been expected, one authority thought that the award should have been twice or three times that amount, given the level of hazard in bringing the derelict into port.[67] Hastings says that the judge "could scarcely have made a meaner judgement".[60] Cochrane's final words in the hearing were critical of Morehouse and the Dei Gratia crew, and carried an implication of wrongdoing, ensuring, says Hicks, that they "would be under suspicion in the court of public opinion forever".[68]

Late career and final voyage[edit]

Marie Celeste left Genoa on June 26, 1873, and finally arrived in New York on September 19.[69] The Gibraltar hearings, with newspaper stories of bloodshed and murder, had made her an unpopular ship; Hastings records that she "rotted on wharves where nobody wanted her".[70][n 8] In February 1874 the consortium sold the ship, at a considerable loss, to a partnership of New York businessmen.[75]

Gonâve Island, in the Gulf of Gonâve, Haiti. The Rochelois Bank is faintly discernible in the southerly channel between the island and the mainland.

Under this new regime Mary Celeste sailed mainly in the West Indian and Indian Ocean routes, regularly losing money.[75] Details of her movements occasionally appeared in the shipping news; in February 1879 she was reported at the island of St. Helena,[76] where she had called to seek medical assistance for her captain, Edgar Tuthill, who had fallen ill. Tuthill died on the island, encouraging the idea that the ship was cursed—he was her third captain to die prematurely.[75] In February 1880 the owners sold Mary Celeste to a partnership of Bostonians. They appointed a new captain, Thomas L. Fleming, who remained in the post until August 1884, when he was replaced by Gilman C. Parker.[77] During these years the ship's port of registration changed several times, before reverting to Boston. There are no details of the ship's commercial activities during this period, although Brian Hicks, in his study of the affair, asserts that Gove tried hard to make a success of her.[78][79]

In November 1884, Parker conspired with a group of Boston shippers, who filled Mary Celeste with a largely worthless cargo, misrepresented on the ship's manifest as valuable goods and insured for $30,000. On December 16, Parker set out for Port-au-Prince, the capital and chief port of Haiti.[80] On January 3, 1885, Mary Celeste approached the port via the channel between Gonâve Island and the mainland, wherein lay a large and well-charted coral reef, the Rochelois Bank. Parker deliberately ran the ship on to this reef, ripping out her bottom and wrecking her beyond repair. He and the crew then rowed themselves ashore, where Parker sold the salvageable cargo for $500 to the American consul, and instituted the insurance claims.[81][82]

When the consul discovered that he had bought largely worthless rubbish,[83] a thorough investigation began, which soon revealed the truth of the over-insured cargo. In July 1885 Parker and the shippers were tried in Boston for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. Parker was additionally charged with "wilfully cast[ing] away the ship", a crime known as barratry which at that time carried the death penalty. The conspiracy case was heard first; on August 15 the jury announced that it could not agree on a verdict. Some members were unwilling to risk prejudicing Parker's forthcoming capital trial by finding him guilty on the conspiracy charge. Rather than ordering an expensive retrial, the judge negotiated an arrangement whereby the defendants withdrew their insurance claims and repaid all sums. The barratry charges against Parker were deferred, and he was allowed to go free, but his professional reputation was ruined. He died three months later, in poverty. One of his co-defendants went mad, and another committed suicide. Begg observes that "if the court of man could not punish these men ...the curse that had devilled the ship since her first skipper Robert McLellan had died on her maiden vyage could reach beyond the vessel's watery grave and exact its own terrible retribution."[84]

In August 2001 an expedition headed by the marine archaeologist Clive Cussler announced that they had found the remains of Mary Celeste, embedded in the Rochelois reef. Only a few pieces of timber and some metal artefacts could be salvaged; the rest of the wreck was lost within the coral.[85] Initially, tests on the wood indicated that it was of the kind extensively used in New York shipyards at the time of Mary Celeste's 1872 refit.[86] However, dendrachronological tests on the wood, carried out by Scott St George of the Geological Survey of Canada, showed that it came from trees, most probably from Georgia, that would have been still growing in 1894, some ten years after the ship's demise.[87]

Proposed solutions[edit]

Foul play[edit]

Although the evidence in Gibraltar failed to support Flood's imagined scenario—the murder of Briggs and his officers, either by a drunken crew or perhaps the crew of Dei Gratia—the suspicion of foul play lingered. In 1931 an article in the Quarterly Review suggested that Morehouse could have lain in wait for Mary Celeste, then lured Briggs and his crew aboard Dei Gratia and killed them there. This theory, Begg notes, ignores undisputed facts: Dei Gratia left New York eight days after Marie Celeste, was a slower ship, and would not have caught Marie Celeste before the latter reached Gibraltar.[88][89] A later theory suggested that Briggs and Morehouse were conspirators, involved in a scheme to share the salvage proceedings.[90] The supposed, unsubstantiated friendship between the two captains has been cited by commentators as making such a conspiracy plausible.[91] Begg, however, points out that since Briggs was a third-owner of Mary Celeste, his share of any salvage award would likely not have exceeded the value of his investment. Hicks comments that "if Morehouse and Briggs had been planning such a scam, they would not have devised such an attention-drawing mystery".[92]

Other theories of foul play have suggested an attack by Riffian pirates, who were active off the coast of Morocco in the 1870s. Charles Edey Fay, in his 1942 account, observes that pirates would have looted the ship, yet the personal possessions of captain and crew, some of significant value, were left undisturbed.[93] In 1925 the historian John Gilbert Lockhart surmised that the deeply religious Briggs could had killed all on board in a fit of religious mania, and then killed himself. In a later edition of his book Lockhart, who had by then spoken to Briggs's descendents, apologised and withdrew this theory.[91][89]

Natural phenomena[edit]

A waterspout, photographed off Florida (1969). A waterspout strike offers a possible solution to the Mary Celeste mystery.

To Begg, the real mystery is not whether, but why Briggs and the crew abandoned an apparently sound and seaworthy ship, with ample provisions. Commentators agree that, to precipitate such a course of action, some extraordinary and alarming circumstance must have arisen.[94][95] In his evidence, Deveau ventured an explanation based on the sounding-rod, found lying on the derelict's deck. He surmised that Briggs has abandoned ship after a sounding which, due to a malfunction of the pumps, had given a false impression that the vessel was taking on water rapidly.[96] A severe waterspout strike could explain the water in Mary Celeste's cabins, and the ragged state of her rigging and sails. Furthermore, the low barometric pressure generated by the spout could have driven water from the bilges up into the pumps, leading the crew to assume the ship had taken on more water than she had, and was in danger of sinking.[97]

Later commentators have suggested other events as the root cause, including a displaced iceberg, fear of running aground while becalmed, and a "seaquake". Hydrographical evidence suggests it is improbable that an iceberg could drift so far south, and it would surely have been spotted earlier by other ships.[93] Begg considers the theory that Mary Celeste, becalmed, began drifting towards the Dollabarat reef off Santa Naria Island. Fearing she would run aground, Briggs launched the yawl in the hopes of reaching land. The wind then picked up and blew Mary Celeste away from the reef, but in the rising seas the yawl was swamped, and sank. The weakness of this theory is that if the ship was becalmed, all sails would have been set to catch any available breeze, yet the ship was found with many of its sails furled.[28]

Major seaquakes—earthquakes on the sea bed—cause considerable turbulence on the surface. Such a quake could have resulted in damage to parts of the cargo of alcohol, releasing noxious fumes; fears of an imminent explosion could have led Briggs to order the abandonment.[98] However, there was no evidence of serious damage when the cargo was examined in Gibraltar.[99][n 9] The possibility of explosion or fumes arising from the volatile cargo is one of the more durable theories for the abandonment. The New York World of January 24, 1886 drew attention to a case where another vessel carrying alcohol had exploded.[100] The same journal's issue of February 9, 1913, considers the theory that alcohol fumes seeped through a few porous barrels, creating gases that may have caused or threatened an explosion in the hold.[101] Oliver Cobb was a strong proponent of this theory; rumblings from the hold, together with the smell of escaping fumes and possibly an actual explosion, could have been sufficiently alarming for Briggs to order the evacuation of the ship.[102] Lack of damage from an explosion weakens the case,[103] but in 2006 an experiment was carried out for Channel Five television by Andrea Sella of University College, London (UCL). He built a model of Mary Celeste's hold, with paper cartons representing the barrels. Using butane gas he created an explosion, which caused a considerable blast and ball of flame, but contrary to expectation no fire damage within the replica hold. "What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion. There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching".[104]

Cobb believed that the transfer to the yawl may have been intended as temporary. He speculated from Deveau's report on the state of the rigging that the ship's main halliard may have been used to form a tow-rope, attaching the yawl to the ship. Thus, when the danger was deemed to have passed, the ship's company could return on board. However, at some stage the tow-rope parted; Mary Celeste sailed away empty, and subsequently the yawl foundered with its occupants. Begg observes some illogicality in attaching the yawl to a vessel that the crew thought was about to explode or sink.[105] Hastings asks whether Briggs, an experienced captain, would have effected a panicky abandonment of the ship when, "if the Mary Celeste had blown her timbers, she would still have been a better bet for survival than the ship's boat". If this is what happened, Briggs "behaved like a fool; worse, a frightened one".[106]

Myths and false histories[edit]

The young Arthur Conan Doyle, whose 1884 short story did much to disseminate Mary Celeste myths

In the decades that followed, fact and fiction became intertwined. As early as June 1883, the Los Angeles Times retold the Mary Celeste story with invented detail: "Every sail was set, the tiller was lashed fast, not a rope was out of place ...The fire was burning in the galley. The dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold ...the log [was] written up to the hour of her discovery".[107] Twenty years later, in the November 1906 Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Mary Celeste was recorded as drifting off the Cape Verde Islands, some 1,400 nautical miles (2,600 km) south of the actual location. Among many inaccuracies, the first mate was "a man named Briggs", and there were live chickens on board.[108]

The most influential retelling, which according to Begg ensured that the Mary Celeste affair would never be forgotten,[109] was a story in the January 1884 isssue of the Cornhill Magazine. This was an early work of Arthur Conan Doyle, then a 25-year-old ship's surgeon. Doyle's story, entitled "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", did not adhere to the facts; he renamed the ship "Marie Celeste", the captain's name was "J.W. Tibbs", the fatal voyage took place in 1873 and was from Boston to Lisbon. The vessel carried passengers, among them the eponymous Jephson.[110] In the story, another passenger, a fanatic named Septimus Goring with a hatred of the white race, has suborned members of the crew to murder Tibbs and take the vessel to the shores of Western Africa. Here, the rest of the ship's company is killed, save for Jephson who is spared because he possesses a magical charm that is venerated by Goring and his accomplices.[n 10] Doyle had not expected his story to be taken seriously, but Sprague, still serving as the US consul in Gibraltar,[n 11] was sufficiently intrigued to enquire if any part of the story might be true.[112]

In 1913, Strand Magazine provided another alleged survivor's account, from one "Abel Fosdyk", supposedly Mary Celeste's steward. In this version all on board (except Fosdyk) were drowned or eaten by sharks, when a temporary platform, on which they had crowded to watch a swimming contest, collapsed into the sea. Unlike Doyle's story, this was proposed by the magazine as a serious solution to the enigma, but it contained many simple errors: "Griggs" for Briggs, "Boyce" for Morehouse, Briggs's daughter as a seven-year-old child rather than a two-year-old, a crew of 13 and an ignorance of nautical language.[109] Many more people were convinced by a plausible literary hoax of the 1920s, perpetrated by an Irish writer, Laurence J. Keating. Again presented as a survivor's story—one "John Pemberton"—this told a complex tale of murder, madness and collusion with the Dei Gratia. It included basic errors such as using Doyle's name "Marie Celeste", and misnaming key personnel.[113] Nevertheless, the story was so convincingly told that the New York Herald Tribune of July 26, 1926 thought its truth beyond dispute.[114] Hastings describes Keating's hoax as "an impudent trick, by a man not without imaginative ability".[115]

In 1924 the Daily Express published a story from a retired naval war hero, Captain R. Lucy whose informant, allegedly, was Mary Celeste's former bosun[116]—no such person is recorded in the registered crew list.[117] In this tale, Briggs and his crew are cast in the role of predators; they sight a derelict steamer, which they board and find deserted, with £3500-worth of gold and silver in its safe. They decide to split the money, abandon Mary Celeste, and seek new lives in Spain, which they reach by using the steamer's lifeboats. Hastings finds it astonishing that such an unlikely story was, for a time, widely believed; readers, he says "were fooled by the magic of print".[116]

Chambers's Journal of September 17, 1904 suggests that the entire complement of Mary Celeste was plucked off one by one by a giant octopus. According to the Natural History Museum, giant squid, or Architeuthis dux, can reach 15 metres (49 ft) in length;[118] they have been known to attack ships.[119] Begg remarks that while such a creature could conceivably have picked off a crew member, it could hardly have taken the yawl and the captain's nagivation instruments.[120] Other explanations have suggested paranormal intervention; an undated edition of the British Journal of Astrology describes the Mary Celeste story as "a mystical experience, connecting it by processes of reasoning beyond the power of ordinary human understanding, with the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the British Israel Movement".[121] The Bermuda Triangle has been invoked, even though Mary Celeste was abandoned in a completely different part of the Atlantic.[122] Similar fantasies have considered theories of abduction by aliens in flying saucers.[121]

Legacy and commemorations[edit]

There has never been a clear consensus on any one scenario. It is a mystery that has tormented countless people, including the families of the lost sailors and hundreds of others who have tried in vain to solve the riddle. The Ghost Ship may be the best example of the old proverb that the sea never gives up its secrets.

Brian Hicks: Ghost Ship (2004)[123]

Mary Celeste was not the first reported case of a ship being found strangely deserted on the high seas. Rupert Gould, a naval officer and investigator of maritime mysteries, lists several such occurrences between 1840 and 1855.[124][n 12] Whatever the truth of these stories, it is the Mary Celeste that is remembered; the ship's name has became fixed in people's minds as synonymous with inexplicable desertion.[126] In October 1955 a 70-ton motor vessel, the MV Joyita disappeared in the South Pacific, while travelling between Samoa and Tokelau, with 25 people on board.[127] The vessel was found a month later, deserted and drifting north of Vanua Levu, 600 miles (970 km) from its route.[128] None of those aboard was seen again; a commission of enquiry failed to establish an explanation. David Wright, the affair's principal historian has described the case as "a classic marine mystery of Mary Celeste proportions".[129]

The Mary Celeste story inspired two well-received radio plays in the 1930s,[130][131] and a stage play in 1949.[132] Several novels have been published, generally offering natural rather than fantastic explanations.[n 13] In 1935 the British film company Hammer Film Productions issued The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (retitled The Phantom Ship for American audiences}, starring Bela Lugosi as a deranged sailor. It was not a commercial success, although Begg considers it "a period piece well worth watching".[133] A 1938 short film entitled The Ship That Died presents dramatisations of a range of theories to explain the abandonment—mutiny, fear of explosion due to alcohol fumes, and the supernatural.[134] In November 2007 the Smithsonian Channel screened a documentary, The True Story of the Mary Celeste, which investigated many aspects of the case without positing any definite solution.[135]

At Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia, Mary Celeste and her lost crew are commemorated by a monument at the site of the brigantine's construction and by a memorial outdoor theatre built in the shape of the vessel's hull.[136] The ship has featured on postage stamps issued by the Maldive Islands, and by Gibraltar.[137][138]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ The historian Charles Edey Fay gives different details of the first voyage. In his account, the trip took Amazon first to the port of Windsor, Nova Scotia, where she was loaded with plaster for transport to New York.[6]
  2. ^ The reason for this choice is unclear; Begg points out that Maria Celeste was an illegitimate daughter of the astronomer Galileo, and was also the name of a well-known nun, either of which might have influenced Haines.[16]
  3. ^ The Julia A. Hallock sank during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, on January 8, 1873, while the Mary Celeste mystery was under discussion in Gibraltar. Captain Oliver Briggs went down with the ship, from which there was only one survivor.[25]
  4. ^ The basis of the mutual dinner story is a claim made by Morehouse's widow, nearly 50 years later.[40] In their history of unresolved mysteries, Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe report the friendship and the farewell dinner as fact,[41] while other writers, notably Paul Begg, are dubious. Begg argues that had a close relationship existed, it is inconceivable that it would not have been raised at the later Gibraltar enquiry, or acknowledged at some point by the Briggs family.[42]
  5. ^ "Sea time" in the 19th century was 12 hours ahead of land time, thus under sea time, the new day starts at 12 noon.[43]
  6. ^ In refuting Flood's theory, Fay draws attention to the case of the William L. White, which in 1888-89 drifted unmanned for more than 5,000 miles, over a period of 10 months during which it was observed by 45 other vessels.[58]
  7. ^ Although these conclusions were made known to Cochrane and Flood, their publication was withheld for 14 years, enabling stories of likely bloodshed and violence to linger in the public mind.[34]
  8. ^ Two British newspapers, The Times and The Manchester Guardian, carried reports in February 1873 that mentioned the supposed bloodstains and the appearance of violence.[71][72] The Boston Post of February 24 expressed the view that the crew, "mostly of foreigners", had got at the alcohol and subsequently murdered Briggs, his wife, his child and the officers, before escaping to the "Western Islands".[73] On March 25 the New York Times wrote of "grave suspicions" of murder by the crew in a drunken fury.[74]
  9. ^ In Gibraltar, 9 of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol were found empty, theough seepage or minor damage. This was considered an acceptable loss.[99]
  10. ^ The full text of Conan Doyle's story is at "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement". The Cornhill Magazine: 1–32. January 1884. 
  11. ^ Sprague served in Gibraltar from 1848 to 1901; the report of his death, in the New York Times of October 19, 1901, described him as the "oldest US consul".[111] (subscription required)
  12. ^ Begg describes Gould as "an able, intelligent and reliable researcher", but contends that "it is not always easy to verify such stories&nbsp...because the facts and details get changed as the story passe through numerous tellings and retellings".[125]
  13. ^ Among recent fact-based novels are: Richard Rees: The Shadow of the Mary Celeste. Published by Robert Hale, London 1995. ISBN 0-709-05745-8.; Brian Freemantle: The Mary Celeste. Published by Severn House Publishers, Sutton, Surrey 1999. ISBN 0-727-85411-9.; Valerie Martin: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York 2014. ISBN 978-0-3855-3350-8.


  1. ^ Fay, p. 44
  2. ^ Fay, p. 45
  3. ^ Fay, pp. 192–93
  4. ^ Begg, pp. 14–16
  5. ^ Fay, p. 46
  6. ^ a b c Fay, pp. 49–50
  7. ^ a b c Begg, pp. 17–18
  8. ^ Fay, p. 48
  9. ^ Begg, Plate 2, pp. 166–67
  10. ^ "J. Honore M. Pellegrin (1793-1869)". Vallejo Gallery. Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  11. ^ Hicks, p. 25
  12. ^ Fay, pp. 50–51
  13. ^ Begg, p. 19
  14. ^ a b c d Fay, pp. 53–55
  15. ^ Begg, p. 20
  16. ^ Begg, p. 21
  17. ^ Hicks, p. 26
  18. ^ Fay, pp. 199–200
  19. ^ Begg, p. 22
  20. ^ Hastings, p. 13
  21. ^ Begg, p. 24
  22. ^ Fay, p. 22
  23. ^ a b c Begg, pp. 26–28
  24. ^ Fay, p. 23
  25. ^ a b Begg, pp. 73–74
  26. ^ Hicks, p. 7
  27. ^ Fay, p. 17
  28. ^ a b c d Begg, pp. 33–37
  29. ^ Fay, pp. 24–26
  30. ^ Fay, p. 27
  31. ^ Hastings, p. 115
  32. ^ Fay, p. 3
  33. ^ Hicks, p. 59
  34. ^ a b c Hastings, pp. 44–45
  35. ^ Fay. p. 9
  36. ^ a b c Begg, pp. 30–31
  37. ^ Fay, p. 12
  38. ^ Hicks, p. 61
  39. ^ a b Begg, pp 38–39
  40. ^ Hick, p. 52
  41. ^ Fanthorpe and Fanthorpe, p. 78
  42. ^ Begg, p. 32
  43. ^ a b c Begg, pp. 40–41
  44. ^ Fay, pp. 38–41
  45. ^ Begg, pp. 43–44
  46. ^ Begg, pp. 45–46
  47. ^ Fay, pp. 41–42
  48. ^ Begg, p. 50
  49. ^ Fanthorpe and Fanthorpe, p. 80
  50. ^ Begg, p. 57
  51. ^ Fay, p. 76
  52. ^ Shipping and Commercial List, December 21, 1872, quoted in Begg, p. 57
  53. ^ Austin's report is reproduced in full on Appendix O, Fay, pp. 229–35
  54. ^ Fay. p. 236
  55. ^ Fay, p. 79
  56. ^ a b Begg, pp. 68–69
  57. ^ Hastings, pp. 46–47
  58. ^ Fay, p. 136
  59. ^ Begg, p. 77
  60. ^ a b Hastings, p. 53
  61. ^ Begg, p. 78
  62. ^ Hicks, p. 120
  63. ^ The analysis report, by a Dr. J. Patron, is included as Appendix Q, Fay, pp. 237–38
  64. ^ Shufeldt's report is included in Fay, pp. 86–87
  65. ^ a b Begg, p. 79
  66. ^ Fay, p. 84
  67. ^ Fay, pp. 117–18
  68. ^ Hicks, p. 136
  69. ^ Fay, p. 137
  70. ^ Hastings, p. 139
  71. ^ "Mysterious Occurence at Sea". The Manchester Guardian. 13 February 1873. p. 6.  (subscription required)
  72. ^ "A Mystery of the Sea". The Times. February 14, 1873. p. 9.  (subscription required)
  73. ^ "A Brig's Officers Believed to be Murdered at Sea". The Boston Post. February 24, 1873. 
  74. ^ "A Mystery of the Sea: Fate of the Captain, his Wife, the Mate and Crew of the Mary Celeste". The New York Times. March 25, 1873. 
  75. ^ a b c Hicks, pp. 158–59
  76. ^ "Latest Shipping Intelligence". The Times. February 7, 1879. p. 12.  (subscription required)
  77. ^ Begg, p. 147
  78. ^ Hicks, p. 180
  79. ^ Fay, Appendix H. pp. 201–02
  80. ^ Begg, p. 148
  81. ^ Hicks, pp. 178–79
  82. ^ Hastings, p. 140
  83. ^ Hicks, p. 182
  84. ^ Begg, pp. 152–57
  85. ^ "Famous Ghost Ship Found". BBC News. August 9, 2001. Retrieved February 13, 2015. 
  86. ^ Begg, pp. 162–63
  87. ^ Thompson, Jeremy (23 January 2005). "Dating of Wreck's Timbers Puts Wind in Sails of the 'Mary Celeste' Mystery". The Independent on Sunday. 
  88. ^ Fay, pp. 177–78
  89. ^ a b Begg, pp. 100–01
  90. ^ Hastings, p. 131
  91. ^ a b Hastings, pp. 133–34
  92. ^ Hicks, p. 152
  93. ^ a b Fay, pp. 127–29
  94. ^ Begg, p. 131
  95. ^ Hastings, p. 130
  96. ^ Deveau's testimony to the Gibraltar court, December 19, 1872, as recorded in Fay, p. 70
  97. ^ Begg, pp. 140–46
  98. ^ Begg, pp. 136–39
  99. ^ a b Hicks, p. 140
  100. ^ Quoted in Fay, Appendix A, p. 168
  101. ^ Quoted in Fay, Appendix A, p. 169
  102. ^ Begg, pp. 132–34
  103. ^ Fay, pp. 106–07
  104. ^ "Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste". UCL News (University College, London). May 20, 2006. 
  105. ^ Hastings, pp. 127–29
  106. ^ Hastings, p. 137
  107. ^ "A Mystery of the Sea: Who Can Explain Why and How the Mary Celeste was Abandoned?". The Los Angeles Times. June 9, 1883. p. 5. 
  108. ^ Dutton, Arthur H. (November 1906). "Tales of the Sea II: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste". Overland Monthly and Out West. XLVIII (3): 20–22. 
  109. ^ a b Begg, pp. 88–91
  110. ^ Begg, pp. 164–66
  111. ^ "Oldest Consul Is Dead: Horatio J. Sprague Had Represented This Country at Gibraltar Since 1848". The New York Times. October 19, 1901. 
  112. ^ Hastings, pp. 69–70
  113. ^ Begg, pp. 93–94
  114. ^ New York Herald Tribune, July 26, 1926, quoted in Begg, p. 97
  115. ^ Hastings, pp. 119, 145
  116. ^ a b Hastings, pp. 88–93
  117. ^ Fay, pp. 201–10
  118. ^ "Architeuthis dux (giant squid)". Natural History Museum. Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  119. ^ "Giant squid 'attacks French boat'". BBC News. January 15, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  120. ^ Begg, p. 103
  121. ^ a b Hastings, pp. 122–23
  122. ^ Hicks, p. 9
  123. ^ Hicks, p. 6
  124. ^ Gould, p. 30
  125. ^ Begg, pp. 125–27
  126. ^ Begg, pp. 81–83
  127. ^ "Ship's Disappearance Without Trace". The Times. October 25, 1955. p. 7. 
  128. ^ "Author Says He's Solved MV Joyita Mystery, 47 Years Later". The New Zealand Herald. 29 March 2002. 
  129. ^ Wright, p. viii
  130. ^ "Mary Celeste: Last Night's Broadcast of Radio Play". The Manchester Guardian. May 9, 1931. p. 14.  (subscription required)
  131. ^ "Wireless Notes and Programmes". The Manchester Guardian. August 3, 1938. p. 2.  (subscription required)
  132. ^ "Mystery of the Mary Celeste". The Manchester Guardian. March 30, 1949. p. 3.  (subscription required)
  133. ^ Begg, pp. 110, 272
  134. ^ Fujiwara, p. 14
  135. ^ Blumberg, Jess (November 2007). "Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste". Smithsonian Magazine. 
  136. ^ Marilyn Smulders, " 'Thinking with your hands' Dal students create outdoor cinema in Spencer's Island", DalNews August 30, 2007
  137. ^ Begg, pp. 115–16
  138. ^ "Europa 97 'Mary Celeste'". Gibraltar Stamps. Retrieved February 19, 2015. 


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