The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste is one of the most famous ships in all history. It’s up there with the Titanic, the Lusitania, the Normandie and the Andrea Doria. It’s claim to fame was the disappearance of all its passengers and crew during a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1872.
How, and why the crew and passengers deserted the ship, never to be seen again, has been a mystery for over a century, and to this date, nobody knows the real reason, although there have been several theories, some more plausible than others. But what really happened onboard the ship?
The story of the Mary Celeste is so famous that there are dozens of conflicting accounts about what is real, and what isn’t. So…what is real, and what isn’t?
What Was the Mary Celeste?
The Mary Celeste was a sailing ship. To be precise, she was a square-rigged brigantine, a medium-sized ocean-going ship with two masts. She plied the oceans of the world as a cargo-vessel, transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean.
She was built in the early 1860s before and during the American Civil War, and was originally a Canadian ship named the Amazon. She ran aground in 1867, off the coast of Nova Scotia. She was floated, repaired, and then sold to the United States. The ship was restored, rebuilt and modified, and in 1872, it became a merchant-ship transporting cargo across the Atlantic…the Mary Celeste.
The Last Voyage
On the 3rd of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste’s new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, wrote a letter which he addressed to his mother. In it, he wrote, in part:
“My Dear Mother:
It’s been a long time since I have written you a letter and I should like to give you a real interesting one but I hardly know what to say except that I am well and the rest of us ditto, It is such a long time since I composed other than business epistles.
It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks but in that time my mind has been filled with business cares and I am again launched away into the busy whirl of business life from which I have so long been laid aside. For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but now I have got fairly settled down to it and it sets lightly and seems to run more smoothly and my appetite keeps good and I hope I shan’t lose any flesh. It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…”
“Sarah” and “Sophia” are Sarah and Sophia Briggs, the captain’s wife, and two-year-old daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage.
“…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage. We both have missed Arthur and I believe we should have sent for him if I could have thought of a good place to stow him away. Sophia calls for him occasionally and wants to see him in the Album which by the way is a favorite book of hers.
She knows your picture in both albums and points and says Gamma Bis, She seems real smart, has gotten over her bad cold she had when she came and has a first rate appetite for hash and bread and butter. I think the voyage will do her lots of good. We enjoy our melodeon and have some good sings. I was in hopes that Oli might get in before I left but I’m afraid not now.
We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don’t get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shal have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she’ll sail. Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of Am. Consul and about 20 days after to Messina care of Am. Consul who will forward it to us if we don’t go there…
…Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love
I am Yours affectionately
“Arthur” is Arthur Briggs, the captain’s other child, his seven-year-old son (who at the time, was living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother, the ‘Gamma Bis’ mentioned in the letter).
At this time, the ship was docked in New York Harbor.
On the evening of the 4th of November, 1872, Captain Briggs and his wife, Sarah, have dinner with Captain David Reed Morehouse, and Mrs. Morehouse. The two captains have been friends for years, and coincidentally, are both sailing across the Atlantic to Europe, but on different ships, a few days apart.
It is the 5th of November, 1872. The Mary Celeste takes on its cargo for the voyage: 1,704 barrels of highly flammable industrial-grade alcohol. It is to be transported to Italy where it will be used in the manufacture of wine. It also finishes its provisioning for the crossing. It carries enough food for ten people for six months at sea. The ship is seaworthy and ready to go.
On the 5th of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste says farewell to civilisation. It weighs anchor, sets its sails and leaves Staten Island, New York, for the Atlantic Ocean.
On board are six sailors, all of them experienced. All of them level-headed, reasonable men, English-speaking and religious. Providing their meals is the ship’s cook. Their commanding officer is the captain, Benjamin Briggs, who has had several years experience at sea. Joining him on his voyage across the sea to Italy is his wife, Sarah Briggs. With her, she brings their two-year-old daughter, Sophia. Sarah is not afraid, and is not worried about the safety of her daughter. She is an experienced sailor, and is confident that this will just be another of several voyages that she has made with her husband’s company. She’s already been on at least four voyages with her husband before, and is a hardy woman, used to life at sea. Her husband has been a maritime captain for the past ten years. What could possibly go wrong?
The Mary Celeste leaves the safety of the New England shore and sets out into the Atlantic. It charts a course East-by-South, which would take it into the mid-Atlantic, and then straight across, past the Rock of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea.
For three weeks, the voyage is uneventful. The weather was unremarkable and there were no storms or especially strong winds. Onboard the Mary Celeste,everything is calm and normal. The crew man the ship, and Mrs. Briggs tends to her husband and daughter. On the 25th of November, Captain Briggs notes in his logbook that they have sighted the island of Santa Maria (“Saint Mary”), part of the collection of islands known as the Azores…and then…
As far as the world is concerned, the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste abandoned their ship on, or shortly after that date, for reasons unknown. For the next nine days, the ship wandered the ocean, in a vaguely eastern course. With no-one at the helm to guide the ship, it started a northward tack that it never pulled away from, and just kept sailing…
Onboard the ship, in detail, were… 
The Captain. Benjamin Briggs. An experienced sailor of several years experience. He is 37 years old.
Sarah Elizabeth Briggs. The captain’s wife. She is 31 years old. They have been happily married for ten years and have two children. A boy, Arthur, aged seven (then living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother back in Massachusetts, U.S.A.), and a girl…
Sophia Matilda Briggs. The captain’s youngest child, and daughter. She is two years old. She is being brought with her mother on this voyage across the Atlantic.
Albert Richardson. First Mate. Twenty-eight years of age, and a capable and trustworthy seaman.
Andrew Gilling. Second Mate. A Danish man of 25.
Ship’s Cook and Captain’s Steward: Edward William Head. 23 years old. Not part of the deck-crew, his job is to provide good, wholesome food for the captain, his family, and for the crew of six, strong young men whose job it is to sail the ship safely across the Atlantic Ocean. The remaining crew are four German sailors:
Volkert Lorenson (29), Boy Lorenson (23), Arian Martens (35), and Gottlieb Godenschall (23).
Discovery of the Ship
As if by fate, the ship that stumbled across the Mary Celeste was the cargo-shipDei Gratia, loaded with petroleum and bound for Europe. It had left New York on the 15th of November, sailing East-by-North. It too, had had a rather unremarkable, and ordinary voyage. It was on a southerly tack that the ship’s helmsman, John Johnson, noticed something out of the ordinary.
Let’s be honest. Standing in front of a ship’s wheel for hours and hours and hours on end…is…boring.
So what would you do?
You’d find ways to distract yourself from your boredom.
For a helmsman at sea, the best way to distract yourself was to go sightseeing.
Johnson, probably bored with standing at the ship’s wheel for ages, popped out his telescope and had a peek around the ship. Eventually, his peekings glanced in a southerly direction, off the starboard side of the ship. It was at this point that he noticed a ship several miles away. Even at that distance, he could guess that something was wrong. It was not so much ‘sailing’ as it was just ‘floating’. It sloshed around and only seemed to be making a show of keeping to some sort of course. It wasn’t sailing, it was yawing. ‘Yawing’ is when a ship’s bow swings from side to side as it moves forwards. No ship with someone in control of it would ever do that, since the bow would always be pointed straight ahead. Johnson knew at once that something was up, and called Second Mate, John Wright to have a look.
Wright agreed that the ship was acting weird, and together, they alerted the captain.
The captain ordered the ship turned southwards so that it would meet up with the phantom vessel. When they were within shouting distance, the captain took out his telescope to have another look. He recognised the ship at once as the Mary Celeste.
How could he do that? Not just by the name painted on the bow, but because he’d actually seen the ship at anchor in New York! The captain was David R. Morehouse, the man who had dined with Captain Briggs on the night before theMary Celeste’s departure.
To say that Capt. Morehouse was surprised was to put it lightly. The Mary Celestehad a ten day head-start on its voyage! It should already be docked at the Italian city of Genoa by now! …Instead, it was floating around like a tin cup in the middle of the ocean…
As they drew even closer, they noticed nobody in the rigging…on deck…and nobody manning the ship’s wheel. By now seriously perplexed, Captain Morehouse ordered First Mate, Oliver Deveau overboard. Deveau lowered one of the Dei Gratia’s lifeboats and rowed across to the Mary Celeste. He made his boat fast against the side of the ship and climbed aboard.
He called out for the captain, his wife, and the crew…but nobody answered. With the Dei Gratia sailing alongside, Deveau began making an examination of the ship.
First, you have to understand that the Mary Celeste is not an isolated incident. Ships were found abandoned in the middle of the ocean on a regular basis. Deveau’s examination of the ship was to determine whether or not it was seaworthy enough to sail it back to land. If he could, then he and the rest of the Dei Gratia’s crew would get salvage-money! By law, any persons who found an abandoned ship at sea in usable condition, and returned it to land, was entitled to salvage-payment. Salvage-payment being a paid out as a cut of the ship’s insurance-claim.
But as Deveau explored the ship, he found more and more things curiously wrong. He, and other subsequent investigators noted that…
- The ship’s one lifeboat was missing, its davits empty.
- Two of the ship’s three hatch-covers were open to the sea.
- The hatch to the hold was sealed and shut.
- The ship’s cargo, highly flammable alcohol, was tied down and secure and undamaged.
- Nine of the 1,704 barrels had sprung leaks. Alcohol had dribbled out of them.
- Two of the ship’s three emergency water-pumps were out-of-action.
- The ship’s papers, apart from the logbook, were missing.
- The ship’s chronometer (sea-clock used for navigation) was also missing.
- The ship’s sextant (another navigational-aid) was also missing.
- The ship’s stove in the galley (kitchen) had been shifted from its foundations.
- There was a 3ft-depth of water in the ship’s bilge.
- Most, if not all, of the crew and passengers’ personal possessions had been left behind.
- The glass shield over the ship’s compass was smashed to pieces.
- The ship flew no distress-flags of any kind.
- The ship carried no alcohol at all (Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler), except for its cargo.
- The ship’s provisions of water, food and essential supplies were undamaged.
- A single length of rope trailed off the ship into the water.
Captain Morehouse did not understand at all. He knew Captain Briggs well. He had been his personal friend for years. They’d eaten dinner together just a few weeks before! He knew Briggs to be a steadfast, intelligent man of sound mind. Religious and a teetotaler. And yet, he, his wife, his child and all of their crew had left the ship, gotten into the lifeboat and just gone!
The ship was in no danger of sinking. The ship had not had a fire onboard. The ship’s cargo was not in any immediate danger. There was six months’ worth of food, fresh water and other provisions stored safely away below deck. It was all unspoiled and perfectly good for eating. What would make a seasoned seaman, an experienced set of crew and a hardy and trusting wife leave a perfectly good ship and trust their lives to a small, wooden, six-oared lifeboat?
Neither Captain Morehouse, nor any of his crew could figure out why.
After a thorough examination of the ship, First Mate Oliver Deveau determined that…apart from the water sloshing around in the bottom of the ship, which could easily be pumped out…the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking, fire, breaking up, or any other potential emergency.
Captain Morehouse decided to claim salvage rights on the ship. He ordered a skeleton crew aboard the Mary Celeste, and escorted the mystery ship to the Mediterranean Sea.
On the 13th of December, 1872, the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia arrived at Gibraltar. At once, an inquiry was held into the condition of the ship, its cargo, its insurance, and of course…the mystery surrounding its lack of crew and passengers.
The Admiralty Court in Gibraltar questioned, examined, cross-examined and interrogated every witness they could find. This included Captain Morehouse, his officers, and James Winchester, principal owner of the ship (of which the late Capt. Briggs was a partner).
Hundreds of questions were asked about the captain, the crew, the crew of the salvaging vessel, the type and condition of the cargo, conditions onboard the ship, and what might possibly have caused an experienced captain, his family and crew, to abandon a perfectly sound vessel.
Theories of the Mary Celeste
There are as many theories about what happened to the passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste as there are hairs on your head (or grains of sand on the beach, if you happen to be bald).
I won’t list them all here, but they ranged from the possible, the plausible, to the outright ludicrous. Everything from krakens (giant, squid-like sea-monsters), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Black Death and pirates.
What REALLY happened will of course, never be known. All we can surmise is what we can gleam from the evidence. But what were some of the theories that were put forward, both at the time, and later on?
An obvious theory. Pirates attacked the ship. They kidnapped and/or killed everyone onboard, and then sailed off.
But why did they take the ship’s chronometer? It was a valuable scientific instrument. Maybe they hoped to sell it. But why the sextant? Surely they had their own. And what about all the charts, maps and documents?
On top of this, there was no violence seen onboard. No blood, no gunshots, no damage to the ship other than what might be caused by the sea. Under the captain’s bed, his sword remained sheathed and unused. Surely if the ship was attacked, he would’ve used it to defend his family and men?
Any valuables that the ship might have held were untouched. Jewellery, men’s personal effects such as their pipes, clothing, pocketwatches, rings, money…were all left as they were. In the captain’s cabin, Mrs. Brigg’s sewing-machine, in the 1870s, a valuable piece of household equipment, sat untouched. A dress that she was making for her daughter was still laid on it, the thread unbroken.
Sea Monsters!
Another popular one. This theory supposes that a giant squid, octopus, kraken or other equally horrific and ugly sea-creature attacked the ship and snatched off all its crew and passengers, which it then either drowned or ate.
Fascinating…but unfounded. If it was a sea-monster…why was the ship’s lifeboat missing? Why was the ship’s master timekeeper, it’s chronometer, gone? Why was half the captain’s paperwork missing from his desk? And the sextant? A sea-monster would have no need for such things.
Mutiny and Drunkeness
Perhaps the crew mutinied against the captain and his family, killing them, dumping them overboard and then sailing off in the lifeboat?
But then why didn’t they take clothes? And food? Money?
On top of that, the captain was sailing with his wife and young child. He wouldn’t have just Shanghaiied a bunch of men, chucked them onboard ship and sailed off across the ocean. Indeed, the crew were carefully chosen for their temperaments, skills and experience. Furthermore, Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler. There was not a drop of alcohol aboard his ship, apart from the barrels in the hold. And the alcohol there was of an industrial quality, quite unfit for regular consumption. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere what it was, it’s likely that it was methanol, a highly concentrated alcohol that would’ve been toxic to humans.
The Bermuda Triangle!
Absolute rot.
The Bermuda Triangle is located off the south coast of North America, several hundreds, thousands of miles, from the course and position of the Mary Celeste.
One of the more plausible theories, although not one given very much serious consideration back in the 1870s, was that of a seaquake.
A seaquake is like an earthquake. Except…it…happens at sea. This theory supposed that the ship sailed over a seismically active area of the sea. Without warning, the tectonic plates shifted. The resulting abrasion sent off shockwaves through the water, which threw the ship around. Fearing for their lives, the passengers and crew dropped everything, boarded the lifeboat and sailed off!
The Azores, the last recorded sighting of land in the ship’s log on the 25th of November, is a seismically unstable part of the ocean. The Azores themselves were formed of volcanos and earthquakes. Such a jolt might explain why the ship’s stove, a solid iron structure bound to weigh several dozen pounds, was thrown off its mountings.
But ships are designed to cope with stuff like this. And even if the ship had sprung a leak, it had three pumps to drive the water out! Abandoning ship was done only as an absolute last resort. A captain such as Briggs would have to have had a truly stupendous reason for abandoning ship. And his vessel being rocked around  a bit by the waves was not deemed sufficiently life-threatening to allow this to happen.
Fume Explosion
The theory given the most credence by the evidence, apart from the possible seaquake one, is that of an alcoholic explosion.
This theory supposed the following:
Faulty barrels stored within the ship’s hold sprang a leak. When the ship was discovered, nine barrels of the 1,704 were found to be leaking or empty.
The alcohol within the barrels, no-longer contained, spread out across the floor of the hold, which was tightly sealed to prevent damage from water. Fumes from the alcohol seeped throughout the ship. This possibly caused a panic. Capt. Briggs was not used to transporting such dangerous substances such as alcohol…in fact, this was the first time he’d done so!
To prevent a potential explosion, from the alcohol-fumes coming in contact with a spark or naked flame, or possibly, because of a naked flame igniting the fumes, fear of, or the result of an explosion blew off two of the hatch-covers.
Fearing for their lives and the safety of the ship, the captain, crew and the captain’s family lowered the ship’s lifeboat into the water. There might be a fire onboard caused by the deadly alcohol fumes. The captain took with him what he judged to be the most important documents, along with the ship’s marine-clock. In the panic, he forgot the logbook.
The boat was secured to the side of the ship with a rope. Once the fumes had dissipated and the danger had passed, the decision would be made to pull on the line and draw the boat back to the ship and resume their journey.
During the wait, the rope securing the boat to the ship snapped or came undone, possibly due to a change in the wind, or a storm. The ship, being under sail, would be moving too fast for the occupants of the boat to catch up with it using the lifeboat’s oars. The passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste would’ve drifted rapidly out of sight of the ship, and would’ve either been wrecked near the Azores, drowned in the Atlantic, or died of starvation and dehydration in the packed lifeboat.

This engraving of the Mary Celeste, made according to witness testimonies, shows how the ship’s sails were set when the vessel was found adrift. In their haste to abandon ship, for fear of a fume-explosion, not all the sails were trimmed. This left the ship with enough surface-area to pick up significant amounts of speed if the strength of the wind increased, causing the single lifeline that held the lifeboat to the ship to snap under the strain, setting the ship’s passengers and crew adrift in the open ocean.
The Inquiry into the Mary Celeste
Shortly after the two ships, the salvager and the salvaged, reached Gibraltar, an inquiry into the Mary Celeste disaster was held at the Admiralty Court by the British Royal Navy. Witnesses, experts, sailors, friends, business-partners and acquaintances were all questioned and interrogated. It was a slow, frustrating process.
Not least of all because of a man who’s name was Flood.
Frederick Solly-Flood, to be precise.
Frederick Solly-Flood was the Attorney-General of Gibraltar at the time.
During the inquiry, the judge listened acutely to everything that was told, and praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their attention to detail, their bravery and skill in rescuing the ship (if not it’s crew and passengers), and bringing it safely back to land.
Frederick Flood, however, had his own agenda.
Flood was hell-bent on proving that the passengers and crew of the Mary Celestehad all met with some horrible, violent, bloody end. It was he who first suggested the theory of a drunken mutiny. He even rowed out to the ship to find evidence!
He found the broken, leaking barrels, the alcohol, the captain’s sword and cut-marks along the railings. He proposed the theory that the crew got at the alcohol, drank themselves blind, murdered the captain, his wife, his daughter, his first mate, chucked them all overboard, then got into the lifeboat and rowed…away…from a perfectly good ship…
…Yeah it kinda…fell to pieces in court.
Indeed, not a single piece of ‘evidence’ that Flood submitted was found to be what it was! The barrels were empty because they were leaking (they’d been built of red oak, a porous wood which would’ve explained the empty barrels). The damage to the railings? Ropes rubbing across the wood.
The blood on the captain’s sword?
It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t even the captain’s sword…that sword was stored under his bed! The sword that Flood found was an old, rusty knife lying on the deck. Scientists examined the blade and determined that the red substance on it was nothing but rust and old paint. It was probably used to lever open paint-cans and stir coagulated paint around!
Flood dreamed up even more insane theories. He suggested that Capt. Briggs had drawn Capt. Morehouse into an insurance fraud of some sort and that they were both in this together. Perhaps Briggs tricked his family and crew off the ship, hid somewhere on an island, while Morehouse found the abandoned ship, towed it away, took all the money, and then when the storms had died down, gave half of it to Briggs?
The idea was so preposterous that it was considered insulting and was denied by Capt. Morehouse and his officers.
Yet another madcap idea Flood proposed to the court was that it had been the crew of the Dei Gratia themselves, who had dispatched the crew of the Mary Celeste, along with the three members of the Briggs family…another theory that fell on deaf ears!
But the damage was done!
Crime-fever swept around the world! The idea that a madman had killed the entire ship’s company and then stole away in the ship’s one boat, captured the imagination of thousands, millions of people!
The alcohol-fumes explosion theory, which was put forward at the inquiry by none other than the Mary Celeste’s owner and principal shareholder, James Winchester, was disregarded as fanciful rot! Flood’s ruthless questioning, cross-questioning and wild accusations had painted a red mark over the memory of the Mary Celeste.
After the Inquiry
In the end, Capt. Morehouse did get…some…of the salvage-money that he hoped to receive from returning his late friend’s ship safely to land, but he never got all of it. In total, he received about 1,700 pounds sterling. As for the Mary Celeste? She was deemed to be a cursed ship. She passed from owner to owner to owner, before finally being burned and wrecked on the coast of Haiti in 1885…this time, in a real insurance fraud!
The Mary Celeste was not an isolated incident. Back then, before the days of the internet, cellphones and wireless radio, ships regularly went missing out at sea for various reasons, and were never seen from again, or were found, abandoned. But what made this ship so famous?
In a word, the mystery. WHY did the crew, the captain and his family flee the vessel in such haste, entrusting their lives to a tiny lifeboat? What happened to them? Where did they end up? How did they die? Why did they do what they did, if the ship was in no danger?
The stories of the ship that leaked out of Gibraltar and which were telegraphed around the world as fast as cables could send them, and which were splashed across the newspapers of the day, made the ship famous. And not least of all because of a story that appeared in a literary magazine of the age.
In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine.
The Cornhill was not some soppy farthing-rag that tittery housewives bought and which grandmothers used to line bird-cages with. It was a famous and well-respected literary journal. Some of the biggest names in 19th century literature started off writing to this magazine. Names like…Charlotte Bronte…Thomas Hardy…George Eliot!…Alfred Lord Tennyson!
In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. It was unsigned and submitted anonymously to the magazine, but was published nonetheless. It was given the rather flashy title of “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement“, supposedly, a true story about a ship found abandoned at sea. The ship was called the “Marie Celeste“, and it had been found floating around in the middle of the ocean with nobody onboard. Hot food was still on the table in the galley. Tea was still steaming in the teacups. The lifeboat was lashed to the deckhouse roof. A bottle of machine-oil was left balancing on a sewing-machine in the captain’s cabin. But there was nobody there!
Sound familiar?
The story was supposed to be a fictional account of something that never really happened. It was inspired by, but was not written about, the mystery of the Mary Celeste. How do we know this? Because the story’s author was a rather famous person, you know…
At the time of writing it and submitting it to the Cornhill Magazine, the author was a struggling Scottish physician. A general practitioner of the medical sciences, who had no patients, little money, a lot of time and who was incredibly, incredibly bored.
If you’d gone to the doctor’s surgery, the plaque you might’ve seen nailed on the front door probably read something like this:
“Dr. A. C. Doyle. Consultant Physician”
It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, who wrote that story! Perhaps foreshadowing his great success as a mystery writer, Doyle’s ghost-ship story was so incredible that people thought it was real! It wasn’t, of course, but it was that story which captured the world’s imagination, and which kept the mystery of the Mary Celeste alive to this day.
Whatever happened to Capt. Briggs, his crew, the ship’s cook, Mrs. Briggs, and little Sophia Briggs?
Nobody will ever know.
What caused them to abandon a perfectly good ship and risk their lives in an open rowboat in the middle of the ocean?
Nobody will ever know.
There has been all kinds of conjecture about the fate of the Mary Celeste’spassengers and crew, but just like the colour of the Queen’s underpants, it’s something that we’ll never know.

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