Even if you’re not entirely sure of the details, you know the name Mary Celeste. The 100’ brigantine has haunted the annals of sea lore since the late 1800s and is considered the ultimate nautical mystery by most. Found abandoned and adrift in Spanish waters on December 5, 1872, her crew, captain, and passengers missing, the story was first sensationalized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his short work of fiction, The Marie Celeste.
Throughout the years, countless retellings and distortion of facts, the Mary Celeste has left her mark on documentaries, books, film and TV. Will we ever know what really happened to her? Probably not — and that’s what makes the mystery so intriguing.
Even before she was found adrift, the Mary Celeste had a reputation of bringing calamity. Originally named Amazon, her maiden voyage was blighted by the death of her captain, Robert McLellan. He died of pneumonia nine days after taking command, the first of three captains to die onboard. In subsequent years a fire broke out in the middle of the ship (when she was in for repairs), she collided with a vessel in the English Channel, and once ran aground during a storm near Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.
In 1869 she was renamed the Mary Celeste and captained under Benjamin Spooner Briggs, one of four owners. Captain Briggs took his wife and two year old daughter as passengers on the Mary Celeste’s final, fateful voyage. The crew was small, just seven men, but Briggs was an experienced captain, as was his first mate. Their cargo was 1701 barrels of American alcohol.
Briggs wrote his mother a letter on the eve of the ship’s departure and enjoyed dinner onboard with his friend, Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia. All was well with no sign of trouble, and Briggs was confidently optimistic. On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste sailed from New York harbor. The Dei Gratia followed a week later.
On December 5th, the Dei Gratia came upon the Mary Celeste adrift in the Atlantic, yawing out of control. Captain Morehouse took a boat to investigate and found the ship deserted. The lower hull was partially filled with water, the ship’s compass was damaged, the sextant and chronometer missing, along with all of the ship’s papers. The crew’s oilskins, however, had been left behind as if the vessel had been abandoned in a hurry. This was further indicated by deep axe marks in the hatch cover where the main lifeboat would have been stored. It appeared the boat had been cut away in a hurry rather than lowered to the water normally. Nothing was missing, and the cargo was fully intact.
So why did Captain Briggs, his wife, daughter and crew abandon the ship?
There have been sensationalized accounts of half-eaten meals found on the table, still warm, and clocks set to run backward. As intriguing as they are, these peculiarities never appeared in the final reports made by an official Board of Inquiry. After interviewing Captain Morehouse, the conclusion of the Board was that Captain Briggs feared his ship was sinking (although she was found to be seaworthy) and abandoned her. The hull of the Mary Celeste was not damaged, so the amount of water found within must have entered through open hatches.
Many counter Captain Briggs was far too experienced and would have never abandoned his vessel. This prompted other theories.
One suggests the crew mutinied, killing Briggs and his family, but there was no visible sign of a struggle and no evidence of blood. In addition, Briggs was known to be a fair captain and his first mate was well-liked.
Other theories include abduction by pirates (although the cargo was left untouched), an encounter with a sea monster or a sudden natural phenomenon such as an underwater eruption, seaquake or seismic tremor. The vessel may have also collided with an uncharted reef. Whatever brought about her abandonment, Captain Briggs, his family and crew were never seen again, the missing instruments never discovered.
The Mary Celeste was returned to America, ushering in tragedy yet again. The father of the ship’s owner drowned in an accident in Boston when she was returned, prompting him to sell the vessel. The ship was sold at a loss and changed hands seventeen times over the next thirteen years. Her final owner/captain deliberately wrecked her in the Caribbean Sea on January 3, 1885, in an attempt to commit insurance fraud.
On August 9, 2001, the Mary Celeste was located during an expedition headed by author Clive Cussler and a Canadian film producer. After one hundred years her remains have been found, but the mystery of what occurred during that fateful 1872 voyage lingers and probably always will.
What’s your take on the Mary Celeste? Were you familiar with all the details? I learned a lot while researching this, surprised about Clive Cussler’s expedition. Any Cussler fans out there?
I love hearing from you, so please drop a line and share your thoughts!