THE MARY CELESTE STORY
On November 7th 1872 a ship carrying a cargo of pure alcohol set sail from New York, headed to Genoa in Italy skippered by its part owner, Captain Benjamin Briggs. A somewhat unremarkable event, the journey was a regular trading route. Briggs even took his wife and two-year-old daughter along for the trip and a crew of seven Dutchmen. However the voyage was to end in one of the biggest mysteries in nautical history. One month later the Mary Celeste was found adrift near the Azores. What is more the 103-foot brigantine had been completely abandoned by all on board and none of them were ever found. There were no signs of any struggle, the cargo was virtually in tact, there were no bodies and the captain’s log indicated nothing untoward.
Oliver Deveau, chief mate of the Dei Gratia, the ship that found the Mary Celeste, was amongst the first to board her. He reported that he found the ship in generally good condition despite being “a thoroughly wet mess' due in part to there being only one operational pump. The ships clock was not functioning and the compass had been destroyed. Both the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. One lifeboat was missing but there was nothing to suggest it had been launched in panic or by accident. All indications were in fact that the ship had been abandoned intentionally.
All but nine of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol were full. There was a sixth month supply of food and water aboard and all the ship’s papers except the captain’s logbook were missing. The last entry stated that she had reached the island of Santa Maria in the Azores on November 25th, ten days before she was found adrift. Stories of uneaten meals, sleeping ships cats and clean washing hanging out to dry are merely the stuff of unfounded legend.
Many theories abound, the most convincing being that the cargo of volatile crude alcohol became unstable in the high temperatures, possibly causing some of the casks to rupture. Fearing the worst the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship in the lifeboat. The lifeboat would have remained tied to the ship, but may have come adrift in a storm.
It has also been suggested a seaquake or extreme weather phenomena such as a waterspout caused the captain to panic, thinking the ship was going to sink. His wife and daughter were on board after all. The lifeboat was then lost to the storm along with the crew, the captain and his family. A waterspout would also explain the wet condition of the abandoned vessel when it was found.
Other theories include the Mary Celeste was the victim of piracy that went wrong. It has been alleged that the crew of the Dei Gratia were the culprits and hoped that by murdering the crew and fabricating the ‘ghost ship’ story they would secure salvage rights. The theory that the crew took it upon themselves to drink the missing alcohol and embark on a drunken mutiny is unlikely as Captain Briggs was a believer in abstinence and hardly likely to tolerate drinking on board his ship. What is more, Briggs had a reputation for being a good captain amongst those who had sailed with him previously. Therefore mutiny was unlikely. There is a suggestion that ergotamine from contaminated flour caused the crew to throw themselves overboard but the sailors from the Dei Gratia were unaffected.
Basically the truth behind the mystery that is the Mary Celeste has been lost along with everyone aboard and no amount of theorising will ever reveal what really happened to history’s most famous ‘ghost ship!’