On the causes of the disappearance of the crew and the abandonment of the Canadian brigantine Mary Celeste in 1872 every hypothesis was considered, from the most imaginative, to the most realistic. Despite this, almost two centuries after its construction, the story of Mary Celeste remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the sea.
Built in 1861 in Spencer Island, Canada, the brig-ship was initially baptized with the name “Amazon”. Following a series of unfortunate events, including a shipwreck and the death of the first two captains who commanded it, the ship was bought as scrap by Richard Haines, for $ 1,750, and repaired for a cost of over $ 8,000.
In 1868, after taking the American flag and being registered at the port of New York, the ship was renamed “Mary Celeste”. However, in October 1869, the ship was seized by some creditors in Haines; it was resold to a consortium headed by James H. Winchester, a wealthy shipowner, who shared the property with other investors.
The goal of its new owners was to trade with the major Mediterranean ports, including those of the Adriatic Sea; so it was that on November 5, 1872 the ship sailed from Staten Island (New York), bound for Genoa, with a load of 1701 barrels containing denatured alcohol for industrial use. Along with a small crew of seven men, Briggs took with him his wife, Sarah E. Briggs, and his daughter Sophia Matilda, only two years old. Captain and co-owner of Mary Celeste became Benjamin Spooner Briggs, business associate of James H. Winchester. As Sarah E. Briggs wrote in a letter addressed to her mother, the principle of the journey seemed to be favored by the ship’s personnel, defined as “quietly capable”. Soon, however, Mary Celeste’s route suffered a sudden interruption that would have led her and all the crew to an endless oblivion.
On December 4, 1872, the merchant brigantine Dei Gratia, led by David Reed Morehouse, was halfway between the coasts of Portugal and the Azores, after a night of strong winds and thick clouds. At about 1pm, the captain spotted a sailboat unfurled, navigating clumsily, and when the Dei Gratia approached, Morehouse realized that this was moving only thanks to the subsidiary wings, while the others were absent or severely damaged. Approaching the boat, the men read the name: Mary Celeste. When, with the telescope, he scrutinized the surface, it was probably a great surprise for him to notice the total absence of the crew. The ship was adrift, Morehouse sent his first helper Deveau, accompanied by some other sailor, aboard the Mary Celeste, in search of someone. Although it would have been easy to assume that the boat had been left in place as a result of disasters, carnage, attacks by pirates or epidemics, it showed no signs of struggle, lack of food, traces of blood or nothing that had suggested a fire.
Only the holds, where the barrels were contained, showed a quantity of water inside them about 1 meter high.
There was no single lifeboat and some navigational objects, such as compass, nautical maps and sextant, but the personal effects of the missing crew and plenty of provisions were still present on board. Everything suggested that the Mary Celeste had been abandoned quickly, but not because of an external danger, since the weapons of Captain Briggs himself were still present under the bed of his cabin.
Naturally intrigued and worried, Deveau and his sailors consulted what was the diary of navigation; the last note dated back at 8am of November 25th, where strong gusts of wind were signaled and the sighting of the island of Saint Mary, one of the Azores.
After a long reconnaissance, Deveau returned aboard the Dei Gratia, where he reported to Morehouse all that he had discovered. The captain made the decision to escort the wreck to Gibraltar, six hundred nautical miles away from the point of discovery, where the Dei Gratia docked on December 12, 1872 while the Canadian brig would arrive the following morning.
Immediately seized by the British government upon its arrival at the port, Mary Celeste became the object of investigation for the disappearance of her crew, opened by the Attorney General of Gibraltar, Frederick Solly Flood.
The causes of the lack of crew on board the ship that the prosecutor took into consideration were mainly two:
The men of Mary Celeste could have got drunk and rebelled against the captain and his family, slaughtering them all and then fleeing with the lifeboat. This was hypothesized following the discovery of a sword stained by a reddish substance, which turned out to be rust. There was also a large amount of alcohol on board, but the latter’s high toxicity would have killed its consumers.
The first hypothesis was therefore not very reliable.
In the second instance, Flood thought that Morehouse and Briggs might have agreed on a major insurance fraud, staging the disappearance of the crew and drifting the boat. Soon this second accusation also fell, since Briggs was co-owner of the brig, and from his abandonment he would only take a small share of compensation.
Without any plausible hypotesis, the attorney general finally came to suspect Morehouse and his sailors: they may have murdered the crew of the Mary Celeste and pretended to find the wreck adrift to collect the reward
Without concrete evidence of what actually happened to the ship and its crew, Flood was forced to close and dismiss the Mary Celeste case on February 25, 1873, giving Morehouse a fee of about eight thousand dollars for the recovery of the vessel.
Although the case of Mary Celeste seemed destined to be forgotten, a few years later, thanks to the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, his story regained fame and resonance. In his short story, written for the Cornhill Magazine in January 1884, the writer told of a member of the ship’s crew that, pervaded by the hatred of the white race as of black-African origins, would have exterminated the crew of Mary Celeste following a murderous raptus, and then fleeing through one of the boats. Beyond that, he told of what the discoverers of the wreck discovered in it: still hot soups, still lit cigars, and spools of silk threads still standing on a sewing machine.
For a long time, the writer’s story was taken for absolute truth. What the general public of readers did not know then, was that this story was only the result of Doyle’s fantasy, and not real news; moreover, the events were part of one of his youth writings “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” to which he changed names and places to lend them to the events of Mary Celeste. Despite this, the imagination of fans to the case was already unleashed, intent on imputing the shipwreck of the Mary Celeste to the most exceptional causes.
As in 1913 when, on the Strand Magazine, the memoirs of an alleged castaway of the brigantine were published, Abel Fosdyk, a friend of Captain Briggs and presumably on board. According to the man, Briggs would have challenged the crew and his family for a game of diving into the sea with their clothes on, after having done so himself. As they watched him from a platform, this suddenly would break, dragging everyone into the water. Shortly thereafter, a group of sharks would join them, devouring them one by one. The only survivor was Fosdyk, who would float, hanging on a wooden plank, until a beach on the African coast.
Although the article had made a sensation, it was soon denied by numerous inconsistencies with the facts actually happened and by technical details of the brigantine totally wrong, starting from the fact that no such Abel Fosdyk had ever existed and that there was no trace of a platform built in addition to the deck of the ship. Also mutinies were hypothesized, scuffles between captain and crew, climate disasters, or even that a giant octopus had devoured everyone present on the ship.
To date, the most credible and sustained hypothesis seems to be connected to the barrels of denatured alcohol; of the 1701 barrels present in the hold, in the port of Genoa, nine were empty. According to the historian Conrad Byers, Briggs may have noticed a loss of material from the barrels, made of red oak, (and not white oak as the remaining ones) from whose beams could easily have oozed the substance.
After sniffing the vapors released from the barrels and thinking of an imminent danger of explosion, the captain would order the immediate abandonment of the Mary Celeste by means of the lifeboat. But due to the strong wind and the rough sea, the boat would be detached from the strings to which it was secured, losing itself and tearing through the waves of the stormy sea. The only solution would have been to jump into the sea; the castaways would then die of starvation, after who knows how many days spent floating in the waters of the Atlantic.
The Conrad Byers hypothesis, revised in 2005 by the historian Eigel Wiesse and (at his suggestion) by a team from the University of London, would have found confirmation, but with one difference: a fire could have been developed on the boat, for the fault of the vapors exuded from the barrels. Through some experiments, the scholars have verified that the transported alcohol, the ethanol, reaches the flash point at only 13 degrees centigrade, a very low temperature. The flames could then be released into the hold, frightening the crew and causing it to abandon the boat in a hurry, but without compromising the integrity of the wood and materials on board. This would explain why the Morehouse’s crew, during its inspection, did not find any sign of combustion of materials on board.
After its sad story, the ship was sold in a hurry by its owner, away from equity even to get rid of the uncomfortable brig. In the following years no sailor dared to board the ship any more, and the last of the 17 owners, Captain Gilman Parker, shipwreck on January 3, 1885, against a cliff near Haiti. The captain hoped to collect the insurance premium, $ 30,000 at the time comparable to nearly a million dollars today, but the companies took him and his associates to court, and they obtained no compensation. But, due the vicissitudes of Mary Celeste, the captain and accomplices were pardoned by the judges.
In 2001, marine archaeologist Clive Cussler, followed by a television crew, showed he had found the wreck of the Mary Celeste stranded in the cliff of Rochelois. It was possible to recover only a few artifacts, as the ship was now held back by a large amount of coral. Despite the initial enthusiasm, some deno-chronological tests carried out on wooden planks recovered from the wreck by the Geological Survey of Canada, showed that the material was American wood, not Canadian, and could not date back to the era of Mary Celeste (1861), but at the end of the nineteenth century.
The brigantine Mary Celeste still intrigues the minds of lovers of mystery and the sea, causing them to seek an explanation that probably will never find official confirmation. From alien abductions, to sea monsters, from duels between men, to natural calamities, everything has been examined, everything has been taken into consideration, especially in an era, the Victorian, in which the morbid passion for the supernatural and the mystery overwhelmed the goodsense.
The crew of the ship is certainly disappear forever, swallowed up by the sea, but its history will remain alive, afloat in history, as long as the solution to this enigma will remain unknown covered with saltiness.
Below, the television movie made by Smithsonian Magazine: