It was 9am on the morning of Friday, December 13th 1872 when people on the waterfront
saw a small two-masted sailing vessel entering the Bay of Gibraltar. The ship was
the Mary Celeste of New York, a Canadian-built 100 foot brigantine of 282 tons registered
in New York. The registered owners were James H Winchester (12/24), Sylvester Goodwin
(2/24) and Benjamin Spooner Briggs (8/24).
Her master, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, was an old Yankee salt of the New Bedford strain,
born and bred to the sea. He was known in Gibraltar to be a staunch abstainer and
devout Bible reader, and his reputation among sailors and shippers alike was excellent.
He was considered a fine captain and a skilled seaman, honest and trustworthy. At
the inquiry the ship's main owner, James Henry Winchester, gave evidence that the
captain was a courageous officer who would not desert his ship except to save his
life. The second-in-command, the mate, was Albert Richardson, who was also considered
by Winchester to be fit to command himself.
But of the good Captain Briggs, his wife Sarah, two year old daughter Sophia Matilda,
and the crew of seven, nothing was to be seen or found ever again.
And so begins the greatest of all mysteries of the sea. However, were it not for
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, struggling to establish himself as a writer prior to creating
Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the world would not have ever known or cared. The story,
like many a tale, has grown with the telling, to incorporate speculation of further
mysteries, including pirates, creatures from the deep, abduction by aliens, submarines,
and time travel. Conan Doyle's short story about the 'Marie Celeste' (he changed
the name from Mary) turned a minor puzzle into one of the most famous legends of
the sea. Nevertheless we should recognize it was fiction, for which his editor paid
30 pounds, which would have been a respectable sum in 1884.
Turning back to the real story, which survives because shipping and court inquiries
leave behind ample records to be researched, we find the following facts:
The Mary Celeste had sailed from New York on November 7th bound for Genoa with a
cargo of 1701 barrels of American alcohol, shipped by Meissner Ackermann & Co.; value
approximately $35,000, the purpose of which was to fortify wine. The value of the
freight on the alcohol was $3,400 and the ship herself $14,000. The vessel's cargo
was insured in Europe, and the hull insurance was carried by American companies.
The freight was insured by the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company of New York, today
the only survivor of the American insurers.
She was followed out of port on 15th November by the Dei Gratia, which followed a
roughly parallel course across the Atlantic carrying a cargo 1735 barrels of petroleum.
On the afternoon of December 5th 1872 half way between the Azores and the Portuguese
coast the Dei Gratia came up with a Brigantine which Captain Morehouse recognized
as the Mary Celeste. He knew Captain Briggs personally and had dined with him before
he sailed. He was puzzled to see the ship yawing, coming into the wind and then falling
off. She was out of control, and he could not see anyone on board through his spyglass.
There were no distress signals, and after watching for two hours and hailing her
and getting no reply, Morehouse sent First Mate Oliver Deveau and three men off in
a small boat to board her, which they did without difficulty.
Deveau and his men searched the vessel from top to bottom and found—nothing. No one.
Although there was some damage due to water and weather, the vessel appeared to be
entirely seaworthy and there was no evident reason for its abandonment. The general
impression was that the crew had left in a great hurry. They had left behind their
oil skin boots and pipes. One of the later myths surrounding the discovery of the
Mary Celeste was that there were steaming mugs of tea, half eaten breakfasts, and
a phial of oil balanced on the sewing machine. This is untrue. Let us remember the
vessel was observed out of control for two hours before she was boarded, and had
been in heavy seas in the days previous.
Deveau found one pump out of order, and only used the other later on his way to Gibraltar.
He found the fore hatch off and also the lazarette hatch off with a great deal of
water between decks. The clock and compass were spoilt and destroyed respectively.
The ship's longboat was missing. The chronometer, the sextant navigation book and
the ship's register and papers were also missing. There was not a log line ready
for use. The last entry on the ship's slate showed she had made the island of St
Mary in the Azores on November 25th.
There was no indication of any trouble; so far as could later be determined from
reading the log book, it had been a routine voyage. There were no signs of violence,
no bloodstains or bullet holes. The court record states that Deveau found no beer
or spirits in the ship, which fitted in with Captain Briggs' reputation as a strict
abstainer who would not allow drink aboard his vessel. The cargo had not shifted
and seemed to be intact. The court record states "The galley was in a bad state,
the stove was knocked out of its place, and the cooking utensils were strewn around.
The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess. The captain's bed was not fit to sleep
in and had to be dried." The only dry clothes found were dry because they were in
a watertight seaman's chest. Everything else was wet. There is a mystery of the clock
face being upside down, but not because of any 'time warp' the Mate had removed it
to clean it and put it back wrongly.
Now we come to a crucial bit. Charles Lurd, crew member states; "We found no boats
on board." He could not state how many there should have been, but he had seen the
Mary Celeste in dock at New York and he felt sure there had been a boat at the main
hatch from the fixing there.
In his conclusion the judge praises the crew of the Dei Gratia for their great courage
in view of the risk to both vessels in dividing the crew, and their great skill shown
in bringing both vessels safely to Gibraltar.
So where does that leave us? It seems obvious that the crew got into the boat and
left the ship. But why?
One explanation is for some reason the captain and crew panicked and took to the
ships boat. This could have been due to a mistake in sounding the pump and thinking
she was sinking, or bearing in mind the nature of the cargo, there may have been
an small explosion or rumbling in the barrels below.
There is one odd thing which has often escaped notice in accounts of the disaster:
when the cargo was finally unloaded in Genoa, nine of the alcohol barrels were found
to be empty.
We can safely assume there was a boat. Let's say Briggs ordered his men to abandon
ship and snatched up his navigational instruments. In great haste they all left.
It may be significant that the main halyard, a stout rope 3 inches in circumference,
was found later broken and hanging over the side. [See: "The Story of the Mary Celeste"
written by Charles Edey Fay in 1942 and the cross examination of Augustus Anderson
in the Admiralty inquiry where he states "there were ropes hanging over the side"]
Let us assume that they were trailing behind the ship, waiting to see if she exploded.
Then, suddenly, the wind took off and snapped the rope, maybe sinking the small boat
at the same time. Even if it did not, it would have been difficult to keep afloat
in a small boat in bad weather.
The records of the Servico Metrologico in the Azores say that the weather deteriorated
that morning and a storm blew up involving gale force winds and torrential rain.
The Captain of the Dei Gratia says in his sworn record that the weather had been
blowing very hard for seven or eight days previous and had only moderated in the
morning of the 4th. So that left the poor people from the Mary Celeste crowded into
a tiny boat at the mercy of the Atlantic, in heavy seas. Perhaps the same violent
rains quietened down the cargo and the final story is that Captain Briggs got it
wrong and paid the ultimate price along with his wife, child and crew.
Another theory was that there was a mutiny. However, this was a very short voyage,
with a small crew, a fair and experienced captain and first officer. And why would
mutineers abandon the ship? Usually the objective of a mutiny is to take over a ship
and sail it away to the South Seas or turn pirate or something of the kind, not abandon
it and flee in a small boat in mid-ocean. It seems unlikely that this was the cause.
The poor Mary Celeste did not enjoy a good fate either. She became regarded as a
ship seamen and owners wished to avoid. She changed hands frequently. Twelve years
later she sailed from Boston with a mixed cargo and was wrecked off the coast of
Haiti apparently by her subsequent owners to cash in on her insurance.
She started life as the Amazon and arrived practically a wreck in New York in 1868.
She was sold in a public auction for $10,000 and arrested in Boston. From Boston
she sailed to New York and was re-fitted at a total cost of $11,500 before she sailed
into her fate in the history books. At some point along the line she was re-named
the Mary Celeste, and many superstitious sailors consider re-naming a ship once it
has been christened to be bad luck.
To put the whole thing in perspective, when the court in Gibraltar had settled this
matter (they were more concerned in ownership of the vessel and the cargo, rather
than solving any mystery) their next case was the forgotten.
Neither was the Mary Celeste the only vessel found abandoned. In April 1849 the Dutch
Schooner Hermania was found dismasted but otherwise sound, with the captain, his
wife, child and crew missing, and in February 1855 the Marathon was found in perfect
order abandoned. In 1921 the schooner Carroll Deering was found floating off Hatteras
Island , North Carolina , completely deserted.
No one will ever know of the fate of Captain Briggs, his family and his crew until,
in the words of the burial service, "the sea shall give up its dead."