The Mystery of the Mary Celeste Ghost Ship

Mary Celeste is an ancient ship that forms the perfect example of the theories of ghost ships narrated and told by many. Originally christened the Amazon, the American vessel was built in 1860 in the Nova Scotian hamlet of Spencer’s Island. The Mary Celeste was a dual-mast vessel known as a brigantine.

The ship began its unfateful voyage on November 7 1872. It sailed with seven crew members, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter Sophia. The 282-tonne ship faced rough weather for two weeks to arrive at the Azores. It was here that the ship’s last log entry was recorded at 5 am on November 25.

Nobody knows what happened to the ship to this day. There are many theories ranging from piracy to deadly waterspouts, alien saucers and the presence of ghosts.

How did the story of Mary Celeste become popular?

Although many knew about the mystery surrounding it, the tale of this unfateful vessel was popularised after the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story. It featured an ex-slave who became a homicidal sailor. However, another person who documented and launched another investigation on Mary Celeste was Anne MacGregor, who produced the movie ‘The True Story of Mary Celeste with funding from the Smithsonian Networks.

How was Mary Celeste found?

The crew of another vessel called Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste ten days later, on December 5, 1872. It was discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores Islands, Portugal. Per accounts, its main sail was furled, and the topmast sail was torn. The vessel moved with the wind and looked like nobody was controlling it.

Dei Gratia’s Captain, David Morehouse, was a good friend of Benjamin Spooner Briggs, the captain of the Mary Celeste. They had dined together a week before sailing on their respective ships towards the Mediterranean. Once Captain Morehouse recognised the ship to be Mary Celeste, he sent his first mate, Oliver Deveau, to find out if everyone onboard the Mary Celeste was safe.

The first mate recorded the location of the drifting vessel as 38° 20′ north, 17° 15′ west, roughly 600 miles from the coast of Portugal. However, boarding the ship was not an easy task. Despite trying to contact the crew, not a single soul appeared to pull in the sails, and strong winds dragged the vessel.

Oliver Deveau and some other sailors thought the crew must be suffering from an epidemic so that they might have become weak and sick. However, when they finally managed to climb the ship, they were shocked to find nobody onboard!

There were no signs of violence or piracy. Nothing was stolen, and the crew’s possessions and cargo were all in place. Everything was peaceful and quiet. The conditions where the ship was found added to the mystery surrounding it.

Unable to find anybody in the vicinity, the Dei Gratia sailed about 800 miles to Gibraltar. A British Court convened a salvage hearing primarily focussed on whether the crew of Dei Gratia were entitled to payment from the ship’s insurers.

However, Attorney General Frederick Solly-Flood was suspicious of the Dei Gratia crew and accused them of foul play. Hence, he decided to investigate thoroughly. When three months passed, the court found no evidence of foul play and mischief. The salvagers received one-sixth of the 46,000 dollars for which Mary Celeste and its cargo were insured. This highlighted the authorities’ beliefs that the Dei Gratia crew might not be completely innocent.

The History of the Mary Celeste

Between the early and mid-1860s, the vessel’s owners frequently encountered a series of accidents with the vessel trading hands. The lives of three captains were also lost, which further added to the negative reputation gained by the vessel. However, despite the mass negativity garnered, the ship managed to have successful voyages, although the negativity far outweighed this success rate.

Mary Celeste

In 1867, the vessel was salvaged to a New York-based marine corporation, re-christened as Mary Celeste, and put under Captain Benjamin Briggs’s skippering. Along with Captain Briggs and his family – wife and daughter – the ship had a crew of eight people. Incidentally, Captain Briggs was also one of the four stakeholders who held the newly transferred joint-stock ownership of the Mary Celeste.

Mary Celeste Mystery

The mystery of Mary Celeste started soon after the ship was tasked with the transportation of about 1,700 alcohol casks to the Italian province of Genoa in the year 1872. The vessel, which departed as per her schedule on November 7, 1872, did not reach the Genoese port at all but was found to be adrift in the Gibraltar strait by the vessel Dei Gratia, which had left the New York harbour precisely a week after the Mary Celeste’s departure.

Mary Celeste

The perplexing details were soon apparent. The shipmen and the captain were nowhere to be found, while the only lifeboat equipped in the boat was missing. But even as these two things became clear, it was also found that the commodities aboard the vessel – the cargo, which was denatured alcohol and the people’s personal belongings – were completely untouched, which negated the theory of pirates raiding the ship almost immediately.

The multiple theories around the crew abandoning the ship

While speculations came forth about the tyranny of the captain towards his team, the fact that Briggs was an experienced captain and an honourable man with a high sense of duty and integrity towards his profession soon overruled these speculations.

One theory that has gained a lot of credibility about the ghost ship is the one revolving around the alcohol casks and the captain’s decision to abandon the vessel before a fire could erupt. The fact that nine barrels of alcohol were uncovered and a rope was dangling into the water added to the credibility of this supposition, though nothing concrete has been established.

It was believed that the alcohol vapours expanded in the Azores’ heat, so the main hatch blew off. Hence, everyone onboard feared an explosion and abandoned the ship. However, Macgregor said the boarding party found the main hatch secure and did not smell any fumes.

Per the report, 9 of the 1701 barrels were empty, but those nine empty barrels were made of red oak and not white oak like the others. Red oak is a more porous wood and is likely to leak. Another source of suspicion was the two german crewmembers, also brothers. Volkert and Boye Lorenzen came under suspicion as none of their possessions was found on the ship. However, one of their relatives told Macgregor that the brothers lost their belongings in an 1872 shipwreck and had no motive to do anything to other crew members.

Attorney General Solly-Flood’s notes yielded the starting point for further investigations. Per his records, Captain Briggs altered the course to go north of Santa Maria island the day before Mary Celeste arrived at the Azores. The night before the ship’s last log entry, it faced rough seas and strong winds again.

However, harsh weather and a faulty clock might not be why the ship captain and crew abandoned it. Another finding was that on its last journey, Mary Celeste carried coal and was recently refitted. According to the theory, coal dust and construction debris might have fouled its pumps which could explain the disassembled pump found onboard the drifting ship.

As the ship’s pumps were not working, the captain was unaware of how much seawater was in the ship’s hull. At this time, the captain, having dealt with rough weather and seeing land, decided to abandon the boat as he thought the ship might sink.


Mary Celeste

Other widespread rumours and theories about the Mary Celeste mystery include mutiny, encountering flying saucers, accidental foraying into the Bermuda Triangle and also experiencing harsh weather conditions. But since the vessel was found intact with no visible damages, all these theories remain suppositions.

The marine world has seen more than its share of ghost ship anecdotes. While some are intimidating, some are genuinely confusing. The mystery of Mary Celeste unequivocally comes into the latter cadre and is worth considering.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Was the crew of the Mary Celeste ever found?

No, the crew of the mysterious vessel was never found. Also, despite many theories, it was never ascertained with surety why the ship was abandoned in the first place.

2. What was missing from Mary Celeste?

The only lifeboat on the ship was missing, and one of its pumps was found disassembled. Three and a half feet of water was coming into the ship’s bottom, although the cargo comprising 1701 barrels of denatured alcohol was largely intact.

3. Where is Mary Celeste currently?

The Mary Celeste sailed for 12 years after it was abandoned and finally struck the Rochelais reef off the coast of Haiti and became stuck there. The ship is there today, and the shipwreck was discovered in 2001.

4. When did the ship set sail?

The ship began its unfateful voyage on November 7 1872. It sailed with seven crew members, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter Sophia.

5. What are the speculations surrounding the ship?

Nobody knows what happened to the ship to this day. There are many theories ranging from piracy to deadly waterspouts, alien saucers and the presence of ghosts.

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  2. 1 – We were already working on the dewatering pump so it is not part of the problem .
    2 – The ringing and the sails were a normal thing since the ship was left alone and moreover the hold with a lot of water gave a lot of inertia to the ship so by high winds the sails were inevitably damaged .Therefore , it is not taken into account either .
    3- Behind the canavas that was blocking the rear windows of the ship , were there broken windows ? Nowhere it is mentioned . If yes then it was due to the shock and if not then I have an explanation but as for the pump it means that it was already there at the time of the accident .
    4 – There are still alcohol vapors or spills ( ? ) .
    Wanting a theory that takes into account all the clues will make you spin in the void , but if you separate them by thinking then you can find your way back .

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