The Mary Celeste

Clipper ship similar to the Mary Celeste.

THE TALE OF THE Mary Celeste is not technically a ghost story, but thanks to one of the finest fiction writers of all time the true story of this ship has passed into legend as one of the most perplexing of naval mysteries. It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, as a young writer, was commissioned to pen a tale about a vessel that had been found wandering across the Atlantic Ocean in perfect condition but completely crewless. He changed the name slightly, calling it the Marie Celeste, and added fictional embellishments. But the facts themselves are strange enough and, to this day, nobody quite knows what happened to those aboard the Mary Celeste. Originally called the Amazon, the ship was built in Nova Scotia in 1860. She was a 100-foot long, 282-tonne brigantine or halfbrig. Right from the start she was an unlucky ship: she suffered numerous accidents and ended up in a dire state of repair at a New York salvage auction in 1868. The three new owners, James H. Winchester, Silvester Godwin and Benjamin Spooner Briggs, repaired and refitted the Amazon. They registered her in New York under the name Mary Celeste. Having been the master on three previous ships, Briggs took on the role as captain. Viewed as an honest, upright, God-fearing man, he was a captain who would only abandon his ship in the most appalling conditions. On 7th November 1872 the Mary Celeste left New York with Briggs, his wife Sarah, their daughter Sophie Matilda, and a crew of seven. Their cargo was 1700 barrels of American alcohol bound for Genoa in Italy.

A week later the British frigate the Dei Gratia left America to follow a similar route across the Atlantic. Captain David Reed Morehouse, who had dined with Briggs only a few days before the Mary Celeste left port, ran the Dei Gratia. On 4th December the Dei Gratia was 400 miles east of the Azores when its crew spotted a ship sailing haphazardly ahead of them. Through his spyglass, Morehouse could see it was the Mary Celeste As there was no sign of activity on deck, and no reply came to any attempt at hailing her, Morehouse decided to send off a boarding party. Chief Mate of the Dei Gratia, Oliver Deveau, was dispatched as leader of the group who set off in a small boat. He found the ship in a perfectly seaworthy condition with good supplies of food and water, but with a certain amount of interior damage. There was a great deal of water over the ship’s decks, and one of the pumps was broken. The galley stove had moved from its correct position, and the ship’s clock and compass were also damaged.

The crew appeared to have left quickly, as their waterproof boots and pipes were still on board, but it looked as though Captain Briggs had taken the chronometer and sextant. Deveau noticed that there were no lifeboats left on the ship. The most interesting find was the ship’s log. The last entry was dated 24th November, when the Mary Celeste was only just passing the Azores. That meant the ship had sailed itself for over 400 miles on a perfectly-plotted course for the Mediterranean. The crew of the Dei Gratia now split into two groups. One stayed on their own ship, whilst the other sailed the Mary Celeste onto Gibraltar. The cargo of alcohol reached Genoa with only nine barrels damaged. Following a naval inquiry, the Mary Celeste was sold on and then continued to change hands frequently. After hearing her history, many mariners decided that she was not the sort of ship they were too keen on. In 1884 she was wrecked off the coast of Haiti in an alleged insurance scam. But what happened to her crew in 1872? The official version of events, arrived at by the British and American authorities, was that the crew had mutinied and then abandoned ship. This seems very unlikely as it was only a short journey and there were no signs of a struggle on board. Also, Briggs was generally viewed as a decent and respected captain.

A second theory is almost completely implausible. It came from a man called Fosdyk who left papers after his death saying he was a secret passenger on the Mary Celeste. He claimed that Briggs had constructed a special deck in the bow for his daughter. During the voyage, two of the crew were having a swimming race around the boat when one man was attacked by sharks. As the rest of the ship’s passengers crowded onto the little girl’s deck to see what was happening, the temporary structure gave way, sending all those on board into the sea and to the sharks. Fosdyk claimed to have survived by clinging to a piece of driftwood. The most probable explanation, given the facts, was that the Mary Celeste hit a terrible patch of bad weather. As the ship bucked on the waves, some alcohol spilled from the cargo barrels, covering the hold floor. Coupled with this, the ship’s movement caused the galley stove to become unstable. Fearing the ship was about to explode, Briggs ordered everybody into the lifeboat, and planned to follow behind the Mary Celeste attached to the ship’s main halyard, a strong, thick rope.

As the storm worsened, somehow the halyard snapped and the Mary Celeste sailed off. Briggs, his family and crew were left stranded in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There is some evidence for this scenario. Morehouse testified that the Dei Gratia had been battered in severe storms during the days leading up to finding the Mary Celeste. As mentioned earlier, Deveau noticed alcohol and water spilled over the boards of the ship, whilst the galley and its stove were found in a very disorderly condition. Crucially, Deveau also noted that all small boats were missing, and the halyard was found dangling, frayed and split, over the side of the ship. Ghost ships were not particularly rare during the nineteenth century. The Dutch schooner Hermania and the ship Marathon were both found abandoned but floating in perfect order around the same time as the Mary Celeste. However, with the help of Conan Doyle, it was the Mary Celeste that really caught the public’s interest. Whilst his, and our, imagination can come up with possibilities, the true fate of the souls aboard the Mary Celeste is something we will probably never know.

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