The Classic Case of the Mary Celeste



The abrupt disappearance of the Mary Celeste's entire crew is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the sea. But that was only the climax of a long history of weird misfortunes...


On 5th December 1872 a crewman on watch on board the British ship Dei Gratia sighted vessel that seemed to be in distress. Three seamen lowered the Dei Gratia's small boat and rowed across to the troubled craft to offer assistance. They hauled themselves over the ship's rails and dropped onto the deck; save for the sound of the wind in the sails and the eerie creaking of the ship's timbers, there was not a sound. The seamen searched the ship from stem to stern and found her to be in excellent condition, but there was not a soul on board. Her crew had disappeared. The name of the ship was Mary Celeste.

The disappearance of her crew is the central element in Mary Celeste's long history of misfortune. She attracted bad luck like a magnet attracts iron filings. The superstitious would call her jinxed, and Mary Celeste's story is one that would make even hard-boiled sceptic agree that the supersti.tious might have a point.

Mary Celeste was built in 1860, thc maiden venture of a consortium of pioneer shipbuilders at the shipyards of Joshua Dewis on Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia. She was originally christened Amazon and was launched in 1861, the year that saw the start of the American Civil War. Tragedy struck a short while later when her first skipper, a Scot named Robert McLellan, fell ill and died. Then one John Nutting Parker assumed command and skippered the Amazon's maiden voyage, but she ran into a fishing weir off Maine, received a large gash in her hull and had to go to the shipyards for repair. While she was there a fire broke out amidships, bringing Captain Parker's short- lived command to an end.

Amazon's first Atlantic crossing went without mishap until she entered the Straits of Dover and collided with a brig. The brig sank, Amazon again went for repairs, and her third skipper went to seek another command.

Following the necessary repairs and the appointment of a new captain, Amazon returned to America, and she promptly ran aground off Cow Bay, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Amazon's history now becomes a little hazy. She was pulled off the rocks and repaired, but appears to have passed from one owner to another, several of whom seem to have gone bankrupt and none of whom derived any good from their contact with the ship. She eventually passed into the hands of J.H. Winchester and Co., a consortium of New York shipowners. By this time the Amazon was unrecognisable as the vessel that had left the shipyards of Joshua Dewis. She had been enlarged, now flew the Stars and Stripes, and on her nameboard was Mary Celeste. It has been suggested that the peculiar mixture of English and French names was the result of the painter's error, the intended name being Mary Sellers or even perhaps Marie Celeste, the name, ironically, by which most people know her.

Sometime during late September or early October in 1872 Mary Celeste was berthed at Pier 44 in New York's East River, preparing to take on a new cargo and a fresh crew.

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

The latest captain of Mary Celeste was a stern, puritan New Englander named Benjamin Spooner Briggs. He was born at Wareham, Massachusetts, on 24th April 1835, the second of five sons born to Captain Nathan Briggs and his wife Sophia. It was a seafaring family; apart from his father, four of his brothers also went to sea. Two became master mariners at an early age, one of them being Benjamin Briggs, who had already commanded the schooner Forest King, the barque Arthur, and the brigantine Sea Foam. In later years many authors painted him as weak and ineffectual, a man whose religious beliefs had become a form of perversion, a mania, turning his strict abstinence from alcohol which went so far as to allow none on board his ship unless it were cargo - into something akin to over-zealous morality. Briggs was in fact a man of strict beliefs and religious convictions, and although he was a teetotaller he was no monomaniac on the subject. He was described by those who knew him as always bearing "the highest character as a Christian and as an intelligent and active shipmaster". He was also a share holder in the Mary Celeste.

Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, master of the Mary Celeste. A puritan and abstemious New Englander, his alleged religious fanaticism has been blamed for whatever disaster hit the crew.

The first mate was Albert G. Richardson. A soldier in the American Civil War, he had married a niece of James H. Winchester's and had served before with Captain Briggs. He seems to have been trustworthy and competent and was held in high esteem. Andrew Gilling was the second mate. His birthplace was given as New York but he seems to have been of Danish extraction, Again there is no reason to suspect that he was other than upright and honest. The cook and steward, Edward William Head, hailed from Brooklyn, New York, where it is said that he was respected by all. The remainder of the crew consisted of four seamen of German birth, about whom little is known except that two of them - both named Lorenzen - had lost all their possessions when shipwrecked prior to signing on as crewmen on Mary Celeste. None of these Germans appears to have been anything other than of good character. Also making the voyage into the unknown were Captain Briggs's wife, Sarah Elizabeth - the daughter of the preacher of the Congregational Church in Marion, Massachusetts - and one of their two children, two-year-old Sophia Matilda. The elder child, their son Arthur Stanley, remained at home.

The ship's list, giving the names of
those who sailed, and were doomed
to vanish without trace.
Late on Saturday 2nd November 1872 Mary Celeste's cargo was loaded and made secure. She carried 1701 barrels of denatured alcohol being shipped by Meissner Ackerman and Co., merchants of New York, to H. Mascerenhas and Co., of Genoa, Italy.

Early on 5 November the Sandy Hook pilot ship towed Mary Celeste from Pier 44 to the lower bay off Staten Island, New York. The Atlantic was particularly stormy for the time of year and Briggs was forced to drop anchor for two days before he dared to venture out to sea on 7th November. But although Mary Celeste herself would make many more voyages, it was the last time anyone would see this particular crew.

On 15 November 1872, eight days after Mary Celeste left New York, Dei Gratia set off with a cargo of petroleum bound for Gibraltar. Her skipper was a Nova Scotian named David Reed Morehouse and the first mate was Oliver Deveau. Both these men and the rest of Dei Gratia's crew were highly able sailors - as later events were to prove - and no 'dirt' has ever been attached to their characters except by sensationalists.

On 5th December, shortly after 1 p.m., one of the Dei Gratia's crew, John Johnson, who was at the wheel, sighted a vessel about 5 miles (8 kilometres) off the port bow. Attracted by the poor State of the ship's sails and her slight 'yawing' (listing), he called the second mate, John Wright, and together they summoned Captain Morehouse. After surveying the vessel through his telescope, Morehouse gave orders to offer assistance.

At 3 p.m., having come within about 400 yards (370 metres) of the mystery ship, Morehouse hailed her several times, but, receiving no reply from her, he decided to send some men to investigate.

Oliver Deveau, with Wright and Johnson, rowed across to the distressed craft, noting as they drew closer, its name - Mary Celeste. Johnson was left in the boat as the other two hauled themselves over the ship's rails. The Mary Celeste was deserted.

Over the next hour Deveau and Wright searched Mary Celeste from stem to stern. The main staysail was found on the foreward house, but the foresail and upper foresail had been blown from the yards and lost. The jib, fore-topmast staysail and the fore lower topsail were set. The remaining sails were furled. Some of the running rigging was fouled, some had been blown away, and parts of it were hanging over the sides. The main peak halyard - a stiff rope about 100 yards (90 metres) long used to hoist the outer end of the gaff sail - was broken and most of it missing. The wheel was spinning free and the binnacle had been knocked over and broken. The main hatch to below decks was well-battened down and secure, but certain of the hatch covers had apparently been removed and were found discarded near the hatchways. There was less than a foot (30 centimetres) of water in the galley and little of the six months' store of provisions had been spoilt. There was ample fresh water.

In short, Mary Celeste was in a far better condition than most vessels then regularly plying the Atlantic. And, aside from some evidence that she bad recently weathered a storm, she bore no clues as to why she had been so abruptly abandoned by her crew.

On a table in Captain Briggs' cabin Oliver Deveau found the temporary log. It read: "Monday, 25th. At five o'clock made island of St Mary's bearing ESE. At eight o'clock Eastern point bore SSW six miles (3 kilometres) distant." In the mate's cabin Deveau found a chart showing the track of the vessel up to 24th November.

Missing from the ship were the chronometer, sextant, bill of lading, navigation book, and a small yawl, or boat, that had been lashed to the main hatch. A piece of railing running alongside had been removed to launch the boat. This at least answered the mystery of where Mary Celeste's crew had gone; they had abandoned ship. But why? What possible reason could an experienced seaman like Benjamin Spooner Briggs have had for abandoning a perfectly seaworthy ship and loading his wife and two-year-old daughter and the seven members of crew into a small and comparatively unstable boat? Abandoning ship is a desperate measure, an act taken only when there is no alternative; yet as one of Dei Gratia's crew said later, Mary Celeste was in a fit enough state to sail around the world. So why was she abandoned?

Under international maritime law anyone who salvages an abandoned vessel is entitled to a percentage of what the vessel and its cargo are worth. Generally such a vessel is a wreck, but Mary Celeste, a seaworthy ship, and her valuable cargo were worth a substantial sum, and the salvors could expect to make perhaps as much as $80,000. Captain Morehouse was not consumed by avarice, as many subsequent writers have implied, and was actually reluctant to lay claim to Mary Celeste. He could not really spare the men to form a skeleton crew without both vessels being undermanned and therefore at risk in the event of an emergency; but he was eventually persuaded by Deveau.

Deveau and two seamen, Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund, took only two days to restore Mary Celeste to order, and then the two ships set off for Gibraltar. Dei Gratia arrived on the evening of 12th December and Mary Celeste the following morning. Within two hours of dropping anchor Mary Celeste was placed under arrest by Thomas J. Vecchio, of the Vice-Admiralty Court.

The Attorney General for Gibraltar and Advocate General for the Queen in Her Office of Admiralty was an excitable, arrogant and pompous bureaucrat named Frederick Solly Flood; he found the abandonment of Mary Celeste explicable only as a result of murder and piracy. Without Solly Flood the Mary Celeste mystery would have probably faded into obscurity, but his accusations at the hearings in the Vice-Admiralty Court attracted worldwide publicity.

First, Flood accused Mary Celeste's original crew - in their absence - of having gained access to the cargo of alcohol and having murdered Captain Briggs, his wife and child, and Mate Richardson in a drunken fury. It is a theory that has been proposed several times since, once by William A. Richard, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, in an open letter published on the front page of the New York Times in 1873. The fact remains that the cargo was denatured alcohol and liable to give the drinker acute pains long before he could become intoxicated. Flood was forced to abandon his theory.

He next suggested that Briggs and Morehouse were conspirators. Briggs, said Flood, killed his crew and disposed of their bodies. He then took the lifeboat to a destination prearranged with Captain Morehouse, who in the meantime would have found Mary Celeste abandoned, taken her to Gibraltar and claimed the salvage reward. The two men would then meet and split their ill-gotten gains. This theory is just plausible, but there was and is no evidence that Briggs or Morehouse were villains. Moreover, Briggs was part-owner of Mary Celeste and his cut of the salvage money would not have been more than his investment in the vessel. Flood abandoned this idea too.

Guilty Until Proved Innocent

His third suggestion was that Captain Morehouse and the crew of Dei Gratia had boarded Mary Celeste and savagely slaughtered all on board. Flood tried very hard to make his claim stick, but all he succeeded in doing was generating an atmosphere of suspicion in which Morehouse and his crew would be considered guilty until they could prove themselves innocent. Fortunately, the Vice- Admiralty Court denounced such a flagrant abuse of the law and cleared Morehouse and his crew of any suspicion. They granted them a salvage reward of 1700. In the opinion of many people the award should have been twice or three times as much.

Mary Celeste was returned te James H. Winchester and, under the command of Captain George W. Blatchford. she continued her voyage to Genoa and finally delivered her cargo. Winchester then sold the ship - it is rumoured at a considerable loss - and over the next 12 years the vessel changed hands no less than 17 times. None of her new owners had a good word to say about her. She lurched up and down the coast of the United States losing cargoes, sails and sailors, running aground and catching fire with depressing regularity. It seemed that Mary Celeste's jinx was there to stay.

What Really Happened?

It did not take long for the myth surrounding the disappearance of the Mary Celeste's crew to be born. Indeed, it could be argued that it began in Gibraltar in 1872 when Solly Flood tried in vain to attach guilt to Captain Morehouse and the crew of the Dei Gratia. But the story was seized upon by writers and journalists and soon caught the public imagination.

The first major piece of fiction about the ship was published in January 1884 by the prestigious Cornhill Magazine, 11 months before Gilman C. Parker deliberately burnt the ship to a cinder. It was a sensational short story called J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement and it bore little resemblance to the actual facts, It was picked up by American newspapers however and published as fact, much to the outrage of Solly Flood and Horatio Sprague, the US Consul in Gibraltar, both of whom wrote letters condemning the tale.

Apart from its literary worth, J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement is interesting for two reasons: it was one of the first literary efforts of a young English doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle, and in it Mary Celeste is called Marie Celeste, the name by which the ship is now most commonly known. However, Conan Doyle was not the first to make the error - this version of the name first appears in Lloyd's List of 25th March 1873.

Conan Doyle's story was the first of many fictional accounts that have appeared over the years; for example, a novel based on the mystery was published as recently as 1980. Some of these tales have been presented as straight fiction, others as fictionalised fact (but nevertheless proposing a serious explanation), and quite a few have been intended to be taken as fact.

In the late 1920s Chamber's Journal published an article by Lee Kaye purporting to be a true account of what happened aboard Mary Celeste as supposedly told by a survivor named John Pemberton (one of the many 'survivors' who have popped up over the years but whose names are mysteriously absent from the crew list).

Pemberton's story was expanded to book length by Laurence J. Keating in 1929 and called The Great Mary Celeste Hoax. It was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; John Pemberton rapidly became the man of the moment. Many journalists sought interviews with him, but Pemberton remained elusive until a 'special correspondent' of the London Evening Standard tracked him down - and obtained not only the coveted interview but a photograph as well. Both were published in the Evening Standard on 6th May 1929.

However, one of the few true statements in Keating's book was its title: the story was a hoax; Lee Kaye, Laurence Keating, and the Evening Standard's 'special correspondent' were all one and the same person, an Irish Liverpuddlian named Laurence J. Keating. John Pemberton was a figment of Keating's fertile imagination and the photograph of 'Pemberton' was of Keating's own father.

While the majority of theories to explain the abandonment of Mary Celeste are generally a variation on the theme of murder - committed either by Mary Celeste's own crew or by the men of Dei Gratia - other solutions are not uncommon and are frequently bizarre. The 1900s favoured 'monster from the depths' stories in which Mary Celeste was attacked by a huge hungry octopus that plucked the entire crew from the deck. Although it has its attractions for illustrators, the theory also has a number of flaws. Even if such a huge creature exists it is highly unlikely that everyone aboard Mary Celeste would have been on deck at the same time or that they would have obligingly stayed there as the monster plucked them off one by one. We must also assume that for some reason it craved Mary Celeste's yawl, chronometer, sextant, and ship's papers.
Sea monsters have been blamed
for the tragedy

The late Morris K. Jessup, who was involved with the alleged Philadelphia experiment, suggested that Mary Celeste's crew were abducted by a UFO. And Bermuda Triangle writers list the vessel's crew among the victims of whatever unexplained force they consider to exist in the area, imbuing that force with a singular selectivity, and in the process enlarging the Triangle so that it reaches the Azores. A superficially acceptable theory put forward by a number of rational people was that the food or drinking water was contaminated and caused the crew to hallucinate, driving them mad so that they threw themselves over the side. But Oliver Deveau and other members of the Dei Gratia's crew used the food and water they found aboard Mary Celeste and suffered no ill effects.

The United States Consul in Gibraltar, Horatio Sprague, wrote in July 1887 that: "This case of the Mary Celeste is startling, since it appears to be one of those mysteries which no human ingenuity can penetrate sufficiently to account for the abandonment of this vessel and the disappearance of her master, family and crew..." No solution so far offered seems to account for all the circumstances, but it is possible to list some salient facts that might provide a few clues: Mary Celeste was abandoned by her captain and crew; those who abandoned ship did so in the ship's yawl. This small vessel would have been overloaded and easily capsized, so the crew's fate is not wholly inexplicable. The ship was abandoned in a hurry: extra clothing was not taken nor - as far as is known - was any food or water, but the crew did not abandon ship in a complete panic, since they took the time to collect the sextant, chronometer, and the ship's papers (apart from the temporary log). Since there was no evidence that Mary Celeste had suffered any damage, whatever made the crew abandon her was something they feared had happened or was about to happen, but clearly never did.

The part-owner of the ship, James H. Winchester, suggested that Mary Celeste's cargo of denatured alcohol gave off fumes, which collected in the hold and formed an explosive mixture. This, he speculated, was either ignited by a spark, resulting, perhaps, from friction caused by the metal bands around the barrels rubbing together, or a naked light used during cargo inspection. Or perhaps the fumes had been mistaken for smoke and gave rise to the belief that the ship was about to be blown out of the water.

Experts have expressed the opinion that there could have been no visible vapour, but that an explosive mixture could have been formed. However, this would not have resulted in a minor explosion, but would have blown Mary Celeste into matchwood.

The most likely solution was in part offered by Oliver Deveau at the salvage hearing. He said that he thought the crew had panicked, believing that the ship was sinking. It was not an opinion that has impressed many commentators and most have dismissed it as idiotic (and Deveau himself as an idiot). But in fairness to Deveau, his comment has to be taken in context. At the hearing he was asked a straightforward question, and he answered it without elaboration. Later researchers, however, have tried to interpret his meaning.

Dr. James H. Kimble, once the head of the United States Weather Bureau in New York, and author Gershom Bradford have both suggested that Mary Celeste was struck by a waterspout, a tornado at sea; a column of whirling wind and water that can appear without warning, last for up to an hour, and then break up as quickly as it appeared.

At first glance this theory does not seem very plausible, particularly as waterspouts are not common outside the tropics, nor is it common for ships to be struck by them. But the fact is that waterspouts are not totally restricted to the tropics: for example, in December 1920 the steamer British Marquis reported no less than 20 waterspouts in the English Channel.

Mr. Bradford and Dr. Kimble believe that a relatively small and harmless spout, narrow and travelling at an angle, could have struck the ship without doing a great deal of damage; indeed, it would have left the vessel no worse than had she encountered a storm. All this is consistent with the state of Mary Celeste when first sighted by the Dei Gratia. However, within a waterspout the barometric pressure is extremely low and, as the spout passed over the ship, the marked difference in pressure between the inside and outside of the ship could have caused the hatch covers to blow off - in the same way that a building's walls explode outward when struck by a tornado.

In this context, the method by which Mary Celeste was sounded may be extremely significant. This was done by dropping a rod down the pump well to measure the water in the hold, in much the same way as a motorist checks his oil with a dipstick. The drop in barometric pressure could have driven the bilge water up the pump-well, where a valve would have prevented it from returning immediately to the hold. Although this would have been merely a temporary malfunction, the crew may not have realised it.

A waterspout at sea. A fast, angled one
could have hit Mary Celeste, causing only
superficial damage and temporarily
falsifying the crew's soundings.
Suppose, then, that after the waterspout had moved on the crew were shaken and confused. Somebody went to sound the ship to see if she had suffered any underwater damage, and to his horror found that Mary Celeste had leaked 6 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 metres) of water in less than a minute - or so the seaman would have thought when he removed the sounding rod. Believing Mary Celeste to be sinking fast, Captain Briggs, perhaps panicking out of concern for his wife and daughter, gave the order to abandon ship. Perhaps this was what Oliver Deveau had meant by his cryptic statement. We shall never know, but the waterspout theory certainly seems to fit most of the reported circumstances and also explains the most baffling feature of the case: what monstrous happening threatened those aboard Mary Celeste, resulting in their hurried evacuation but still allowing them time in which to grab sextant, chronometer and ship's papers?

One commentator has called the case of Mary Celeste "a detective-story writer's nightmare: the perfectly perplexing situation without any logical solution - a plot which can never be convincingly unravelled."

On 16th May 1873 the Daily Albion of Liverpool reported that two rafts had been found by fishermen at Baudus, in Asturias, near Madrid, Spain. One of the rafts had a corpse lashed to it and was flying an American flag. The second raft bore five decomposing bodies. Curiously, the matter was not investigated, so no one will ever know who they were or what ship they belonged to. But could they have been from Mary Celeste?

A Terrible Risk

In late 1884 an ageing and rather unkempt Mary Celeste was bought by Gilman C. Parker and loaded with freight, which he insured for $30,000. The vessel then sailed for Port-au-Prince, Haiti. But she never arrived. On 3rd January 1885 Mary Celeste ran aground on the razor-sharp coral reef of Rochaelais Bank in the Gulf Of Gonave, off the coast of Haiti.

Parker put out an insurance claim, but for some reason the insurance companies regarded it with deep suspicion and sent enquiry agents to investigate. They found that Parker had loaded the ship with rubbish - not the valuable cargo he had insured - had deliberately run Mary Celeste aground, unloaded the part of the cargo that he could sell, and then set Mary Celeste alight. Parker was charged with fraud and/or criminal negligence by a ship's officer or crew against the owners or insurers. In those days this was a crime punishable by death. The case was heard in a federal court in Boston, but it was dropped because of a legal technicality.. Gilman C. Parker, a grizzled old sea-dog who was - judging by the evidence - undoubtedly guilty of every maritime crime short of piracy, and his associates walked from the court free men. Free, that is from the penalties of the law, but not from the jinx of Mary Celeste. In a short time, Parker went bankrupt, and he died in poverty and disrepute. One of his fellow conspirators went insane and was placed in a mental institution where he ended his days. Another killed himself. In the end the jinx of Mary Celeste had won, having horribly ruined many lives.


This article was written by Paul Begg, and originally appeared in The Unexplained Mysteries of Time and Space, Volume 4, Issue 48 & Volume 5, Issue 50.



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