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Mary Celeste: Epitome of a Ghost Ship

Updated on September 7, 2016
An engraving of the Mary Celeste
An engraving of the Mary Celeste

It was 9 am on Friday, December 13, 1872: an interesting incidence of irony that it was Friday the 13th. People who were out and about on the waterfront witnessed a small sailing vessel with two masts drifting into the Bay of Gibraltar behind another ship. With this first appearance in front of the general public after being recovered in open water, the human imagination took over, and speculation ran wild about this craft’s unmanned state. It was the Mary Celeste: a 100 foot British-American merchant brigantine vessel that would be immortalized in the annals of legend by no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. And befitting Mr. Doyle’s arguably most iconic work, Sherlock Holmes himself would find it challenging to solve the mysterious fate of the passengers aboard the Mary Celeste…the definitive ghost ship.

The ill-fated ship originated from the small village of Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia in 1861. This 282 ton brigantine (originally dubbed “The Amazon”) was the creation of a shipbuilder named Joshua Dewis. It was the property of eight investors all hailing from Nova Scotia. Ostensibly, as is the case with all eventual “ghost ships,” the Mary Celeste seemed cursed from its inception.

The ship’s first captain was Robert McClellan, who was the son of one of the vessel’s owners. Unfortunately for McClellan, he contracted pneumonia a mere nine days after receiving his command, and passed away at the outset of the ship’s maiden voyage. Ultimately, he was one of three captains to die aboard the vessel. Another captain, John Nutting Parker, struck a fishing boat after just leaving port on another voyage early on in the brigatine’s service; accordingly, he was forced to return immediately to the shipyard for repairs. Intriguingly, while in the yard for these repairs, a damaging fire broke out onboard. The next commander to take the helm of The Amazon was subject to the curse when the vessel collided with another ship in the English Channel near Dover, England during its inaugural trans-Atlantic voyage. Luckily for this captain, he was immediately fired from his position…before the hex could complete its work.

After this troubling beginning for the unlucky vessel, the Amazon’s fate seemed to right itself as six profitable and uneventful years followed for her Nova Scotia owners. The ship made trips to the West Indies, Central America, and South America, transporting a myriad of cargoes without incident; but, it was too good to last.

In 1867, The Amazon ran aground in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia during a fierce storm. After the craft was salvaged, ownership decided to sell the accursed boat. A New York interest named Richard Haines purchased The Amazon for $1,750, and then invested another $8,825.03 into her for repairs. Subsequently, in 1868, once repairs were complete, the brigantine was transferred to the American registry. The next year, The Amazon was renamed, and given the appellation by which she would become legendary, Mary Celeste. The ship operated under American ownership for several years, again, without incident…that is, until November of 1872.

On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste sailed from Staten Island, New York bound for Genoa, Italy. Her cargo was 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol intended for bolstering Italian wines on behalf of Meissner Ackermann & Co. The value of this load was estimated at, and insured to a level of, $35,000. In addition to a crew of seven intrepid sailors and an experienced captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs; this journey also included the captain’s wife Sarah (who had accompanied her devoted husband on such voyages several times previously) and the couple’s two year old daughter named Sophia Matilda.

Fast forward to December 5th, the British brigantine Dei Gratia spots a derelict ship adrift in choppy seas 400 miles east of the Azores. The Dei Gratia had embarked from the same port 10 days after the Mary Celeste with a cargo of petroleum; moreover, David Reed Morehouse --the captain of the Gratia—and Captain Briggs were close friends who had even dined together a few days before Briggs’ departure. And, although there had been reports of inclement weather across the Atlantic during the period, the Dei Gratia had encountered no such conditions.

As the second vessel neared the first disabled craft, Morehouse recognized the Celeste with alarm. Given the head start that his fellow captain had enjoyed, he assumed that Briggs was already safely docked in Genoa. When the Gratia reached the Celeste, a boarding party was already assembled.

Once onboard the foundering vessel, the crew from the Gratia made some eerie discoveries. The ship’s lone lifeboat was missing; while below deck: there was three feet of water sloshing about, the voyage charts had been thrown about, one of the two pumps aboard had been disassembled, nine of the barrels of alcohol had been emptied, all of the crew’s belongings were undisturbed, and there remained six months’ worth of rations and drink…yet not a soul aboard to consume them. None of individuals aboard were ever seen again.

Immediately upon the salvage of the empty brigantine craft and knowledge of her fate infiltrated the general masses, theories abounded. The stereotypical conjecture of the time: mutiny aboard ship, pirate invasion, unimaginable weather, massive water spouts, even sea monster attack, all became germane topics of conversation. Yet as with specific details relating to any “ghost ship” discovery (See Ourang Medan: An Unexpained Maritime Mystery), hypotheses surfaced which explained the circumstantial evidence in rather unusual ways.

Because the clocks on board the ill-fated ship had stopped, a theory surfaced that the crew of the Celeste had somehow unknowingly encountered a supernatural portal that sent them on an unwilling journey through time from which there was no return. Another supposition stated that, since most everything onboard was undisturbed and there were no signs of violent struggle, the individuals onboard were instantaneously abducted by extra-terrestrials. With speculation on the incident limited to the small geographic area surrounding where it occurred, the fate of the Mary Celeste began to fade into memory. That is, until a not yet widely-recognized writer penned a tale which renewed the public interest.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s pre-Sherlock Holmes short story “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”published in Cornhill Magazine in 1884 turned what had been a curious disappearance into one of the most famous legends of the sea. The fictional piece (which launched Conan Doyle’s literary career) created scenes of untouched prepared breakfasts accompanied by still-warm cups of tea heightened the mystery and unsettling uneasiness of the myth. Ultimately, the author suggests a murderous attack by a vengeful slave as the reason for the disappearances. Subsequently, a 1935 film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi altered this theme slightly by enlisting a mutinous and murderous sailor as the culprit. Fantastic conjecture and popular fictional tales have made the fate of the Mary Celeste’s crew on that day a legend of a definitive ghost ship and have continued to spark interest in the incident for contemporary investigators.

A modern theory speculates that the crew might have consumed the missing alcohol and subsequently mutinied. However, this does not explain why these crew members also vanished and did not commandeer the ship. Furthermore, ship manifests revealed that the nine empty casks were made of red oak, which is a more porous wood than the white oak that the remaining barrels were composed of; therefore, the nine barrels in question may have simply leaked out their contents.

Another contemporary theory posits that Captain Briggs may have issued an order to abandon ship. On its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had hauled a cargo of coal; afterwards, she had been completely re-fitted. Coal dust and construction debris may have fouled the ship’s pumps; thus the disassembled pump was an attempted repair. The logical extrapolation is that Captain Briggs was unable to determine how much water his ship had taken on due to a full cargo hold hindering a visual inspection; and having come through inclement weather and finally sighting land far off in the distance, he lost faith in the Celeste’s capability of reaching this salvation and ordered the ship abandoned.

Whether the occupants of the Mary Celeste willingly abandoned ship; were the victims of foul play at the hands of men; or were sacrificed to some supernatural beings, monsters, or events remains open to debate. As with any renown mystery, conjecture will ebb and flow forever as to the fate of the souls aboard the Mary Celeste: the seminal ghost ship.

How did the souls on board the Mary Celeste Vanish?

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Photo of Mary Celeste shortly after manufacture
Photo of Mary Celeste shortly after manufacture
Captain Benjamin Briggs
Captain Benjamin Briggs


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