A Brief History
On December 4, 1872, in the Atlantic Ocean west of the Iberian peninsula, the American brigantine Mary Celeste was found by the British brigantine Dei Gratia sailing east without its crew toward the Mediterranean.
Digging deeper, we find this most famous case of an unexplained derelict vessel to have started when the ship first known as the Amazon was launched in 1861 from Nova Scotia. 107 feet long, 16 feet wide and displacing about 282 tons, the Mary Celeste (as it was renamed by its new American owners in 1869 after her purchase in 1867) led an unremarkable career hauling various cargoes across the Atlantic until its mysterious discovery sailing without a crew.
Having 3 captains die aboard the ship and the father of an owner drown, she was not what you would call a lucky ship!
When the boarding party from the Dei Gratia searched the Mary Celeste, they found things mostly in order, with a six-month supply of food and water still aboard. In spite of legendary but erroneous reports of hot meals and drinks still on the table, nothing quite so weird was found. The notable exceptions to normal operation were limited to a broken clock and compass, missing sextant and chronometer, missing papers, missing ship’s boat (the only lifeboat aboard), and of course, the missing crew of 7, the captain, and the 2 passengers. Although the ship was seaworthy and in no danger of sinking, it did exhibit three and a half feet of water in its hold and only one of its three pumps was operational.
The derelict ship was sailed to Gibraltar where the British Admiralty conducted an inspection and investigation with no definitive conclusion about what had happened. The last log entry was from nine days before the ship was found with no clue in the log of what had happened.
Some theories as to what caused the crew to apparently abandon ship include piracy, mutiny, drunkenness, thinking the ship was sinking, and most interestingly, the possibility that alcohol from 9 of the 1701 barrels it carried as cargo had leaked, formed a gas cloud, and exploded, causing the hasty departure of the crew. Note that alcohol burns at a low temperature and an alcohol explosion may leave no particular trace of ash or burning. Along those lines, it is also theorized that the alcohol vapor itself may have caused the crew to enter the lifeboat to avoid a possible explosion, tie the boat to the ship’s stern and suffer the towline to part under harsh weather. In any case, investigators were unable to find a convincing theory, and the U.S. Navy likewise did not fare any better.
The strange saga of this sad ship continued after this infamous incident, with 17 owners over the next 13 years! Seriously, if that is not a clue the ship was troubled!
Finally, the Amazon/Mary Celeste met its sad end on a reef near Haiti where it was intentionally run aground in an attempted insurance fraud. Its wreck was found in 2001 by the author Clive Cussler, but even that is disputed by critics.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think happened to the crew of this ship? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
Hicks, Brian. Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew. Ballantine Books, 2005.
Stemple, Heidi E. Y., Jane Yolen, et al. The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2002.
And speaking of ghost ships, if you enjoy the topic, we also recommend the following video game with a stage titled “ghost ship” and film, well, titled “Ghost Ship“:
Beck, Steve. Barco Fantasma / Ghost Ship. WarnerBrothers, 2009. Blu-ray.
Nakanishi, Koushi, dir. Resident Evil: Revelations. Capcom, 2013. Playstation 3 video game.