Sunday, December 04, 2005
The Mary Celeste Found, December 4, 1872
Today in 1872, the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine, was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. The crew of seven and the captain’s wife and daughter were missing. Abandoned ships had been found before on the open seas, but the Mary Celeste was different: her sails were still set as if a crew was still on board. The mystery that began that day more than 130 years ago is, today, still unsolved.
The Mary Celeste was spotted that December day by the Dei Gratia, a cargo ship loaded with petroleum. Captain Morehouse, her skipper, knew Benjamin Briggs, the captain of the Mary Celeste and had, in fact, dined with him in New York several weeks before. At 37, Briggs was an accomplished sailor and ship’s commander, so when the men of the Dei Gratia noticed the sails of the Celeste grow slack over and over again as if no one was in command, they knew something was wrong. Captain Morehouse sent a boarding party to the Celeste.
What the boarding party found upon searching the Celeste has become the stuff of legend (we’ll find out why later), but the inquiry that was held later at Gibraltar discovered that there was no good reason why the ship should have been abandoned. Only one of the pumps was working and there was over three feet of water in the bilge, but this was not unusual for a ship left unattended for days at sea. The entire below decks area of the ship was wet, but this was mainly due to the fact that two deck hatches had been left open. There was still six months’ worth of food aboard. The ship’s clock was not functioning and her compass was damaged, but the sextant and all the ship’s papers except for the ship’s log were missing. It was not known how many lifeboats the Celeste carried, but evidence suggested that at least one had been launched purposely and was not torn away by wind or waves. The ship’s cargo, 1700 barrels of alcohol, was intact, although later inspection would show nine of the barrels were empty. The alcohol, used to fortify wine, would become the focal point of investigation in later years.
Part of the Dei Gratia crew sailed the Celeste to Gibraltar where a prize claim was made on her. The admiralty court initially suspected the crew of the Dei Gratia of foul play, but no evidence existed to support the court’s suspicions. The court awarded prize money to the crew, but much less than might have otherwise been granted.
The story of the Mary Celeste may have faded into history had it not been for Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. In 1884, Holmes published J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, a short story based on the tale of the Celeste but with a great deal of fiction added to make the tale more consumer-friendly. As time went by, much of the story’s fiction began to be accepted as fact and helped keep the story alive for later generations.
We will probably never know what happened onboard the Mary Celeste, but one theory has now come to the fore. If the barrels of alcohol began to leak (you’ll recall that nine of the barrels were empty), fumes may have built up in the hold of the ship. When the hatches were opened to air the interior out, the violent rush of fumes might have convinced the captain that the ship was in mortal danger. Taking most of the ship’s papers with him, he might have ordered the crew and his family into the ship’s life raft with the intention of letting the ship’s hold air out while they stayed tied to the ship’s stern but safely away from the danger. If the line parted, the ship would’ve sailed away, leaving the crew to the mercy of the Atlantic. In 1873, a lifeboat with several bodies aboard washed up in Spain. Even though the bodies were decomposed beyond recognition, an American flag was in the lifeboat with them. But the sea is telling no tales.