‘Ghost Ships’, often found with no sign as to what had become of their former crew, are a common phenomenon throughout most of maritime history. Even today, modern sailors often state than the sight of an abandoned vessel drifting aimlessly is not a particularly rare occurrence. The Mary Celeste, found abandoned and adrift off the Azore islands in December 1872, is one of the most well-known examples. What caused the crew to abandon a seaworthy ship, still loaded with cargo, was never proven and remains a subject of intense debate.
Built on Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia in 1861 and first launched under the name Amazon, the Mary Celeste received her new and now notorious name after being transferred to American registration in 1868, transporting goods from New York and Boston. She underwent a significant refit in New York in 1872 before launching with a cargo of methylated spirit bound for Genoa under the command of captain Benjamin Briggs, who had purchased the ship alongside his brother Oliver and a consortium of investors headed by majority owner James Winchester. Briggs was accompanied by a small, hand-picked crew of experienced sailors including first mate Albert Richardson, second mate Andrew Gilling, steward Edward Head and able seamen Arian Martens, Gottlieb Goudschaal and brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen. The crew were accompanied by Brigg’s wife Sarah and young daughter Sophie, while his son was left in the care of his grandmother. Later testimony described the crew as excellent sailors and both Briggs and his wife declared themselves very satisfied with the chosen men.
Briggs carefully supervised the loading of his cargo of 1,700 barrels of methylated spirit, also known as denatured alcohol, on Pier 50 of the East River in New York City on 20th October 1872. Ethanol mixed with various additives, most commonly methanol, and as a result highly toxic, methylated spirit is used as a solvent and fuel as well as for a wide range of industrial uses. The Briggs family and their seven crew departed the US on the 5th November. They were followed from the same port by the Canadian-registered Dei Gratia eight days later, carrying a cargo of petroleum along the same route as the Mary Celeste under captain David Morehouse. While accounts vary to the degree that Morehouse and Briggs knew each other, they were almost certainly familiar to some extent, given their similar route and cargo. Morehouse’s widow, interviewed fifty years later, claimed that the two men had dined together the evening before Briggs’ departure.
Early afternoon on the 4th December, three weeks into their voyage, Morehouse was called to the deck by his helmsman who had sighted a vessel around six miles away, appearing to be drifting towards the Dei Gratia. The erratic movements and unusual sail configuration had raised his suspicions, and these concerns proved well-founded when they found the deck deserted upon drawing closer. After no response to attempted signals, Morehouse dispatched his first and second mates to investigate. On climbing aboard, they found the ship deserted, sails and rigging damaged or missing, the cargo intact and the single lifeboat missing. The binnacle housing the ship’s chronometer was broken and around a metre of water had accumulated in the hold, but the ship was otherwise in reasonably good condition. The two men identified the ship as the Mary Celeste from the name painted on her stern.
On investigating the ship’s log, they found that the last entry had been made nine days previous, marking the ship’s position off Santa Maria Island, almost 400 miles from its current location midway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. First mate Oliver Deveau recalled that the cabins were wet and disheveled from seawater entering through open ports and doors but were in reasonable order. Many personal items remained but the ship’s charts and navigational instruments were missing. Cargo was neatly stowed, the ship held ample provisions and there were no signs of violence or fire damage.
Morehouse made the decision to return the abandoned ship to port in Gibraltar, likely persuaded by the maritime law that stated he would be entitled to a significant share in any salvage and cargo. Dividing his crew across the two ships, they successfully reached Gibraltar on December 13th. A salvage hearing was conducted the following week under Sir James Cochrane, the Chief Justice of Gibraltar, and Frederick Solly-Flood, the Attorney General on the rock.
Despite the misgivings of others, the testimony of the two men that had first explored the abandoned ship convinced Flood that foul play was to blame, with the assumption being that it was connected to the large cargo of alcohol. A shipping surveyor was commissioned to examine the Mary Celeste, finding cut marks on either side of the bow and what may have been bloodstains on the captain’s sword. The surveyor concluded that the ship had not encountered extreme weather, nor had it collided with something or ran aground. Royal Navy personnel confirmed the claim that deliberate cuts had been made to the bow, as well as reporting what the suspected were bloodstains and an axe-mark on one of the ship’s rails.
Flood wrote to the Board of Trade in London on January 22nd, reporting his conclusion that the ship’s crew had accessed the cargo of alcohol and subsequently murdered Briggs and his family after becoming drunk. This totally ignored the fact that methylated spirit is undrinkable. He also discounted the last location recorded in the log, believing it impossible that the Mary Celeste could have traveled so far without a crew, instead accusing Morehouse and his crew of faking the entry.
Majority owner James Winchester traveled to Gibraltar to request the release of his ship, but Flood refused without a payment of $15,000 being made, more than Winchester could afford. Flood subsequently accused Winchester of employing a crew instructed to murder captain Briggs, his officers and family. This theory was largely quashed after scientific examination of the reported bloodstains found no trace of blood, as well as the conclusion of an American investigator from the Gibraltar consul that concluded the marks on the ship’s bow were caused by the natural action of the sea. With no evidence to allow Flood to continue to detain the ship, the Mary Celeste was released and continued to Genoa with a Gibraltarian crew. The salvage hearing ultimately awarded Morehouse one-eighth the ship’s value, some $1,700. This was far less than he was expecting and below what most observers considered fair, considering the value in this hearings factored in the level of danger involved in the salvage operation.
While no conclusion emerged following the contemporary investigations into the disappearance of the crew, a broad range of theories have been put forward since then. A combination of factors add up to what I personally believe is the most convincing theory: that Briggs ordered his family and crew to abandon ship after concluding that the ship was taking on too much water, before they failed to reach the safety of land in the small lifeboat. The pump used to remove sea water that accumulated in the hold was found to be broken, components laid out on the deck as if the crew had attempted to repair it. The tightly packed cargo hold made it difficult for the crew to accurately gauge how much water they had taken on, and the damaged chronometer may have been responsible for Briggs ordering the lifeboat launched, believing he was much closer to land than he was in reality.
While this theory is popular amongst modern researchers many at the time took the same perspective as Attorney General Flood, believing that foul play was responsible for the disappearance of the crew. Newspaper reports raised the possibility of insurance fraud on the part of Winchester, claiming that the Mary Celeste was insured for a significant amount of money. Winchester successfully refuted these claims.
Another suggestion was that Morehouse and the crew of the Dei Gratia had overtaken and murdered Briggs and his crew. This seems unlikely, given that they had departed eight days after their alleged victim and were a notably slower ship. The alleged friendship between Briggs and Morehouse was later put forward of evidence of the two men being co-conspirators, however other than the testament of Morehouse’s widow there is little evidence that the two men knew each other well. While Berber pirates operated in the same waters during the late 19th century, the fact that valuables and the cargo remained on-board meant they were unlikely culprits. Historian John Gilbert Lockhart claimed in 1925 that Briggs had suffered a fit of religious mania and murdered everyone else on board before killing himself, but later apologised for and withdrew this theory.
A number of myths surrounding the crew’s disappearance were disseminated in the decades following, most of which were false claims or wholly fictitious accounts. Strand Magazine published an article in 1913 claiming to be from a sole survivor stating that the crew had been killed by sharks, presented by the magazine as a viable explanation but featuring basic mistakes such as misspelled names. Despite this the sole survivor myth was widely believed during the 1920s and further spread by Irish writer Laurence Keating. Another fictionalised account, appearing in Cornhill Magazine in January 1884, was amongst the early writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Feature Image: An 1861 painting of the Mary Celeste, then called the Amazon. Image: Slate Magazine