The disappearances of the crew of the Mary Celeste is one of the strangest sea mysteries of all time.
The Mary Celeste was a half-brig built in 1860 at Novia Scotia and launched in 1861. Her original name was Amazon. After passing through various owners, she was transferred to American registry as the Mary Celeste.
Captain Benjamin Briggs was an experienced seaman, having commanded three other ships before assuming command of the Mary Celeste at the age of 37. On November 5, 1872, Captain Briggs sailed with a crew of eight, and with his wife and two year old daughter also aboard. They anchored about a mile from port because of weather. On November 7, they were underway again, bound for Genoa, Italy. Their cargo: 1700 barrels of crude alcohol for fortifying wines.
On February 15th, 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting derelict by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Though slightly damaged (her compass stand had been knocked over and the compass destroyed - the hatch covers were also off.) she was basically seaworthy. Her boat was missing, as was the captain's chronometer, sextant, navigation book and ship's register. There was a lot of water between decks, in the forward deckhouse and in the cabin.
No sign of her crew or passengers were ever found. The captain's bed was unmade, and had the impression as if a child had lain there.
In the mate's cabin, which was locked, the boarders found a chart showing the vessel's progress until November 24. On a slate log, there was an entry for 8:00 am, November 25, showing that they had passed the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. The position at which she was found was estimated to be about 600 miles from her last marked position.
In the hold were the barrels of alcohol, apparently in good condition and properly stowed. The crew of the Dei Gratia split up, and three of them sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, hoping to claim salvage fees from her owners.
To their surprise, however, instead of salvage fees, they came under suspicion of murder for the disappearances of the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste.
Some of the many legends about the Mary Celeste suggest that she was found with fresh food on the table, or with a cat sleeping on one of the bunks, or that bloodstains were found on one rail (it turned out to be wine). So much time has passed, and the investigation was so confused, that the real truth about her is difficult to determine.
Oliver Deveau, the first mate of the Dei Gratia, captained the Mary Celeste on the way to Gibraltar. In making his own entries on the slate log, he erased some of the older entries. He claimed it was inadvertent.
One cask of the alcohol had been broached in the hold, and later it was found that nine of the casks were empty. The investigator, Frederick Solly Flood, took that to mean that the crew had gotten drunk off of the alcohol, and in a rage had murdered the captain and his wife. They then took to the boats in escape. However, crude alcohol cannot be consumed. It's poisonous.
A cut, made as if by an axe or similar instrument, was found on one rail. In addition, reddish stains, which when tested turned out to be wine, were found on the deck. Also, on the bow just above the waterline there were strange marks.
A halyard (rope) was found attached so that it trailed the vessel.
So What happened?
Many theories have been put forward about the Mary Celeste. Some are based on the supernatural, some on the fringes of cold logic. For example, many feel that a giant squid had eaten the entire crew of the ship. Others believe that the ship was cursed, and they draw attentions to the fact that the ship's first master fell ill and died within a few days of completing her maiden voyage. Others claim that pirates murdered the crew, despite the fact that the last documented pirate attack was in 1832.
The strongest theory appears to be that some of the barrels were broached in the hold. This caused a build up of fumes which was set off by flames in the galley, blowing the hatch covers off. Fearing another, larger explosion, Captain Briggs marshalled everyone into the boat, which he tied to the ship with the trailing halyard. They met rough weather, and the halyard separated. The boat either sank during the storm, or the passengers died of thirst and exposure afterward, while adrift. Some have claimed that there was no evidence of an explosion, based on the lack of soot or burn marks. However, alcohol is clean burning, leaving no soot. It also burns fast enough that the fumes in the hold could have flashed without leaving burn marks on the wood.
Whatever the real explanation, the Mary Celeste remains one of the most puzzling sea mysteries of all time.
Information in this article taken from the book Without a Trace, by John Harris.
What Happened to the Mary Celeste?
The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship that was discovered on December 4th, 1872, floating unmanned and abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean. She had been at sea for over a month when found and had over six months’ worth of food and supplies on board. The cargo and personal belongings of all on board were untouched (including valuables), although a lifeboat was missing. What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste remains unknown to this day, and as such she has become the archetypal ghost ship in history.
The Mary Celeste was a 107 foot-long brigantine vessel with a 26 foot-long beam. She was originally built in 1861 and named the Amazon, which was her name until 1867 when she ran aground off the coast of Nova Scotia. Salvaged and repaired in 1868, she was renamed the Mary Celeste by her new owners.
Under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife and daughter and a crew of seven, the Mary Celeste sailed from Staten Island to Genoa, Italy in 1872. The experience of this crew was not in question; in addition to a life at sea by the captain who had commanded five other ships and owned many more, the crew had five experienced European sailors among them.
On December 4th, 1872, a lookout on another ship, the Dei Gratia, spotted the Mary Celeste over 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. The helmsman spotted a ship that was yawing slightly, had torn sails, and looked unmanned. It was common for pirates of the day to stage ships to appear as abandoned so that they may ambush another ship – so the Dei Gratia observed the Mary Celeste for several hours before deciding to move closer and investigate. In the meantime, the Mary Celeste was sailing erratically on a starboard tack and heading for the straight of Gibraltar.
The chief mate of the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste and reported that he did not find anyone on board, but discovered that the ship was “a thoroughly wet mess.” There was a lot of water between the decks and 3.5 feet of water in the hold, yet the ship was not sinking. The ship’s papers were missing, but the captain’s logbook was unmolested. The forehatch was open, but the main hatch sealed. The clock was not functioning, the compass was destroyed, and the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. The only lifeboat, a yawl that was stored on top of the main hatch, was also missing. The hoist for the main sail was missing. A rope was found tied to the back of the Celeste with a frayed end dangling in the water some many meters behind the ship.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol stored in the hold, nine barrels were found to be empty. All personal effects of the captain and crew were in order and still on the vessel and there were no signs of a struggle or any sort of violence. What was clear was that the captain and crew left the ship in a hurry.
Some have suggested the Mary Celeste fell to pirates, the crew being murdered and thrown overboard. Contradicting this theory is the fact that nothing was taken from the ship; it was left unmolested.
Some suspected the crew of the Dei Gratia as having murdered those on board and staged the event hoping to claim the ship under salvage rights; however this was discounted as there was no sign of a struggle and the captain of the Dei Gratia was a personal friend of Captain Briggs. Mutiny was briefly suggested, but the fact that the ship was over 600 miles from land casts doubt that the crew would mutiny so far off mainland and take the lifeboat rather than the much more valuable Mary Celeste. Friends and relatives of the crew reported never hearing from their loved ones ever again – also highly unlikely if the crew mutinied.
Foul weather has been suggested, as was postulated that the crew rushed to the lifeboat in a hurry and left. What complicates this theory is that the Mary Celeste was not destroyed, was not sinking, and outside of the water in the lower hold – had no signs of being battered or even a threat of capsizing. Additionally, other ships sailing the same route at the time didn’t report any poor weather and many wonder why the crew would abandon a large brigantine for a tiny yawl if the weather was indeed inclement.
Other weather theorists question if a tsunami or “rogue wave” came through and washed the captain and crew overboard, perhaps with little warning – and that would explain the standing water in the cargo hold. Detractors are quick to point out that no tsunami or earthquake activity was reported at that time, and that the entire crew would have to have been up on top of the deck at the time – also highly unlikely.
Perhaps the most plausible theory is that the nine empty barrels of alcohol had leaked thus spilling alcohol and possibly creating a fire or explosion. The theory goes on to say that perhaps the captain and crew evacuated to the lifeboat and towed themselves behind the Mary Celeste in observation with the intent of waiting to see if the entire ship would explode. At some point during this observation, they became separated from the Mary Celeste and ultimately were lost at sea and perished.
Lending credibility to this suggestion was the fact there were nine empty alcohol barrels. Coincidentally, these were constructed of red oak instead of white oak like the others. Today, we know red oak is more porous and more likely to emit vapor. This would have allowed alcohol vapor to collect in the hold. Any spark – even caused by friction of the barrels rubbing together – could have acted as a catalyst for a magnificent explosion. Though the ship was found not destroyed, it is thought that the crew was perhaps more concerned about the threat of explosion given the leaky barrels and decided to abandon the ship.
From here pure speculation fills in the details: Captain Briggs ordered the hold to be opened to inspect the cargo. Upon opening the hold, a violent rush of fumes and steam blow out. Believing his ship about to explode, Captain Briggs ordered everyone into the lifeboat with the instructions to follow the Mary Celeste on a tow line. Only the line wasn’t secured well and in the next set of harsh sea conditions, it was separated from the Mary Celeste.
The captain and crew would have died from hunger, thirst, or exposure. Of course, the major flaw in this theory is the fact the main hold was found locked and secured by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Handlers who unloaded the barrels of alcohol later did not report smelling any vapors or fumes. Lastly, there were no traces of the alcohol from the nine empty barrels, and what happened to the alcohol is just as much a mystery as what happened to the crew.
We may never know what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, but there certainly is a dearth of possibilities. One thing we do know: no trace of the lifeboat or any of the crew was ever found.
So what do you think happened? One theory sound more plausible than the rest?
Grade 7 Prose Constructed Response from Research Simulation Task (Summary)
Based on the information in the video from The History Channel write an essay that summarizes and explains the mystery of The Mary Celeste.
Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.
Grade 7 TECR from Research Simulation Task
Below are three claims that one could make based on the article “What Happened to the Mary Celeste?”
Pirates ambushed the ship.
Inclement weather led to the desertion of the Mary Celeste.
An explosion caused the passengers to abandon the Mary Celeste.
Highlight the claim that is supported by the most relevant and sufficient evidence within “What Happened to the Mary Celeste?”
Click on two facts within the article that best provide evidence to support the claim selected in Part A.
Grade 7 Prose Constructed Response from Research Simulation Task (Analytical Essay)
You have read two texts and viewed one video about the Mary Celeste. All three state that the disappearance of the crew aboard the Mary Celeste as one of the most puzzling mysteries of all time. The two texts are:
“The Mystery of the Mary Celeste”
“What Happened to the Mary Celeste”
The History Channel video is:
“The Mary Celeste”
Consider the claims the texts and video make concerning the disappearance of the Mary Celeste.
Write an essay that analyzes the strength of the theories mentioned in the texts and video. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.