The Mary Celeste was the name of an infamous ship that was discovered adrift and deserted back in 1872. Its crew had seemingly vanished without trace.
The various eerie elements to this case have helped make it one of the most iconic disappearances in history. Despite a range of theories being put forward to explain the disappearance, no consensus has ever been reached.
This article examines this truly bizarre case. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we hope you vote in. We will all be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened.
By the time of its doomed voyage, the Mary Celeste had a history of successful maritime ventures. It had recently undergone a refit too.
The captain of the ship was Benjamin Briggs. He had been tasked with transporting alcohol from New York, United States, to Genoa, Italy.
Briggs chose his 10-strong crew carefully, and ensured that they were experienced. They included First mate Albert G. Richardson, and Second mate Andrew Gilling. Briggs was joined by his wife and daughter too. A steward (Edward William Head), and four seamen (Volkert Lorenzen, Boz Lorenzen, Arian Martens and Gottlieb Goudschaal)
The Mary Celeste set sale on 7th November 1872. A second ship that would play a role in this case – the Dei Gratia – set sale eight days later, travelling from New York to Gibraltar. They followed the same route as the Mary Celeste.
A logbook that was later discovered provided details on the progress of the Mary Celeste. The ship made good progress in the first few days.
The final entry in the logbook came on 25th November 1872, just under three weeks into their voyage. On 4th December, almost three weeks into their own voyage, the Dei Gratia crew spotted a vessel a few miles away that was steering erratically. The crew decided to investigate.
The crew travelled towards the ship. Once they made it there, the crew went on board. However, the ship was completely deserted. The ship appeared to have been deserted for many days. There was no sign of any crew.
The final entry in the logbook suggested that the ship had travelled 400 miles between the final logbook entry and being found by the Dei Gratia.
Yet there were no signs of anything being amiss. The ship had ample provisions and its cargo was intact. One of the ships two pumps had been disassembled, whilst water levels below-deck was hardly cause for concern.
The way that the ship had been left suggested that a calm and orderly departure had taken place. The belongings of the crew had been left behind, as was all of their food, which was roughly a 6 month supply.
The only real clue of what had happened was that the lifeboat of the ship was missing. This suggested that at some point, whether for a test or a full evacuation, the lifeboat was taken out to sea.
The Dei Gratia’s crew took the ship with them to their destination of Gibraltar. There, they rose the alarm about the Mary Celeste. The news quickly spread.
Searches in potential evacuation areas took place. However there was no sign of the crew. Other ships remained on the lookout for the crew, but nothing was ever found.
A British court met to discuss a salvage hearing. Salvage hearings can sometimes result in the salvagers – i.e. the Dei Gratia crew in this instance – being paid by the ship’s insurers for the safe return of the ship. As a result, in many cases there are concerns of foul play.
The hearing was chaired by Frederick Solly-Flood, who was the Attorney General of Gibraltar. Solly-Flood demanded a thorough investigation, which took place over several months. He was adamant that foul play was the cause.
Solly-Flood believed that the Dei Gratia crew were hiding something. He believed that the crew had doctored the logbook. He based this on his belief that the Mary Celeste couldn’t have travelled such a long distance by itself.
But after months of investigations, investigators could not find any evidence of nefarious activities by the Dei Gratia crew, nor any other signs of foul play. Solly-Flood reluctantly approved the ship’s release. However, the Dei Gratia crew only received a small pay-out amidst continuing suspicions.
Over the following years, searches continued, but nothing was ever found. The Mary Celeste was sold to new owners, who fixed the ship, before further voyages were made.
Due to the events and circumstances behind the disappearance, the Mary Celeste was a very unpopular ship that was largely unwanted. The owners ended up selling it at a considerable loss.
But in 1885, the ship was intentionally wrecked by the captain at the time. The captain did this in an attempt to commit insurance fraud. Authorities investigated the wreck, and the crew faced legal consequences.
The Mary Celeste has been covered extensively in the media. There have been a range of films, TV shows, documentaries and podcasts among many others that have been based on the disappearance.
Many newspapers featured supposed “survivor accounts” of someone that had miraculously seemed to survive the Mary Celeste’s voyage. While some accounts were believed at the time, they have been wholly discredited in the years since.
On Spencer’s Island, Canada – where the Mary Celeste was built – a commemorative monument exists which pays tribute to the lost crew. This, along with the mass intrigue into the disappearance, means the Mary Celeste will never be forgotten.
The nature of the disappearance of the Mary Celeste crew has meant that a vast range of theories have been put forward to suggest the fate of the crew.
We take a look at the arguments for each theory:
Theory One: Disorientation and fatal evacuation
One of the most popular and widely-accepted theories suggests that the crew became disoriented, which resulted in an evacuation that ultimately led to their inevitable deaths.
The most accepted theory in this area is that the chronometer of the ship was faulty. This would have led to the crew members not knowing where they were, therefore thinking that they were somewhere where they did not expect to be.
One of the pumps was faulty, which may have caused fears in the ship’s sustainability. However, the other pump was still in full order, and for an experienced crew like the Mary Celeste’s, this shouldn’t have posed a problem. Others have suggested that the cargo may have reacted with something, leading to fumes.
Any possible issue could have resulted in a trip to the lifeboat which we know was missing. The lifeboat would have represented the best chance of the crew making it to land, if there was an issue with the ship.
The crew, especially if they were disoriented, may have ended up being in the middle of nowhere, yet believing that land was close. This would surely have led to them dying, whether by starvation or weather.
This would explain the orderly evacuation that took place, as well as the lifeboat being taken, and a potential reason for leaving (e.g., a pump malfunction). But given the state of the ship, some doubt this theory.
Theory Two: Crew mutiny
One or more of the crew could have staged a mutiny against Captain Briggs. This suggestion presumes that some were killed, but why those that staged the mutiny would then choose to leave the main ship is unknown.
This theory however would answer the question regarding where the bodies were, especially if those who had died, including the Captain, were dumped in the ocean.
Perhaps those that were left decided to take the lifeboat and try and reach land. In doing so, they may have died, with starvation or bad weather likely to put pay to their trip.
Theory Three: Dei Gratia involvement
Another commonly proposed theory involves foul play by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Many historians have doubted the suggestion that the Mary Celeste could have travelled by itself for hundreds of miles, as per the suggestion of the Dei Gratia crew.
As per maritime laws at the time, any ship to rescue another would be given monetary compensation. Therefore, there would be a financial incentive for the Dei Gratia to stage the abandonment, force those on the ship aboard, and then doctor records on the Mary Celeste.
However, the biggest flaw in this theory is that the Dei Gratia left eight days after the Mary Celeste, meaning it would have been unable to catch up with the Mary Celeste. This makes it highly unlikely that when the Dei Gratia did find the ship, that crew members would still be aboard the Mary Celeste.
It is also believed that the captain of the Dei Gratia was good friends with Captain Briggs of the Mary Celeste, casting further doubt on the theory. But, an incentive was there, and this theory cannot be discounted.
Theory Four: Pirates
Pirates were active in the 1800s. This theory is largely the same as the Dei Gratia involvement theory, only that this involves pirates rather than the Dei Gratia crew engaging in foul play. It is possible that the pirates sought some of the goods on board and killed the crew, or forced them to leave on the lifeboat.
However, the cargo was untouched, and the way that the Mary Celeste was left suggested that no theft had happened. This theory is therefore very difficult to support. But it is a possibility, especially if the pirates considered what was on the ship to be of little value.
Theory Five: Insurance Fraud
Another possible theory involves the owner of the Mary Celeste – James H. Winchester – intentionally ruining the ship for insurance purposes. The Mary Celeste had been refitted before the voyage. It is possible that Winchester intentionally made the ship faulty, before over-insuring it. Then, when the ship crashed, he would have been eligible for a large windfall of cash.
However, maritime voyages were lucrative, and thus there was little reason for Winchester compromising his own ship. Moreover, it is unlikely that Captain Briggs would have set forth on the voyage unless the ship was in pristine condition.
Theory Six: Waterspout
It is widely-accepted that something must have occurred in order for the crew to abandon the Mary Celeste in the quick way that they did. Especially as the ship was in strong condition with plenty of food and water available. One such event includes a waterspout.
A waterspout could have been the result of bad weather, which is known to have been an issue around the time. Captain Briggs may have thought that the crew were in danger, and ordered an evacuation using the lifeboat. Briggs may have thought this was the only possible measure to ensure safety,
If this theory is accurate, after the crew evacuated, it would explain why the lifeboat was taken. If the waterspout had been a false alarm – it would also explain why the ship was left in such good condition.
But some have argued that a waterspout would have been spotted by another ship. Moreover, if a waterspout did appear, it is unlikely that such a calm and orderly evacuation would have taken place.
Theory Seven: Seaquake
The seaquake theory is similar to the waterspout theory, in that it involves a naturally occurring weather event to affect the Mary Celeste. This theory suggests that a sudden seaquake – which is a sea-based earthquake – caused havoc on the Mary Celeste, resulting in an evacuation onto the lifeboat.
The seaquake could have caused enough turbulence to damage part of the Mary Celeste’s cargo. As a result, this may have released fumes that could have led Captain Briggs to believe an explosion was imminent. Alcohol – which was in the cargo – is highly-flammable.
As a result, the crew could have evacuated after fearing for their lives. Instead, it appeared that the cargo of the ship was in good condition – which would explain how it was found. But Briggs and his crew may not have realised this.
The problem of this theory is that there were no other reports of a seaquake in the area. A seaquake typically causes reverberations for a large area, meaning other ships would have reported this. It is also unlikely that a seaquake would leave the ship in such good condition, were the evacuation to take place.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
The disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste is one of the most widely-discussed and iconic mysteries. Despite the intrigue, it should never be forgotten that 10 lives were seemingly lost in the event.
But what exactly went on is unknown. The fact that there has never been a clear consensus of its fate is part of its legacy. The doomed voyage will forever be analysed. The exact truth of what happened looks to be consigned to the ocean forever.
The image used in the header of this article comes courtesy of Cumberland County Museum and Archive. Available under Creative Commons 2.0 license. Many thanks to Cumberland County Museum and Archive.