A True History

Unsolved Historical Mysteries: The Mary Celeste

I don’t know about you, but aside from crazy History stories, I love reading about unsolved mysteries from History. I’m not sure if it started from a class activity where we learned about the Bermuda Triangle and discussed theories, but I love them! When I was younger I had a book filled with weird stories and one of my favorites that has intrigued me for years is the “Mary Celeste.”

So if you’ve never heard this story before, the “Mary Celeste” is not a person – it’s a ship.

In November of 1872, Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, their 2-year-old daughter Sophia and seven crewmen boarded the Mary Celeste. I feel like it’s important to note that Captain Briggs specifically selected these crewmen for this voyage. He had worked with all of them before and they all trusted his judgment and believed him to be a kind and fair captain with a lot of prestige (I swear, later on this information will be important).

These ten people boarded the Mary Celeste for a trip bound for Genoa in Italy from New York. It was a little rough getting started on the journey, they had to wait for better weather a few times and ended up stopping in Hoboken, New Jersey to pick up some cargo. While in New Jersey, Captain Briggs ran into another captain by the name of David Morehouse. Morehouse was also going to be headed in the same direction with cargo on his ship the “Dei Gratia,” but his departure was a week after the Mary Celeste.

While sailing, Morehouse was called upon by his crew because they spotted a ship heading unsteadily towards them. They attempted to hail the ship and make contact, but had no luck. So Morehouse sent some of his crewmen to board the ship to investigate and when they got close enough they realized that this ship was the “Mary Celeste” and it was completely empty. There wasn’t a single soul aboard the ship.

Not only that, but the ship was in a strange condition.

The sails were in poor condition and a few of them were missing altogether, the ships rigging was damaged and ropes were hanging over the sides of the ship, the main hatch was secure, but several other hatches were open, the lifeboat was missing, the housing for the ships compass was broken and the compass was shifted, there was 3.5 feet of water in the hold, and a measuring device for water in the hold was found on the deck.

Other than that the ship was practically pristine. There was plenty of food that was safe to eat and put away safely, the crews quarters were in order aside from some water damage, and equipment was stored safely. There were a few personal items strewn about the boat, plenty of the ships paperwork was missing, and Captain Briggs left a sheathed sword under his bed. The last known log position was from nine days earlier on November 25th at 8am which recorded the position of the ship – 740 km from the location the Dei Gratia found it.

Morehouse split up his crew and had several of them manning the Mary Celeste to bring it to Genoa along with his ship. It was a slower trip since both ships were underemployed, but they made it to Italy in mid-December and salvage hearings began immediately.

The salvage hearings aren’t the interesting part. The cool part is that nobody ever truly figured out what happened to the Mary Celeste or why it was abandoned. There were plenty of stories and theories, but the only people who would know for sure are all missing (well… technically they are definitely dead at this point, but still) so all we have to go on are the clues of what was left behind.

Here are a few of the theories:

Pump Malfunction – This theory is more recent thanks to the “True Story of the Mary Celeste” a 2007 documentary by the Smithsonian Channel. It states that the reason the ship was abandoned was because of a pump congestion and instrument malfunction because the pump was found on the deck so the crew must have been attempting to fix it. The pump wasn’t the only instrument on the ship believed to be faulty. This documentary suggests that the chronometer was also broken and suggested that they were close to land and it would have been easier to abandon the ship because it was transporting coal and alcohol and they were worried about an explosion. Unfortunately, they were not as close to land as they thought they were and their life boat was lost in rough weather.

Mutiny – Remember earlier in this blog post when I mentioned that the crew had all worked together and Captain Briggs was held in high esteem? Yea, that’s why I hate this theory. This theory suggests that Captain Briggs was a terrible leader and worked his crew to the bone to the point that they couldn’t take it anymore, got drunk, and overthrew him. This was a pretty popular theory at the time, but it’s not generally accepted now because everything left behind doesn’t match this story at all.

Pirates – Some theories suggest the boat was attacked by the Riffian pirates, a crew that was active off the coast of Morocco at the time. However, pirates would have looted the ship and most of the ship interior was left untouched.

Sea Monsters – Honestly… I think this one is pretty self explanatory, but here’s the rundown anyway. A giant sea creature of some sort, one that was probably squid like, attacked the ship, taking all of the people on board and leaving the ship in mostly seafaring condition save for the sails. On a similar note, alien abduction is also a theory that is just as possible as this one.

Natural Disaster – There are plenty of things that can go wrong at sea, especially when nature is concerned. It’s possible that they ran into some sort of bad weather that caused superficial damage or waterlogging and made the crew think the ship was about to sink, forcing them to abandon ship via the lifeboat.

Alcohol Explosion – This is the most commonly accepted theory. There were multiple barrels of alcohol on board the ship and 9 were found empty when the Mary Celeste was found. It’s possible that due to turbulence or some of the barrels leaking, alcoholic fumes may have escaped and either caused a small explosion or made the crew think that there was an explosion coming. In that case, Captain Briggs would have given the order to temporarily abandon ship. They would have all climbed aboard the life boat, but used the rope to stay attached to the ship so after the explosion they could get back on board and continue their voyage. However, the rope came undone and they were left alone in the lifeboat as the Mary Celeste sailed away without them.

What do you think happened? There are plenty of other stories and theories and I highly recommend checking some of them out! The Mary Celeste is such an intriguing mystery the more you dig into it!

Here are a few pages to get you started if you’re interested in learning more:

Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste

Mystery of the Mary Celeste

Interesting Facts about the Mary Celeste

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste Disappearance