Mary Celeste

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An 1861 painting of the Amazon (later renamed Mary Celeste) by an unknown artist (perhaps Honoré Pellegrin)[1]
Career (British North America) Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Name: Amazon
Owner: Joshua Dewis, William Henry Bigalow and six other local investors[2]
Port of registry: Parrsboro, Nova Scotia
Builder: Joshua Dewis
Launched: May 1861
Identification: ICS: JFWN[3]
Fate: Ran aground Glace Bay, NS 1867, salvaged and sold to American owners
Notes: official number 37671
Career (United States) 60px
Owner: James H. Winchester (first American owner); G.C. Parker (last owner)
Port of registry: New York
Builder: Rebuilt New York, 1872
Fate: Found abandoned near Azores 1872; Intentionally sunk off Haiti 1885.
General characteristics

198 Gross Tons as built 1861 [4]

282 Gross Tons after rebuild 1872[5]
Length: 99.3 ft as built, 107 ft after rebuild
Beam: 22.5 ft as built, 26.6 after rebuild
Depth: 11.7 ft as built, 16.2 ft after rebuild
Decks: 1, as built, 2 after rebuild
Sail plan: Brigantine

The Mary Celeste (often incorrectly referred to as Marie Celeste) was a brigantine merchant ship notably discovered in December 1872 in the Atlantic Ocean unmanned and apparently abandoned, despite the fact that the weather was fine and her crew had been experienced and able seamen. The Mary Celeste was in seaworthy condition and still under sail heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar. She had been at sea for a month and had over six months' worth of food and water on board. Her cargo was virtually untouched and the personal belongings of passengers and crew were still in place, including valuables. The crew was never seen or heard from again. Their disappearance is often cited as the greatest maritime mystery of all time.

The fate of her crew has been the subject of much speculation. Theories range from alcoholic fumes, to underwater earthquakes, to waterspouts, to paranormal explanations involving hypothetical extraterrestrial, unidentified flying objects, sea monsters, and the hypothetical phenomena of the Bermuda Triangle. The Mary Celeste is often described as the archetypal ghost ship, since she was discovered derelict without any apparent explanation, and her name has become a synonym in British culture for similar occurrences.


The Mary Celeste was a 282-gross ton brigantine. She was built by the shipbuilders of Joshua Dewis in 1861 as the ship Amazon at the village of Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia. She was the first of many large ships that were built in that small community. The Amazon was owned by a group of eight investors from Cumberland County and Kings County, Nova Scotia, led by the shipbuilder Joshua Dewis, and William Henry Bigalow, a local merchant.[2] The Amazon was registered at the nearby town of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, the closest local port of registry.

The Amazon's first captain, Robert McLellan, son of one of the owners,[6] contracted pneumonia nine days after taking command, and he died at the very beginning of her maiden voyage. He was the first of three captains to die aboard her.[7] John Nutting Parker, the next captain of the Amazon, struck a fishing boat, and had to steer her back to the shipyard for repairs. At the shipyard, a fire broke out in the middle of the ship. Her first trans-Atlantic crossing was also disastrous for her next captain, after she collided with another vessel in the English Channel near Dover, England. This resulted in the dismissal of the new captain.

After this awkward beginning, the brigantine had several profitable and uneventful years under her Nova Scotian owners. She travelled to the West Indies, Central America and South America, and transported a wide range of cargoes. In 1867, the ship ran aground during a storm off Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. After she was salvaged, she was sold for $1750 to Richard Haines of New York, and was repaired at a cost of $8,825.03. In 1868 she was transferred to the American registry, and the following year was renamed the Mary Celeste.[8] The new owners' intention was to take her across the Atlantic and make a profit trading with the Adriatic ports.

The ownership of this sailing ship was divided into 24 shares, owned by four partners:[9]

Benjamin Briggs' letter

While waiting in New York City for a cargo of raw alcohol to be delivered to the Mary Celeste, Captain Briggs wrote a letter to his mother in Marion, Massachusetts, who was caring for Briggs's seven-year-old son Arthur. Briggs' wife and their daughter Sophia would accompany him on the voyage. The letter, dated November 3, 1872, reveals his optimism:

New York, Nov. 3d, 1872

My Dear Mother:

It's been a long time since I have written you a letter and I should like to give you a real interesting one but I hardly know what to say except that I am well and the rest of us ditto, It is such a long time since I composed other than business epistles.

It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks but in that time my mind has been filled with business cares and I am again launched away into the busy whirl of business life from which I have so long been laid aside. For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but now I have got fairly settled down to it and it sets lightly and seems to run more smoothly and my appetite keeps good and I hope I shan't lose any flesh. It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia got here, and we enjoy our little quarters.

On Thurs. we had a call from Willis and his wife. Took Sophia and went with them on a ride up to Central Park. Sophia behaved splendid and seem to enjoy the ride as much as any of us. It is the only time they have been away from the vessel. On account of the horse disease the horse cars have not been running on this side of the city, so we have not been able to go and make any calls as we were so far away from anyone to go on foot and to hire a private carriage would at least $10.00 a trip which we didn't feel able to pay and we couldn't carry Sophia and walk a mile or two which we should have had to do to get a ferry for Ivamacs(?) or E-port. It has been very confining for S. but when we get back I hope we can make up for it.

We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage. We both have missed Arthur and I believe we should have sent for him if I could have thought of a good place to stow him away. Sophia calls for him occasionally and wants to see him in the Album which by the way is a favorite book of hers.

She knows your picture in both albums and points and says Gamma Bis, She seems real smart, has gotten over her bad cold she had when she came and has a first rate appetite for hash and bread and butter. I think the voyage will do her lots of good. We enjoy our melodeon and have some good sings. I was in hopes that Oli might get in before I left but I'm afraid not now.

We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don't get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shal have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she'll sail. Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of Am. Consul and about 20 days after to Messina care of Am. Consul who will forward it to us if we don't go there.

I wrote to James to pay you and A's board and rent. If he forgets, call on him for any money that may be necessary for clothes. Please get Eben to see his skates are all right and the holes in his new thick boot heels. I hope he'll keep well as I think if he does he'll be some help as well as company for you. Love to Hannah. Sophie calls Aunt Hannah often. I wish I had a picture so she could remember the countenance as well as the name.

Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love

I am Yours affectionately

On November 5, 1872, under command of Captain Briggs, the Mary Celeste docked on New York City's East River and took on board a cargo of 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol intended for fortifying Italian wines on behalf of Meissner Ackermann & Co. It was worth about $35,000 and heavily insured in Europe. The Mary Celeste then set sail from Staten Island for Genoa, Italy.

In addition to her captain and a crew of seven, she carried the captain's wife, who had sailed with her husband many times, and their two-year-old daughter. Thus ten people were aboard. Briggs had spent most of his life at sea, and had captained at least five ships and owned many more. The crew for this voyage included a Dane and four Germans, but all spoke fluent English, had exemplary records, and were considered experienced, trustworthy and able seamen. The first mate and cook were Americans.

Before the Mary Celeste left New York, Captain Briggs spoke with an old friend, David Reed Morehouse, from Nova Scotia, who was captain of the Canadian merchant ship Dei Gratia, also a brigantine. Briggs, Morehouse, and their wives, had dinner together on the evening of 4 November.[11] Briggs and Morehouse had served together as sailors when they were young. During the conversation, they discovered they had a similar course across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean.

However, Morehouse was still waiting for his cargo to arrive when the Mary Celeste left port on November 5. Morehouse's cargo eventually arrived and on November 15, the Dei Gratia finally set off with 1,735 barrels of petroleum in her hold. The Dei Gratia left New York harbor seven days after the Mary Celeste (some sources say eight days later).[12]

Discovery of the Mary Celeste

File:Mary Celeste engraving.jpg
An engraving of the Mary Celeste as she was found abandoned.

Sporadic bad weather had been reported in the Atlantic throughout October, although the Dei Gratia encountered none and her journey across the ocean in November was uneventful. Just short of a month later after leaving port, on December 4, 1872 (some reports give December 5, owing to a lack of standard time zones in the 19th century), at approximately 13:00,[clarification needed] the helmsman of the Dei Gratia, John Johnson, sighted a ship about five miles off their port bow through his spyglass. The position of the Dei Gratia was approximately 38°20′N 17°15′W / 38.333°N 17.25°W / 38.333; -17.25Coordinates: 38°20′N 17°15′W / 38.333°N 17.25°W / 38.333; -17.25, some 600 miles west of Portugal. Johnson's keen, experienced eyes detected almost at once that there was something strangely wrong with the other vessel. She was yawing slightly, and her sails did not look right, being slightly torn. Johnson alerted his second officer, John Wright, who looked and had the same feelings about her. They informed the captain. As they moved closer, they saw the ship was the Mary Celeste. Captain Morehouse wondered why the Mary Celeste had not already reached Italy, as she had a head start on his own ship. According to the account given by the crew of the Dei Gratia, they approached to 400 yards from the Mary Celeste and cautiously observed her for two hours. She was under sail, yet sailing erratically on a starboard tack, and slowly heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. They concluded she was drifting after seeing no one at the wheel or even on deck, though the ship was flying no distress signal.[13][14]

Oliver Deveau, chief mate of the Dei Gratia, boarded the Mary Celeste. He reported he did not find anyone on board, and said that "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess". There was only one operational pump, two apparently having been disassembled, with a lot of water between decks and three and a half feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold. However, the ship was not sinking and was still seaworthy.[15]

All of the ship's papers were missing, except for the captain's logbook. The forehatch and the lazarette were both open, although the main hatch was sealed. The ship's clock was not functioning, and the compass was destroyed; the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. The only lifeboat on the Mary Celeste, a yawl located above the main hatch, was also missing. The peak halyard, used to hoist the main sail, had disappeared. A rope, perhaps the peak halyard, was found tied to the ship very strongly and the other end, very frayed, was trailing in the water behind the ship.[16]

Popular stories of untouched breakfasts with still-warm cups of tea on the cabin table are untrue and most likely originated with fictionalized accounts of the incident, especially one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.[17] At the inquiry, Oliver Deveau stated that he saw no preparations for eating and there was nothing to eat or drink in the cabin.

Deveau returned to his ship and reported to the captain. Two men, Charles Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund, then boarded the Mary Celeste.

The cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol Devreau reported, was in good order. However, when it was eventually unloaded in Genoa, nine barrels were found to be empty.

A six-month supply of uncontaminated food and fresh water was still aboard, and the crew's personal possessions and artifacts were left untouched, making a piracy raid seem extremely unlikely. It appeared the vessel had been abandoned in a hurry. There was no sign of a struggle, or any sort of violence.

The Admiralty Inquiry

File:Mary Celeste NYTimes 1873February26.png
Report on the Mary Celeste Inquiry in The New York Times, February 1873

As Dei Gratia was a British Empire vessel, Captain Morehouse sailed the Dei Gratia to Gibraltar; his first mate Oliver Deveau sailed the Mary Celeste to the same destination, arriving a week-and-a-half later. An investigation was held in the Vice Admiralty Court in Gibraltar to determine the circumstances of the Mary Celeste and apportion marine salvage rights.

During the sitting of the Vice Admiralty Court, the judge praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their courage and skill. The Attorney General of Gibraltar, Frederick Solly-Flood QC, in his role as Queen's Proctor to the court, deemed it necessary to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate the vessel and determine the causes of its abandonment in the middle of the ocean. Copies of the several log entries were made. The inquiry lasted three months and attracted media attention worldwide.

The Mary Celeste was visited by John Austin, surveyor of shipping in Gibraltar, assisted by an English inspector, John McCabe. A local diver and marine expert named Ricardo Portunato was sent to examine in detail the exterior of the hull on the behalf of the Vice Admiralty Court. Austin discovered what he believed to be a few spots of blood in the captain's cabin, an "uncleaned" ornamental cutlass in Brigg's cabin, a knife (without blood), and a deep gash on a railing that he equated with a blunt object or an axe, but he did not find such a weapon on board. Portunato believed the damage was recent. Part of his testimony reads:

Affidavit of Ricardo Portunato, Diver
In the Vice Admiralty Court of Gibraltar. The Queen in Her Office of Admiralty Ag't. - The Ship or Vessel name unknown supposed to be called the Mary Celeste and her Cargo found derelict.

I, Ricardo Portunato of the City of Gibraltar, Diver make oath and say as follows:

1. I did on Monday the 23rd day of Decbr. last by direction of Thomas Joseph Vecchio Esqr. Marshal of their Honble. Marshal of their Honble. Court and of Mr. John Austin Surveyor of Shipping for the port of Gibraltar proceed to a ship or vessel rigged as a Brigantine and supposed to be the Mary Celeste then moored in the port of Gibraltar and under arrest in pursuance of a warrant out of their Honble. Court as having been found derelict on the high Seas for the purpose of examining the State and condition of the hull of the said vessel below her water line and of ascertaining if possible whether she had sustained any damage or injury from a collision or from having struck upon any rock or shoal or otherwise howsoever.

2. I accordingly minutely and carefully examined the whole of the hull of the said vessel and the stern keel, stern post and rudder thereof.

3. They did not nor did any or either of them exhibit any trace of damage or injury or any other appearances whatsoever indicating that the said vessel had had any collision or had struck upon any rock or shoal or had met with any accident or casualty. The hull Stern, [sic] keel Sternpost and rudder of the said vessel were thoroughly in good order and condition.

4. The said vessel was coppered the copper was in good condition and order and I am of opinion that if she had met with any such accident or casualty I shld. have been able to discover and shld. have discovered some marks or traces thereof but I was not able to discover and did not discover any. [10]

Horatio J. Sprague, Consul of the United States in Gibraltar, also wanted an investigation because American citizens were involved in the Mary Celeste incident, and Americans had possibly been murdered. He asked immediately for a visit to the ship by his personal representative, United States Navy Captain R. W. Shufeldt of the frigate USS Plymouth.[18] Shufeldt's brief visit aboard the Mary Celeste led him to challenge the report of his British colleagues. For him, the cuts were mere scratches that could have been caused by anything, and the "traces of blood" did not appear to be so to him, but instead were rust. "Blood" seen on an "uncleaned" sword was also rust according to Sprague and Shufeldt, who conducted scientific tests on it to prove it was rust.

There was no evidence of piracy or foul play, nor of mutiny, struggle or violence. Eventually, the salvagers received payment, but only one-sixth of the $46,000 ($NaN in current money) for which the ship and its cargo had been insured, suggesting the authorities were not entirely convinced of the Dei Gratia crew's innocence.[19][20] The commercial alcohol aboard the Mary Celeste, being heavily insured, was sailed to Genoa by George W. Blatchford, as originally intended; as previously stated nine barrels were found to be empty on being unloaded.

The results of the commission of inquiry encouraged the authorities in Washington, D.C. to send instructions to all consuls and officers in their ports to report anybody matching the description of Briggs or other crew members of the Mary Celeste, or any group that could have landed sailors belonging to the Mary Celeste. Also, word was sent to look for any of the items missing from the Mary Celeste, such as the two pumps or her navigation equipment. No information was reported. Locals at ports in the Azores were questioned, but none was able to provide assistance.

Later history of the ship and her end

James Winchester considered selling the Mary Celeste after the mysterious events for which she was now notable. His mind was made up when the vessel claimed the life of his father, Henry Winchester-Vinters, who drowned in an accident in Boston, Massachusetts when she was brought back to America. Winchester sold the Mary Celeste at an enormous loss. Over the next 13 years, the vessel changed hands 17 times. By then, the Mary Celeste was in very poor condition.

File:Haiti topographic map-fr.svg
Map of Haiti showing the Island of Gonâve

Her last captain and owner, identified as G. C. Parker, made no profit whatsoever and deliberately wrecked the Mary Celeste in an insurance fraud in the Caribbean Sea on January 3, 1885. She was loaded with an over-insured cargo of scrap, including boots and cat food. The plan did not work, as the ship failed to sink after having been run on Rochelais reef[21] off the western coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti and south of Gonâve Island,[22]. Parker then tried to burn the wreck, but even after the fire the vessel remained intact, although the ship's log was destroyed along with Benjamin Briggs's prior entries in it.

Parker then filed an exorbitant insurance claim for a cargo that never existed; a subsequent insurance investigation revealed the fraud.[23] Captain Parker was arrested, but died under unknown circumstances before his trial. The partially burnt hulk of the Mary Celeste was deemed beyond repair and she was left to eventually slip off the shoal and sink.

On August 9, 2001, an expedition headed by author Clive Cussler (representing the National Underwater and Marine Agency) and Canadian film producer John Davis along with divers from the Nova Scotian company EcoNova announced that they had found the remains of the brigantine where Parker had wrecked her. Maritime archaeologist James P. Delgado identified the wreck as Mary Celeste based on a survey of the large bay and by analyzing vessel fastenings, ballast, timber, and evidence of the fire. This matched the wreck with historical accounts of Mary Celeste. [24]

Other researchers have disputed Cussler's claim. The Caribbean is littered with thousands of wrecks, many similar to the Mary Celeste. Scott St. George of the Geological Survey of Canada and the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona analyzed samples from wood fragments recovered from the site in an effort to reconstruct sufficient tree ring data for dating. Based on this, St. George believes the wood was cut from trees still living at least a decade after the Mary Celeste sank.[25]

Speculation and theories

Since her discovery, many theories have been proposed to explain the mystery of the Mary Celeste.


One reporter suggested that the Mary Celeste may have fallen victim to an act of piracy, the crew murdered and thrown overboard, as Ottoman pirates had been known to operate in the area.[26]

This is extremely unlikely. There had been no reports of piracy in the waters around the Azores or the Straits of Gibraltar for decades, most likely due to Britain's Royal Navy station at Gibraltar. No piracy attacks were reported in the area at the time.[citation needed] Moreover, there were no signs of violence on the Mary Celeste and only common navigation equipment was missing; it is unlikely that pirates would fail to remove the cargo or the crew's valuables after killing the crew.

The crew of the Dei Gratia as suspects

Some writers suggest that the crew of the Dei Gratia murdered those on board and then fabricated the story of the ghost ship to secure the salvage rights. However, once again there was no sign of struggle and nothing of value had been taken. When the Dei Gratia presented the Mary Celeste to the British authorities in Gibraltar, the ship was intact and her manifests and inventories full and accounted for.

Further, the captain of the Dei Gratia was an old friend of Captain Briggs, which makes his murdering Briggs, his wife and their two-year-old daughter unlikely. The Mary Celeste sailed one week before the Dei Gratia and Moorehead would not have been able to overtake the Mary Celeste. The Court Inquiry praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their courage and seamanship in effecting the salvage.[27]

Insurance fraud

Insurance fraud has been cited as a possible explanation.[citation needed] This requires that Briggs and Morehouse colluded and that Captain Briggs assumed a new identity. However, the insurance premium to be paid was not a great amount of money. Moreover, the ship belonged mainly to James Winchester, not Benjamin Briggs. A staged incident would have required much risk for a very modest profit.


The Mary Celeste may have encountered a storm. Perhaps water began to flood the ship and the crew left in the lifeboat, thinking the Mary Celeste was sinking. When she was discovered, two of her three water pumps had been disassembled. She was sailing with a much larger quantity of water in the bilge than usual, but it was hardly enough to make Briggs order evacuation, although it could be argued that the presence of his wife and daughter made him unusually cautious.

Unfortunately for this theory, no storms were reported in the area at the time, only mildly choppy weather.[citation needed] The waters were calm when the Mary Celeste was discovered. A storm did hit later, when the Dei Gratia was sailing to Gibraltar, and there is a possibility that the Mary Celeste was hit by freak weather conditions.


An explanation offered by a modern sailor, Captain David Williams, who encountered earthquakes at sea, is that a seaquake erupted below the ship and jarred open nine barrels of alcohol (~450 gallons) which leaked into the bilge.[citation needed] The earthquake also dislodged the fuel for the hot stove on deck and caused embers from the fire to drift into the rigging. Williams suggests this caused the crew to panic and abandon the ship and the Mary Celeste sailed on without the crew. The crew then decided to try to catch her in the small sailing dingy, but did not succeed and died at sea. Seismic activity is indeed common in the area[citation needed] and this theory has been cited frequently.[28] Notwithstanding, the log made no mention of underwater rumblings, nor did the crew of the Dei Gratia report any tremors or aftershocks, nor did any other vessel in the area. Most importantly, the inhabitants of the nearby Portuguese islands of the Azores did not report any rumblings.


Another theory is that a tsunami was caused by an earthquake or perhaps a landslide in the Canary Islands or the Azores. The crew may have been washed overboard or a giant oncoming wave may have scared them into evacuation. This would have explained why the Mary Celeste had taken on so much water. Again, no tsunami, earthquake or landslide was reported either on land or at sea.[citation needed] Tsunamis are relatively unnoticeable in deep water and do not present a threat to shipping. Tsunamis only become dangerous as they approach the shoreline. This theory would also require passengers and crew to have been on deck at the time. However, a rogue wave might be a plausible explanation.


A similar scenario is that the ship encountered a waterspout, a tornado-like storm with a funnel cloud that occurs at sea. The water surrounding the ship may, in being sucked upwards, have given the impression that the Mary Celeste was sinking.[citation needed] This would explain why the Mary Celeste was soaking wet when discovered by the crew of the Dei Gratia. A mass panic among the crew would probably explain the scratched railing and the broken compass, as well as the missing lifeboat.[citation needed]

Lower air pressure resulting from a waterspout might have thrown off measurements of how deep the water level was in the ship's hull. A dipstick-like device was used to monitor water levels in the bilge. Low pressure could pull water up the tube around the stick, creating the impression of a sinking vessel. This explanation was first put forth by Dr. James H. Kimble and author Gersholm Bradford. Although unlikely, it is still one of the most logical theories put forward.[citation needed]


The most plausible explanations are all based on the barrels of alcohol. Captain Briggs had never hauled such a dangerous cargo before, and did not trust it. The idea was put forth by the ship's major shareholder, James Winchester, and is the most widely accepted explanation for the crew's disappearance.

Nine of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol in the hold were later discovered to be empty. They had been made of red oak, not white oak as the others.[citation needed] Red oak is more porous and thus more likely to emit vapor. This would have caused a buildup of vapor in the hold. Poorly-secured barrels could rub against each other, and friction between the barrels' steel bands could cause sparks. The possibility of explosion, however remote, might have panicked the crew.[citation needed]

Historian Conrad Byers believed Captain Briggs ordered the hold to be opened, resulting in a violent rush of fumes and steam. Believing his ship was about to explode, he ordered everyone into the lifeboat, failing to properly secure it to the ship with a strong towline. The wind picked up and blew the ship away from them. Those in the lifeboat would either have drowned or died of hunger, thirst and exposure.

A refinement of this theory was proposed in 2005 by German historian Eigel Wiese. At his suggestion, scientists at University College London created a crude reconstruction of the ship's hold to test the theory of the alcohol vapor's ignition. Using butane as the fuel and paper cubes as the barrels, the hold was sealed and the vapor ignited. The force of the explosion blew the hold doors open and shook the scale model, which was about the size of a coffin. Ethanol burns at a relatively low temperature with a flash point of 13°C or 55.4°F. A minimal spark is needed, for example from two metal objects rubbing together. None of the paper cubes was damaged, nor even scorched. This theory may explain the remaining cargo being found intact and the fracture on the ship's rail, possibly by one of the hold doors. Perhaps this fire in the hold would have been violent enough to scare the crew into lowering the boat, but the flames would not have been hot enough to leave burn marks.[citation needed] A frayed rope trailing in the water behind the ship is suggested as evidence that the crew remained attached to the ship, hoping the emergency would pass. The ship was abandoned while under full sail and a storm was recorded shortly thereafter. It is possible that the rope to the lifeboat parted because of the force from the ship under full sail. A small boat in a storm would not have fared as well as the Mary Celeste. This is perhaps the simplest and most convincing explanation that was expounded in a 2008 investigation and television documentary that both featured and satisfied one of the descendants of the original ship's captain.[29]

In recent books, Brian Hicks and Stanley Spicer revived the theory that Captain Briggs opened the hold to ventilate it while becalmed. The release of noxious alcoholic fumes from the hold might have panicked the captain and crew into abandoning ship for the yawl tied to the halyard by an inadequate rope. If this broke with a weather change and consequent wind, then it could easily have explained the sudden and mysterious exit from the ship. Hicks claims that the cargo was a different material, methanol, which is toxic. The records do not support this.

This theory is also discredited by the fact that the boarding party found the main hatch secured[citation needed] and upon going into the hold they did not report smelling any fumes or vapor, which would have still smelled very powerful by that point if this theory were correct. Nor did people who came aboard at Gibraltar and Genoa report smelling any vapors.[citation needed] There was no evidence of alcohol outside the barrels in the hold. What happened to this missing alcohol from the nine empty barrels is as much a mystery as what happened to the crew, although it could have gone missing at any stage of the journey, from before being put on the ship in New York to after Gibraltar.[citation needed]

Even if the barrels had leaked in the hold, there is no explanation as to how exactly the barrels were able to leak, except that they were a different kind of oak which could, in theory, leak. One logical explanation for this is expansion and contraction in the wood caused by heat differences as the ship traveled between colder then warmer climates.[citation needed]


Yet another theory claims that ergotamine sometimes found in ergot fungus from possibly contaminated flour aboard the ship and had serious effects of ergotism on the crew. Ergotamine in large quantities can have similar hallucinogenic effects to LSD, and can also cause immense pain in instances of both convulsive symptoms and gangrenous symptoms, ultimately resulting in them perhaps losing their sanity and murder, or them throwing themselves overboard. Mania, delusions, psychosis and suicidal tendencies can be caused by eating such fungus. However, this theory seems very unlikely since high doses are usually needed and usually over some time. Most importantly, the flour aboard the Mary Celeste was not stated as being contaminated; in fact, quite the opposite, it was said to be fine, and the sailors from the Dei Gratia were not affected after eating it.[citation needed]


Another theory has suggested there was a mutiny among the crew who murdered a tyrannical Briggs and his family, then escaped in the lifeboat. This theory is strongly discredited by the fact Briggs had no "tyrannical" history to suggest he was the type of captain to provoke his crew to mutiny. By all accounts, he was well respected, fair and able. First Mate Albert Richardson and the rest of the crew also had excellent reputations and were experienced, loyal seamen.[17]

Drunkenness amongst the crew

After the admiralty court proceeding, Solly-Flood QC proposed that the crew, after consuming the alcohol from the kegs that were recovered empty, murdered the Briggs family in a drunken stupor. The mutinous crew are then presumed to have deliberately damaged the vessel to give the illusion of having been forced to abandon it, then they would have left in lifeboats. However, the captain was a believer in abstinence and unlikely to tolerate drinking on board or a crew inclined to drink alcohol.[17]

Again, there was no trace of struggle or violence aboard the vessel, and the crew had good records.

Cultural impact

A fictional depiction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is credited as popularizing the Mary Celeste mystery. In "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", a story in his 1884 book The Captain of the Polestar, Conan Doyle presented his theory on what had happened.

Doyle drew very heavily on fact, but included a considerable amount of fiction, calling the ship the Marie Céleste. Much of this story's fictional content, and the incorrect name, have come to dominate popular accounts of the incident, and were even published as fact by several newspapers.

Doyle may have made reference to the mystery in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. In "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" (in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes), Watson notes that Holmes's reference files mention a "Mathilda Briggs". Holmes explained it was the name of a ship involved in the case of "the Giant Rat of Sumatra", which Holmes felt the world was not ready to know about. The name of Captain Briggs's infant daughter was "Sophia Matilda Briggs". In the 1889 poisoning trial of Florence Maybrick in Liverpool, England, one of the witnesses against her was also named "Mathilda Briggs".

Abel Fosdyk published an account of the mystery in what are now known as the Abel Fosdyk papers. They appeared in Strand Magazine, a monthly publication of works of fiction. Fosdyk claimed to be aboard the Mary Celeste, but his account does not match the known facts.


At Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia, the Mary Celeste and her lost crew are commemorated by a monument at the site of the brigantine's construction and by a memorial outdoor theatre built in the shape of the vessel's hull [30] The ship's origins and fate are explored in an exhibit at the nearby Age of Sail Heritage Centre. At the hometown of Benjamin Briggs in Marion, Massachusetts, the Sippican Historical Society maintains a permanent Mary Celeste exhibit with artifacts from the brigantine's final voyage.[31] The Mariners' Museum in Newport News has a detailed waterline model of Mary Celeste, depicting the brigantine exactly as she was found in 1872.


  • 1861 – Amazon built in Nova Scotia, Canada
  • 1867 – Driven ashore in a storm in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia
  • 1869 – Salvaged, repaired, and sold to an American owner. Renamed Mary Celeste
  • 1872 – Set sail from New York City to Genoa, Italy on November 7
  • 1872 – Last entry in captain's logbook dated November 24
  • 1872 – Last entry on ship's slate dated November 25
  • 1872 – Ship found abandoned on December 4
  • 1885 – Ship wrecked on reef captained by Parker on January 3
  • 2001 – Remains of wreck re-discovered off coast of Haiti (disputed)

Ship's Records

The crew and passengers of the vessel are listed in the ship's records reproduced from the original in the National Archives, Washington DC. [32]


Name Status Nationality Age
Benjamin S. Briggs Captain American 37
Albert G. Richardson Mate American 28
Andrew Gilling 2nd Mate Danish 25
Edward Wm Head Steward & Cook American 23
Volkert Lorenson Seaman German 29
Arian Martens Seaman German 35
Boy Lorenson Seaman German 23
Gottlieb Gondeschall Seaman German 23


Name Status Age
Sarah Elizabeth Briggs Captain's wife 31
Sophia Matilda Briggs Captain's daughter 2


  1. Art gallery of Nova Scotia, "Tall Ships of Atlantic Canada", Ship Portrait Information "Amazon"
  2. 2.0 2.1 Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, "Tall Ships of Atlantic Canada", Amazon Registry Information
  3. "On the Rocks Shipwreck Database", Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, "Amazon-1867
  4. Registry of Nova Scotia, 1866, p. 177
  5. Registry of American & Foreign Shipping, 1873
  6. Thomas H. Raddall, "Mary Celeste", Footsteps on Old Floors, New York: Double Day, 1968, p. 167
  7. "On the Rocks: Shipwrecks of Nova Scotia - Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia". 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  8. ""Amazon-1867" Maritime Museum of the Atlantic On the Rocks Shipwreck Database". 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  9. Charles Edey Fay, The Story of the Mary Celeste (1942), Appendix G
  10. 10.0 10.1 "La Mary Celeste" (in French). Guide de l'inexpliqué. Arkayn Software. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  11. The World's Greatest Unsolved Mysteries
  12. "Abandoned Ship". Smithsonian magazine. 2007. Retrieved 2008-08-24. "The British brig Dei Gratia was about 400 miles east of the Azores on December 5, 1872, when crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas. Capt. David Morehouse was taken aback to discover that the unguided vessel was the Mary Celeste, which had left New York City eight days before him and should have already arrived in Genoa, Italy. He changed course to offer help." 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Macdonald Hastings, Mary Celeste, (1971) ISBN 0-7181-1024-2
  19. Eric Jaffe. "Abandoned Ship | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine". Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  20. 300 Years of British Gibraltar 1704-2004 by Peter Bond (publ. by Peter-Tan Publishing Co.)
  21. "Rochelois Reef". 18.622171;-73.188858: 2004-09-21. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  22. Clive Cussler, expedition leader (2001-08-09). "World | Americas | Famous ghost ship found". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  23. ""Amazon-1872" Maritime Museum of the Atlantic On the Rocks Shipwreck Database". 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  24. "Legendary Ghost Ship, Mary Celeste, Discovered an a Reef in Haiti". 2001-08-09. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  25. Jonathan Thompson (2005-01-23). "Dating of wreck's timbers puts wind in sails of the 'Mary Celeste' mystery". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  26. "A Brig's Officers Believed to Have Been Murdered at Sea.". New York Times. February 26, 1873. Retrieved 2008-06-19. "It is now believed that the fine brig Mary Celeste, of about 236 tons, commanded by Capt. Benjamin Briggs, of Marion, Mass., was seized by pirates in the latter part of November, and that, after murdering the Captain, his wife ..." 
  27. "Salvage crew praised". 2006-08-30. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  29. ""The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste: Revealed", ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), Broadcast 8:35pm Thursday, 13 November 2008". 2008-11-13. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  30. .Marilyn Smulders, “ 'Thinking with your hands' Dal students create outdoor cinema in Spencer's Island”, DalNews August 30, 2007
  31. "History of Marion", Sippigan Harbour, Southcoast
  32. Fay, Charles E. (1943). Mary Celeste - Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship, Appendix J. Peabody Museum. 

Further reading

  • The Saga of the Mary Celeste: Ill-Fated Mystery Ship, Stanley T. Spicer - ISBN 0-88999-546-X
  • The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved, Lawrence David Kusche - ISBN 0-87975-971-2
  • Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and her Missing Crew, Brian Hicks - ISBN 0-345-46391-9
  • The "Mary Celeste", John Maxwell - ISBN 87-15-01118-6

External links

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ar:ماري سليست bg:Мария Селесте de:Mary Celeste et:Mary Celeste es:Mary Celeste fr:Mary Celeste id:Mary Celeste it:Mary Celeste he:מרי סלסט mk:Мери Селест nl:Mary Celeste ja:メアリー・セレスト号 no:«Mary Celeste» pl:Mary Celeste pt:Mary Celeste ru:Мария Целеста fi:Mary Celeste sv:Mary Celeste uk:Марія Целеста vi:Mary Celeste zh:瑪麗·賽勒斯特號