What really happened to the Mary Celeste?


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Dear Straight Dope: What was the deal with the mystery ship Mary Celeste? Was the ship abandoned under such bizarre circumstances that no one has been able to explan what happened or was it a story that got blown up out of all proportion? Also, was it Mary or Marie Celeste? River Pearl

SDStaff John Corrado replies:

Just sit right back, and I’ll tell a tale. A tale of a … okay, I’ll stop that.

On Nov. 4, 1872, two old sea captains sat together for dinner in New York — Captain Morehouse of the English cargo ship Dei Gratia, and Captain Briggs of the American ship Mary Celeste. They were old friends, and in New York for but a short while — Morehouse until he set sail on the 15th, and Briggs due to sail the next day with his wife and daughter, both bound for Europe.

On Dec. 5 of that year, Captain Morehouse sighted Captain Briggs’s ship halfway between Portugal and the Azores islands, and was disturbed by the way that the Mary Celeste seemed to be careening out of control. For two hours, the Dei Gratia attempted to hail the Mary Celeste, with no response. Finally, Chief Mate Oliver Deveau convinced Captain Morehouse to send out a boarding party to investigate.

Deveau found the Mary Celeste waterlogged but generally in good shape. Two hatches to the cargo hold were off, but the cargo — 1,701 barrels of alcohol — was in fine condition, with only a single barrel damaged. Most of the crew’s personal items were still on board, if a bit soaked. Most of the ship’s papers and navigational equipment was missing, but the log remained, with the last entry being a Nov. 25 sighting of St. Mary’s Island, some 700 miles away from where the ship was found. Six months of food and water was still on board. One pump was out of order and two sails were gone, but Deveau felt he could easily get the ship to Gibraltar with a small crew. He had to argue with Captain Morehouse in order to get such a crew — Morehouse feared that sending a crew to pilot the Mary Celeste would result in both ships being undermanned, thus placing both in danger. But Deveau prevailed, and both the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia arrived in Gibraltar on Dec. 13, 1872.

A bit of strangeness, you might think. A competent captain and an experienced crew, all suddenly gone missing. Well, whatever strangeness you might associate with it is nothing compared to the strangeness that everyone else started to attach to it.

The first theorist was Frederick Solly Flood, attorney general for Gibraltar and advocate general for the British admiralty court. Flood was excitable, arrogant, and as interested in bizarre conspiracy theories as Fox Mulder. Flood’s first theory was that the Mary Celeste‘s original crew had broken into the cargo hold, gotten drunk on the alcohol, and then murdered Captain Briggs, his wife, his daughter, and mate Richardson. Flood had to abandon this theory, though, when it was pointed out to him that the cargo was denatured alcohol, and more likely to kill a drinker than intoxicate him.

But Flood was nothing if not inventive. Next he theorized that Briggs and Morehouse, at their meeting in New York, had conspired to defraud the Mary Celeste‘s owners. Briggs had killed his crew and rendezvoused with Morehouse; Morehouse would then claim the salvage rights to the Celeste, and split the money with Briggs. But Briggs and Morehouse were known as honorable men, and it was pointed out that Briggs was a part owner of the Celeste, and even were he to gain all of the salvage money, it wouldn’t have been worth his original investment in the ship.

Still, Flood was undeterred. If Briggs didn’t do it, then Morehouse did, and Flood accused the crew of the Dei Gratia of having attacked the Mary Celeste and murdering her crew and Briggs’s family in cold blood in order to gain salvage rights to the ship. After months of Flood’s slander against Morehouse and his crew, the Admiralty Court finally stepped in, reprimanded Flood for his abuse of the law, and cleared Morehouse of all charges.

Flood’s accusations had brought the case to world-wide attention, with even U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William Richard writing an open letter to the New York Times with his own opinion of the case (he agreed with Flood’s first idea, that of the mutiny). Once Morehouse was cleared, interest died down a bit, save for the occasional ruminations and theorizing regarding what had happened.

Then, in the January 1884 issue of Cornhill Magazine, came the publication of “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” a short story about the disappearance of the crew of the ship Marie Celeste. The work was fiction, based on the story of the Mary Celeste but changing some of the facts, such as the spelling of the ship’s name. The article had three main effects — it confused people regarding the facts of the case (indeed, in America the story was taken as a factual account), it refocused attention on this decade-old mystery, and it brought attention to the article’s writer, a young doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle’s fictional account might have been the first, but it wasn’t the last. Schoolmaster Howard Linford discovered the posthumous papers of Abel Fosdyk and published them in Strand magazine in 1913.  Fosdyk claimed to have been a friend of Briggs and to have stowed away on the Mary Celeste in order to flee America. He stated that the captain had gotten into an argument with two of the crew as to how fast a fully clothed man could swim, and to settle the matter the three of them jumped into the water for a race, whereupon they were promptly gobbled up by sharks. The rest of the crew then rushed to the deck to see what the commotion was and all stood upon a small bow the Captain had made for his daughter Sara; the bow promptly collapsed and everyone else was gobbled up by sharks as well. Fosdyk claimed he had managed to grab some floating planks and ended up washed ashore in Africa. An intriguing account, marred only by the fact that Fosdyk got major facts about the ship and the nationalities of the crew completely wrong.

The next account came in the late ’20s, as Lee Kaye of Chamber’s Journal wrote about Celeste “survivor” John Pemberton, who detailed what had happened on the ship. Pemberton’s story was then turned into a book called The Great Mary Celeste Hoax by Laurence Keating, which was published in 1929 and turned into a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic  … until Kaye and Pemberton were revealed to be Keating, who had staged the entire thing as a hoax. Well, hey, at least the book title was honest.

Of course, throughout this, plenty of facts regarding the state of the Mary Celeste when it was found have gotten muddied. Some people believe that the ship was found with warm food on the table and a pipe still smoking in its bowl — an intriguing twist but an implausible one in light of the fact that it took the Dei Gratia two hours to board the Mary Celeste. Some people claim that the lifeboat was still attached, but the court of inquiry found that wasn’t true — the lifeboat was missing.

So what happened? All of Flood’s theories were disproven, as we have seen. Around the turn of the century some suggested that the Celeste had been attacked by a giant squid or some other huge water beast — apparently some people had been reading a bit too much Verne. But even supposing a giant squid or a kraken had attacked the ship, why would it have picked up the ship’s papers as well? Was it a literate kraken? Did it have too much time on its hands and want to read the captain’s navigational notes? And why, when the ship was being attacked by a giant sea-monster, did no one grab the sword on the ship? It was still found inside of its sheath — some say bloodied, but the court of inquiry found the red stains to be rust.

Then there’s the matter of that lifeboat. The consensus among those who have researched the matter, including the court of inquiry, is that the ship was abandoned. The condition of the ship — the captain’s bed in disorder, the crew’s clothes strewn around — suggest that the evacuation was done hurriedly, though not in a complete rush.  They still managed to grab the important papers and some of the equipment. And not only was the lifeboat missing, so was the railing barring passage to the lifeboat, and some of the ropes on that side were undone — all leading to the conclusion that the crew (and Briggs’s family) got into the lifeboat and either sailed off alone or attempted to tie themselves off and ride along behind the Celeste.

But why the evacuation? There was no serious damage to the ship, and a handful of men from the Dei Gratia were able to bring the Celeste into port. There are three main theories.

First, some suggest that the food upon the ship was contaminated, causing the crew to hallucinate and abandon ship. They point out that a certain mold found on rye bread can cause hallucinations, and that part of the ship’s provisions included rye bread. However, the crew sent from the Dei Gratia ate solely from the Celeste‘s provisions for over a week and reported no ill effects. So we can probably discount this one.

Second, some suggest that the ship’s cargo began causing problems. When the barrels of alcohol were finally opened, nine were found to be completely empty, the contents apparently having leaked out during the trip. That much alcohol — especially the fumes, confined in a small space — would create a serious hazard of explosion. It’s quite possible the crew noticed the smell of alcohol and realized their cargo was in serious danger of going up in a major fireball. Thus, a few of the hatches were thrown open to air out the cargo, and the crew evacuated to the lifeboat to wait it out (and be a safe distance away in case there was an explosion).

The third theory, suggested by Dr. James H. Kimble and author Gersholm Bradford, was that the Celeste had hit a waterspout (a tornado at sea, usually appearing quickly, hitting hard, then dissipating just as quickly). A small spout would not have done much damage to the ship, but would explain the quantity of water taken on. In addition, once the Celeste was in the eye of the spout, the difference in pressures would have caused the hatches to blow off. Likewise, when the hold was sounded — that is, a rod dropped into the pump well to determine how much water the ship had taken on, sort of like the dipstick used to measure a car’s oil — the difference in pressure would have made it appear as if the ship had taken on much more water than it had, and the captain could easily have concluded that the ship was sinking fast.

In either case, the crew and Briggs’s family quickly got into the lifeboat and lowered themselves into the water. The North Atlantic can be treacherous in winter, and the Dei Gratia reported rough seas during that period. Whether the lifeboat capsized and those inside were drowned, or whether the lifeboat was cast away from the Celeste and the inhabitants starved … the details can be left to the imagination. But the result–and the irony–is the same. The crew of the Celeste felt their ship was unsafe and got into the lifeboat, only to find the Celeste was perfectly safe, but their lifeboat was doomed.

Or time-traveling Nazi aliens from Atlantis got ’em. But personally, I prefer irony.

SDStaff John Corrado, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.