Detecting a Mystery: The Mary Celeste

The two most important words to remember when writing a novel are these:

The first word is imagination.

And the second word is imagination.

First, you must have the imagination it takes to conjure up a great story filled with gun-wrenching conflicts, nerve-rattling tension, and unforgettable characters. That comes from deep within the recesses of your own brain, your own experiences, your own quest to find the mysteries that surround our past, our present, and our future. And, believe me, any genre from romance and mainstream fiction to thrillers, sci-fi, and historical fiction has its share of mysteries and secrets.

A painting of the Mary Celeste

Secondly, you must have the ability to take the story that you have built deep within your own psyche and transfer it into the imagination of your readers. They have to believe in the story, the plot, and the characters as strongly as you do. If you are afraid to write the next scene, then they should be just as afraid to read it. You have to make sure that your imagination crawls inside their imagination, and when it does, the magic of story telling begins to happen.

I never write unless I have a good mystery tucked away. It may not have anything to do with the main plot. It may be a subplot or even a lesser plot. But somewhere in the story, I like to introduce readers to the unknown, the unexplained, and, most of all, the unexpected. I have no idea when I’ll use it, but, sooner or later, it’ll show up when I need it most.

I find these mysteries everywhere. I have long been fascinated with the cursed ship, the ghost ship, the empty ship, the Mary Celeste – the ship with a secret locked away so tightly at sea that no one has yet been able to solve the riddle.

The Mary Celeste was doomed from the first time that wind ever ruffled her sails. Death followed everywhere she sailed.

The ship was hammered together in 1861 at the village of Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia. She was christened the Amazon, and on her maiden voyage, the captain of the brigantine merchant ship, Robert McLellan, found himself caught in the unrelenting grip of pneumonia, and he died at sea.

He was the first.

He would not be the last.

Discovering the ghost ship, the Mary Celeste

For the Amazon, it was one disaster after another. One voyage was little different from the last. The black cloud hung low and draped across her mast like a funeral shroud. She struck a fishing boat during one seafaring excursion. A fire broke out during another.  And on her first trans-Atlantic crossing, she collided with a vessel in the English Channel, and the captain was dismissed with shame hanging like an albatross around his neck. In 1867, rocked and blinded by a heavy storm, the ship ran aground off Glace Bay in Nova Scotia. She was salvaged and sold for $1,750.

New owners gave her a new name.

New owners called her the Mary Celeste.

Maybe her fortune would change as well.

That was the hope anyway.

The Mary Celeste sailed from Staten Island in New York, bound for Genoa, Italy, with 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol aboard. The cargo was valued at $35,000 and destined to fortify fine Italian wines.

She carried a crew of seven, along with Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife, and his two-year-old daughter, Sophia. All was well. The seas were calm. The skies were bright. It made a man feel good to be a captain with a gentle wind in his face. There were a few storms, of course. There always were. But it was clear sailing, and no one expressed any worry or concern at all.

On December 4, 1872, at 13:00, not quite a month after leaving New York, the Mary Celeste was observed in the distance by a helmsman on the Dei Gratia. He caught glimpse of the ship through his spyglass, and she was probably five miles away off the port bow. There was something dreadfully wrong. The Mary Celeste was adrift, yawing slightly, and wandering aimlessly at sea, somewhat off course, and heading slowly toward the Strait of Gibralter. No one stood at the helm. There was no flag of distress flying overhead.

The captain of the Dei Gratia sent a man on board.

He found a ship of silence.

The Missing Captain, Benjamin Briggs

The vessel was still sea worthy, he reported. However, the forehatch and the lazareette were both open even though the main hatch was sealed. The cargo of alcohol was intact, but nine of the barrels were empty. A six-month supply of food and fresh water were still in place. The clock wouldn’t function properly. The compass had been destroyed, and the sextant was nowhere to be found. The crew’s personal possessions were untouched. All of the ship’s papers were missing with one exception. The captain’s logbook remained, and it was devoid of any fears, frights, or dismay.

No one was on board.

The crew, the captain, his baby daughter were all gone.

They had vanished without a trace.

The peak halyard, used to hoist the main sail, had disappeared, and a lifeboat was missing. The frayed end of a rope trailed in the sea behind the ship, and there were even rumors that plates around the table still held hot food.

There was no sign of a struggle.

No sign of violence.

But someone had obviously left in a terrible hurry.

One investigator thought he found a trace of blood. Another said it was only rust.

And that was all that remained on the Mary Celeste.


There was an inquiry to be sure. Some blamed piracy. Some claimed the alcohol had exploded, ignited a fire, and the captain hastily abandoned a burning ship, but no one could find any burnt embers or charred fragments anywhere on board. A few stepped forward to explain that a seaquake had rocked the ocean, and the shock waves persuaded the captain to abandon ship. It was even theorized that the crew had mutinied, thrown the captain and his family into the deep blue sea and was hiding out until someone offered a reward if they would come forward and explain the mystery.

No reward was offered.

No one ever caught even a faint glimpse of the missing crew.

What happened?

That’s the beauty of a mystery.

A writer’s mind and imagination can take the story and the curse in any direction he or she chooses. After all, the Mary Celeste was always doomed to an existence of failure and ruin. During her last thirteen years at sea, she changed hands seventeen times and was finally wrecked deliberately on the reefs off Haiti so a destitute and desperate captain could collect a little insurance money.  He went to trial for fraud. He would have no doubt been convicted, too, but conviction meant the death penalty, so a sympathetic jury condemned him to return to his sordid life of despair and desperation, feeling that the misery of it all was punishment enough.

The mystery remains. But then, the world is filled with them. All you have to do is look for one, and you never have to look very hard or very far to find it.  Great books have always been built around the resolution of a simple mystery. Maybe more. It all depends on the depth of the imagination.

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