Mystery of a Ghost Ship, the Mary Celeste

Mary Celeste

     “A sea monster—a giant squid or a giant octopus—these were actually put forth as reasons for the disappearance of the captain and crew of the Mary Celeste—and it was not that long ago, 1872,” Captain Fitzhugh explained to his mate, Salty McShane.  They were imbibing at the Trident, a restaurant and bar near the port of San Francisco.

“A giant squid?  That’s a laugh!  We have actually seen one of those critters up close, and they are big, but not big enough to reach up on the deck of a ship and pick off crew members.”

Fitzhugh laughed.  “No.  It’s not quite like those old Ray Harryhausen movies, is it?”

“I can’t remember the whole story behind the Mary Celeste.  Could you fill me in, again?”  Salty asked.

“Well, it’s like I said.  It was early December, 1872, and the Mary Celeste was spotted by the crew of the Dei Gratia.  Two of her sails were blown away and she appeared to be drifting aimlessly.  In fact, she was!”

“Who was the Captain of the Dei Gratia?”

Captain Benjamin Briggs
Captain Benjamin Briggs

“David Moorehouse.  He got the creeping shivers, as he had just dined with the Captain of the Mary Celeste, Benjamin Briggs, on November third, on New York City’s East River.  Their two vessels were being loaded side by side on the river.  Briggs, his wife, Sarah, their two-year-old daughter, Sophia, and a crew of seven were taking a load of raw alcohol, in barrels, to Genoa.  Moorehouse and his crew came upon her when she was halfway between the Azores and Portugal.”

“What did Moorehouse decide to do?”

“He sent a three-man boarding party onto her deck.  There was no one—and I mean no one—aboard.”

“Were their any clues?”

“There were many clues, but none of a helpful nature,” Fitzhugh answered Salty.  “A lifeboat had been launched, or was missing, anyway.  The ships larder was still well-stocked.  In a family cabin, women’s clothing and a child’s toys were strewn about.  The crew’s clothing and belongings remained stored as they always were.  They then discovered the start of a letter in the first mate’s cabin.”

“And what did that say?”

“It started, ‘Fanny, my dear wife,’ then, that was all—like he left in a hurry.”

“Spooky.  What first comes to mind is a mutiny or a pirate attack.”

“Over the years, these possibilities have been mostly ruled out.  Besides, if it was pirates, they would have taken the whole ship, or most of the contents, anyway.”

“What were they hauling to Genoa, again?”

“Barrels of raw alcohol, and quite a lot of it.  They did find that the instruments of navigation were broken or missing, and two pumps were found, disassembled.”

“Did the log give any hints?”  Salty asked, like the true sailor he was.

“The last entry was dated November 23.  That means it had sailed on its own and covered seven hundred miles, for one week.  There were no real clues in the log, of anything amiss.  Two cargo hatches were damaged enough to let three feet of sea water in the cargo hold—it had washed in.  Some of the barrels of alcohol had broken and alcohol had spilled out.”

“A drunken party, gone awry?”  Naturally, Salty would raise this question as he hoisted a chilled mug to his mouth.

“Captain Briggs was a most popular man, and he ran a non-drinking ship.  Besides, the kind of alcohol they were transporting would make one deathly ill, if consumed.”

Salty could only shake his head, when Captain Fitzhugh finished his sentence.

Captain David Moorehouse towed the Mary Celeste to port and an inquiry ruled the mystery unsolved.

The most popular theory of the fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste, is that rough seas caused some of the alcohol to spill from its barrels.  The Captain was afraid of an explosion, so he ordered everyone into the lifeboat until the danger passed.   They secured a towline from the ship to the lifeboat, but somehow the towline connection came apart and the Mary Celeste plowed on without them, a ghost ship.  The fate of the small lifeboat is unknown, but the people on it must have died.

Filmmakers studying the mystery, at the Smithsonian, are leaning toward this conclusion along with many others.

Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor wrote a fictional story about a boat called the Mary Celeste and it boosted his fledgling writing career.

An experienced sea captain, Captain David Williams, who has sailed through the Azores countless times, has written an article of his own.  That area is plagued by violent undersea earthquakes, experienced sailors fear.  Many of them consider themselves lucky to have survived them.  Captain Williams feels that the Mary Celeste encountered a most violent one—one  that caused rocking and splintering and other damage on board.  When Captain Briggs smelled the alcohol fumes rising to the deck, actually making people sick, and he remembered the fire in the galley stove, he ordered everyone into the lifeboat until the danger passed.  They were overcome with horror, when they realized their towline to the ship was not secure and came undone.

Williams further reports that off the coast of Spain, five months later, five decomposed bodies drifted up, lashed to two rafts.  One of the bodies was wrapped in an American flag.  This was what was left of the crew of the Mary Celeste, he believes.

At the Trident, Salty McShane was hanging on the words of Captain Fitzhugh.  He had just added the footnote about the bodies washed up near the Spanish coast.   “Fascinating!  I had never heard of the discovery of any remains at all, connected with the case.”

“Yes, it is,” Fitzhugh agreed.  “Too much time has gone by, and where did the remains end up?  If it happened now, today, technology could prove the identity of the remains—beyond a shadow of a doubt.”


Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her novels.

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