Ghost Ships: The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine was built in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia, and launched under British registration as Amazon in 1861. In her first few months of service, she had several misadventures. Her first captain died of an unknown illness on her maiden voyage from Five Islands to London, hauling a cargo of timbers. She collided with fishing equipment in the narrows off Eastport, Maine, and after leaving London ran into and sank a brig in the English Channel.

There were several years with no unusual circumstances, as the Amazon worked mainly in the West Indies trade. Then, in October of 1867, at Cape Breton Island, the Amazon was driven ashore in a storm and was so badly damaged that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. On October 15th, she was acquired as a derelict by, repaired, and transferred to American ownership and registration in 1868, under a new name, Mary Celeste.

In October of 1869, the ship was seized by the owner’s creditors and sold to a New York consortium. Then in early 1872, the Mary Celeste underwent a major refit, which enlarged her length, added a second deck, extended the poop deck, and replaced many of the timbers. A new captain was assigned after the refit, with the Mary Celeste’s first voyage to Genoa, Italy, transporting 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol. November 5th. 1869, Mary Celeste left Pier 50, but remained in the harbor for two more days until the weather was clearer, sailing out into the Atlantic on November 7th.

On December 4th, the Canadian ship Dei Gratia spotted a vessel about 6 miles (9.7 km) distant, heading unsteadily towards them. Suspecting something was wrong, they watched as the ship approached, finding nobody serving on deck and receiving no replies to their signals. They sent the second mate over in a boat to investigate, establishing from the name on the stern that this was the Mary Celeste. The ship appeared to have been deserted. Many of the sails were still partly up, were in poor condition, and much of the rigging was damaged. There was about 3.5 feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold, a significant but not alarming amount for a ship of this size. The ship's single lifeboat, a small yawl that had apparently been stowed across the main hatch, was missing.

The last entry on the ship's daily log was dated at 8:00 am on November 25th, nine days earlier. It recorded Mary Celeste's position as nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where the Dei Gratia encountered her. The cabin interiors were wet and untidy from water that had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order. In the captain’s cabin, personal items were scattered about, including a sheathed sword under the bed, but most of the ship's papers were missing, along with the captain's navigational instruments. There were no obvious signs of fire or violence; the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship, by means of the missing lifeboat.

The Mary Celeste was brought into Gibraltar, 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away, with the intent to salvage. They arrived on December 12th and Salvage court hearings commenced on December 17th. Then an investigation of the craft was carried out on December 23rd to determine if there had been any foul play. The damages to the ship were not so substantial as to require abandonment, but the crew appeared to have left in an orderly fashion and the captain’s high character was such that he would not have abandoned the ship except in extremity.

The Attorney General believed that the evidence was pointing at the possibility of a mutiny by the crew, citing mysterious blood stains and ax marks to the bow, but other's involved saw these reports as misleading or circumstantial. The Attorney General was described by a historian of the Mary Celeste affair as a man "whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ", and thus he was unalterably convinced that a crime had been committed. One theory was that the crew had gotten into the alcohol in storage, and in a drunken stupor, killed the captain and his family, then left the ship. However, the alcohol was denatured and therefore was extremely poisonous. The Attorney General was later greatly embarrassed as further scientific analysis concluded stains that they thought were blood were not blood, and damages to the bow were not intentional but natural actions of the sea on the ship’s timbers.

Although the A.G.’s theories of murder and conspiracy were invalidated, the suspicion of foul play still lingered. Insurance fraud was briefly suspected, on the grounds of newspaper reports that Mary Celeste had been heavily over-insured. In 1931 an article it was suggested that the Dei Gratia could have lain in wait for Mary Celeste, lured the captain and his crew aboard and killed them there. It was easily refuted as the Dei Gratia left New York eight days after Mary Celeste, was a slower ship, and would not have been able to catch up. Other theories of foul play have suggested an attack by Riffian pirates, who were active off the coast of Morocco in the 1870’s. Rumors of piracy were easily disproved as pirates would have looted the entire ship, yet the personal possessions of captain and crew, some of significant value, were left undisturbed.

With nothing concrete to support his suspicions, the Attorney General reluctantly released Mary Celeste from the court's jurisdiction, and the ship left Genoa on June 26th, 1873, arriving in New York on September 19th. The Gibraltar hearings, with newspaper stories of bloodshed and murder, had made her an unpopular ship that nobody wanted. In February of 1874, the consortium sold the ship at a considerable loss to a partnership of New York businessmen. Under this new ownership, Mary Celeste sailed mainly in the West Indian and Indian Ocean routes, regularly losing money, In February of 1879, she was reported at the island of St. Helena, where the crew needed to seek medical assistance for the captain, who had fallen ill. The captain died on the island, encouraging the idea that the ship was cursed as he was her third captain to die prematurely.

In February of 1880, the owners sold Mary Celeste to a partnership of Boston shippers, who in November of 1884, filled her with largely worthless cargo. This cargo was misrepresented on the ship’s manifest as valuable goods and was insured for $30,000 (today valued at $840,000). On January 3rd, 1885, the Mary Celeste approached Port-au-Prince, the capital and chief port of Haiti, in which lay a large and well-charted coral reef. The captain deliberately ran the ship on to this reef, ripping out her bottom and wrecking her beyond repair. He and the crew then rowed themselves ashore, selling the salvageable cargo for $500 to the American consul, and instituted insurance claims for the alleged value.

In July of 1885, the captain and the shippers were tried in Boston for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. The captain was additionally charged with "willfully casting away the ship," a crime known as barratry and at the time carrying the death penalty. The barratry charge was deferred and the captain was allowed to go free. With his professional reputation ruined, he died in poverty three months later. One of his co-defendants went mad, and another committed suicide.

In the years since, more theories of the Mary Celeste’s mysterious abandonment considered more technical issues. There were signs that their pump was being disassembled, leading some to believe that they were suffering a congested pump that would have made it impossible to correctly judge how much water they were taking on-board during a storm. Others cite a severe waterspout strike before the abandonment could explain the amount of water in the ship, and the ragged state of her rigging and sails. The low barometric pressure generated by the spout could have driven water from the bilges up into the pumps, leading the crew to assume the ship had taken on more water than she had, and was in danger of sinking. The captain may have misjudged this situation it safer to leave in the lifeboat, never to be seen again.