The Mary Celeste was a ship, a brigantine. It received the name after 12 years as the Amazon, when due to damage it was sold at a salvage auction. The new owners repaired it, renamed it, and made Benjamin Briggs the captain; on 7 November 1872 he, his wife and daughter, and eight crew members left New York, bound for Genoa, Italy.

A month later, it was found drifting in the Atlantic Ocean between the Azores and Portugal by a ship, the Dei Gratia, which had left New York a week later. The sails were set in place, but there was water in the hold, no people on board and the lifeboat was gone. The weather had been rough and the Dei Gratia had encountered several storms; the simplest explanation for the Mary Celeste's desertion is that the people on board thought the ship was in danger of sinking, fled in the lifeboat, and were themselves lost at sea.

However, in 1883 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle under a pseudonym wrote a story, "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," about a ship called the Marie Celeste, using some of the facts from the real-life Mary Celeste. His story had the boat being involved in some sort of race-related mutiny and taken over by the black seamen on board. (In real life, the crew were mostly Dutch.) It was well-known enough to be officially denied.

Since then, the story of the ship has taken its place among the interesting mysteries that people enjoy speculating on. Theories include a seaquake, the barrels of alcohol in the hold exploding, and alien kidnapping. It is often associated with the occult and the Bermuda Triangle stories (despite the fact that it went nowhere near the area). The actual ship was refurbished and continued in use for eleven more years, though it was regarded as unlucky. Eventually it was beached in Haiti and allowed to rot, not being worth salvaging.


She seemed a simple ship, common enough. The voyage seemed routine, a simple trip across the Atlantic to deliver her cargo. However, before the journey was up, the Mary Celeste became anything but simple.


The Mary Celeste began life as the Amazon. It seems that the poor vessel was cursed from the start. Within 48 hours of her dedication, her first captain was dead. On her maiden voyage, she suffered damage because she hit a fishing weir. She also survived a fire and collision, which sunk the other ship involved, before being run aground on Cape Breton Island. The Amazon was then sold at public auction for $10,000. Her new owners, James Winchester, Sylvester Goodwin, and Benjamin Briggs, had her refitted for a total cost of $11,500 and renamed the Mary Celeste. Briggs was made captain of the 100 ft, 282 ton ship for her first voyage under the new name.

For this first voyage, Captain Briggs was to transport approximately 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol, valued at $35,000, from New York to Genoa, Italy. Besides the cargo, Briggs brought along his wife, Sarah, and his two-year-old daughter, Sophia Matilda. Also on board were seven crew members (although some sources claim there were eight): first mate Albert Richardson, 28, second mate Andrew Gillings, 25, steward and cook Edward Head, 23, and Dutch crew Volkert Lorenzen, 29, Boz Lorenzen, 23, Arian Martens, 35, and Gottlieb Goodschaad, 23. The Mary Celeste left New York on November 5, 1872 with her cargo and passengers. The captain, his family, and the crew were never seen again.

The Facts

Due to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional story, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”, many facts surrounding the Mary Celeste have become confused with the imagination of a great writer. The fictional ship, Marie Celeste, was based so closely on the Mary Celeste that many people mistook the story for fact. To this day, many fictional aspects of the story are held as truth in some minds.

What we do know is that the Mary Celeste was found sailing erratically, about half way between the Azores and the Portuguese coast, by Captain Morehouse, of the ship Dei Gratia, on the fourth or fifth of December, 1872. After observing the ship for a couple of hours, and receiving no response from attempts to signal the ship, Morehouse decided to board the Mary Celeste. A strange sight was waiting there to meet his eyes. The Mary Celeste was sailing unmanned. There was not a single human in sight, living or dead. All the people aboard the ship seemed to have disappeared into thin air. All their personal belongings were left. Anything that was not stored in a watertight container was soaked. In the hold was three and one-half feet of water, which was easily pumped out by the Mary Celeste’s new crew with the one remaining pump. The other pump was not functioning. The compass and stand were broken while the rest of the navigational instruments were missing. All of the ship’s papers, except for the log, were gone. In the captain’s log, the last entry was dated November 25, nearly ten days before she was found adrift. The large cast-iron galley stove and the water cask were out of place. Above deck, two sails were missing, as well as the yawl boat. On the sides of the ship, two cuts were found, one per side. The cuts were about two and one half feet above the water line, three-eighths of an inch deep, one and one quarter inches wide, and ran for about six or seven feet. More cuts were found on a wooden railing where the yawl had been tied, indicating it had been cut loose rather than being untied. Underneath the captain’s bed was a sword, which, at first glance, appeared to have blood stains on it. Upon arrival to Genoa, it was found that nine of the barrels of alcohol were empty. What had happened to the Mary Celeste and her crew?


Aliens and Other Unlikely Happenings

Some have suggested that beings from other worlds are to blame for the disappearance of the people aboard the Mary Celeste. While we have no way of proving or disproving alien abduction, it is fairly safe to say this was not what happened. Still others blame the mystery on the Bermuda Triangle, however, the Mary Celeste was nowhere near that area, so this conclusion, too, can be easily discredited. Sea monsters were also suggested as possible suspects, but experts have since suggested more likely causes.

Mutiny and Conspiracy

The official report from British and American authorities after the Mary Celeste tragedy was that the crew had broken into the shipment of alcohol, gotten drunk, murdered the Briggs family, and escaped on the yawl boat. After a closer inspection, this explanation also brings about doubts as to its actuality. Captain Briggs was a Puritan and maintained a dry ship. The only alcohol on board would have been the crude alcohol that was being shipped, and alcohol of that quality would have been hard for anyone to swallow. There was also no sign of violence on board. What about the bloodstained sword found under the captain’s bed? It turns out the “blood stains” were actually rust; someone had cleaned the sword with lemon, resulting in iron citrate. The voyage was relatively short, and all the crew members were there by choice. Captain Briggs was an experienced and respected captain, making mutiny all the more unlikely.

It has been suggested that Captain Briggs and his crew conspired to collect the insurance money on the ship and her cargo. However, the cargo was not of extraordinary value, and was not easily gotten rid of. Briggs wouldn’t have placed his family under such risk if he was planning on abandoning the ship to obtain the salvage money.

The Fosdyk Papers

In 1913, Howard Linford published an article based on some papers he had found written by his former employee, Abel Fosdyk. Fosdyk claimed that Briggs had taken him along as a secret passenger. He stated that Briggs had a special deck built in the bow of the ship, saying that it was for Sophia, his daughter. This deck, it seems, was responsible for the long cuts along the sides of the boat. The cuts, he wrote, were for the supports that held up the deck. According to Fosdyk, the captain and some crew went swimming one day after an argument over how well a man could swim with his clothes on. A sailor gave a yell near the bow, and everyone still on the ship ran onto the newly built deck. Under the combined weight, the deck collapsed, throwing everyone into the sea where they devoured by sharks. Fosdyk, having the incredible luck to land on a piece of decking, floated to Africa.

As convincing as the Fosdyk papers may sound, several things he wrote about the ship itself are incorrect. In his papers, Fosdyk claims that the ship weighed over 600 tons, when in actuality, it was a third of that. He also speaks of an English crew, but most of the crew were German. In addition, the ship would have been traveling at a few knots at the time, and the suggestion of anyone swimming around a ship like the Mary Celeste was ridiculous to most.

A Seaquake?

The most recent suggestion as to the Mary Celeste’s fate is the theory she encountered a seaquake. Seaquakes are similar to earthquakes except for the fact they occur on the ocean floor. During these quakes, the ocean becomes disturbed and ships are tossed about on the resulting waves. Imagine, for one moment, that the Mary Celeste had been caught in one of these seaquakes. The sea would have become rough, tossing the ship at will. Perhaps some of the barrels of alcohol were jarred loose and spilled their contents in the hold. Captain Briggs has never before shipped alcohol before, and he may have feared an explosion from the fumes rapidly filling the hold. Believing his ship no longer safe, he orders everyone into the yawl. A crewman cuts through the ropes to quickly free the boat. Not wanting to completely abandon ship, Briggs orders the yawl to be attached to the Mary Celeste by a rope, so they might return after the fumes had cleared. He takes with him the ship’s papers and all the navigation instruments, except for the compass, which was knocked over and broken by the quake. Something happened while the ten people were in the boat to cause the rope to snap: perhaps stormy weather, perhaps an aftershock of the quake. This would explain the halyard that was found broken and hanging over the side. The yawl then sank, taking all on board with it, leaving the Mary Celeste to travel on to be found silent by Captain Morehouse. As for the long “cuts” in the side of the boat, many experts believe that during a quake, long splinters could have broken off at joints under stress.

So what really happened to the Mary Celeste? The fact is that we will most likely never really know. After her return to Genoa, the Mary Celeste changed hands many times, with many thinking she was an unlucky ship. She ended her career wrecked off the shore of Haiti, presumably so her owners could collect the insurance money. She remains one of the greatest mysteries in maritime history.

Strange Mysteries of the Sea by Len Ortzen

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