An enduring maritime mystery – An Irishman’s Diary on the ‘Mary Celeste’
The ‘Mary Celeste’ (1861)
When our ship, the City of Bedford, was nearing Gibraltar, on a transatlantic voyage from Montreal and now bound for India, the captain came into the chartroom where the second mate and I were chatting.
He looked down at the chart, consulted a slip of paper in his hand and using the dividers and parallel ruler, marked a place with the tip of his pencil.
“That’s where the Mary Celeste was found,” he said. “One of the great mysteries of the sea. No one will ever know what happened.”
We had heard something about this maritime enigma. Since then I’ve read a good deal about one of the most puzzling marine happenings.
The Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine, a two-masted sailing vessel, that had left New York for Genoa on November 7th, 1872. Its cargo was barrels of raw alcohol.
Almost one month later a Canadian brigantine, Dei Gratis, came across her adrift under partial sail. When they drew alongside they could see nobody on deck. Nobody responded to their calls.
The captain of the Dei Gratis, David Morehouse, sent the mates to board the Mary Celeste. They were confounded to find her completely deserted. However, her lifeboat was missing. There was no sign of violence. Nor was there any evidence of a fire or serious leakage. The cargo seemed intact. There were ample supplies of food in the galley.
The abandonment could only have been caused by some alarming or extraordinary event
Morehouse was baffled. He knew the captain of the Mary Celeste, Benjamin Briggs, held him in the highest regard as a seafarer of great ability and experience, who had his wife and young child on board with him. Briggs had carefully chosen the mates, steward and four seamen.
Under salvage law the captain and crew of the Dei Gratis were entitled to a share of the value of the vessel and its cargo. Morehouse divided his crew and brought the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar
When the salvage court hearing began in Gibraltar, it became clear that the attorney general suspected foul play. One of his suspicions was that the four seamen had got drunk, murdered the others and fled in the lifeboat. Minute examinations of the vessel provided no evidence to back up this speculation of mutiny or murder.
There was bizarre speculation that a sea monster, a giant octopus or squid might have killed all on board
Another supposition was that there was some kind of conspiracy between Morehouse and Briggs to commit a salvage fraud and that this had gone very wrong. Morehouse was questioned rigorously but emerged as an honest and reliable witness.
The mystery attracted world-wide attention that continued for decades. The abandonment could only have been caused by some alarming or extraordinary event.
All sorts of possibilities were put forward. Some suggested a marine event like a waterspout that could have deluged the ship, filled it with water, frightening the captain into ordering everyone into the lifeboat. There was bizarre speculation that a sea monster, a giant octopus or squid might have killed all on board. Others put forward the idea a supernatural phenomenon of some kind.
One theory was the possibility that the raw alcohol in the hold had begun to emit dangerous fumes and the fear of an explosion led to captain and all on board taking to the lifeboat. Then the rope tying it to the ship had come undone, perhaps in heavy seas and they were unable to catch the Mary Celeste as it moved away under partial sail.
In the decades that followed and up to the present time, speculation abounded, sometimes with fact and fiction being intertwined. The most striking use of the story was made by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, who had sailed as a ship’s surgeon, published a vivid version of a similar event, with slaughter and desertion as its theme. It aroused great interest and perpetuated the mystery.
Inevitably one or two men who claimed to be survivors came forward or were presented by writers, telling stories of killing, madness and marine collisions. They were exposed as imposters.
In 1935 one of the first horror films of the Hammer company dealt with the subject. It was a highly fictional melodrama with murder at its centre. It starred the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who made a career out of playing ghouls and ghastly characters of evil menace.
In the years since then the mystery has generated books, articles, radio and television programmes, some using it a basis for a fictional treatment. The most recent TV investigative documentaries have suggested the explosion theory. And experiments have been carried out to show that a flare-up of leaking alcohol fumes would be alarming but momentary and would cause little damage. Capt Briggs was not to know that.
For all that, the name Mary Celeste continues to be associated with the unexplained and perplexing mystery.