On 5 December 1872, about 400 miles east of the Azores, the British merchant ship Dei Gratia made an eerie discovery.
The crew spotted a ship in the distance, seemingly in distress. It was the Mary Celeste, a merchant brigantine that had set sail from New York on 7 November , bound for Genoa, loaded with industrial alcohol. She carried eight crew members as well as her captain Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife Sarah and their 2-year-old daughter Sophia.
But when Captain David Morehouse of the Dei Gratia sent a boarding party to investigate they found the ship empty.
The Mary Celeste appeared undamaged but for three and a half feet of water in the ship’s bottom. One of her pumps had been dismantled, her lifeboat was missing, and the six month supply of food and water was untouched.
After its recovery, an enquiry into the fate of the Mary Celeste and her crew was held in Gibraltar. Inspections of the ship found cuts on the bow but no decisive evidence that it had been involved in a collision or damaged by bad weather. Suspicions that stains discovered on a rail and on the captain’s sword might be blood were proved false.
The enquiry cleared the crew of the Dei Gratia of any foul play but suspicions remained and as a result they received a relatively small salvage fee.
With no solid explanations forthcoming, one of the greatest nautical mysteries of history was born.
Why would a crew abandon a ship that had suffered no damage?
Theories range from pirate attacks, to waterspouts, to sea monsters. Over time the few facts that exist about the Mary Celeste have been embellished and mixed with falsehoods.
The Mary Celeste’s legacy
In 1884 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at the time a ship’s surgeon, published a short story entitled “J. Habakuk Jepheson’s Statement” in which he made a wide variety of alterations to the story, which saw a vengeful slave laying waste to the crew and sailing to Africa. Though Doyle had intended the story to be taken as a fictional account he nevertheless received enquiries as to whether it was true.
Numerous supposed accounts by survivors emerged throughout the early 20th century and though many readers were taken in by them they each contain inaccuracies in the basic facts of the case.
As recently as 2007 a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel sought to investigate the story again but was unable to reveal any new evidence.