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 8 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 was partly under sail without a single crew member on board.
One of her pumps had been dismantled, her lifeboat was missing and the 6-month supply of food and water was untouched. The Mary Celeste appeared undamaged but for 3.5 feet of water in the ship’s hull – not enough to sink the vessel or hinder her voyage.
So, why would the crew abandon a seemingly healthy ship? It’s a question that has plagued investigators and amateur sleuths for more than a century.
After the ghost ship was recovered, 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.
Some members of the enquiry investigated the crew of the Dei Gratia, believing they could have murdered the crew of the Mary Celeste in order to claim their salvage reward for the empty ship. Ultimately, no evidence suggesting foul play of this kind could be found. The crew of the Dei Gratia eventually received a portion of their salvage payout.
The inquiry into the Mary Celeste offered little explanation for the fate of her crew.
In 1884 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at the time a ship’s surgeon, published a short story entitled J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. In the tale, he made a wide variety of alterations to the Mary Celeste story. His story described 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.
Published 2 years after the discovery of the Mary Celeste, Doyle’s story revived interest in the mystery. Speculation has swirled around the fate of the vessel’s lost crew ever since.
Countless theories for the fate of the Mary Celeste have emerged over the years, ranging from the unlikely to the preposterous.
A few theories can be easily discredited. The suggestion that pirates may have played a hand in the disappearance of the ship’s crew lacks solid evidence: just 9 of the ship’s 1,700 barrels of industrial alcohol were empty upon discovery, more likely from leaking than siphoning or theft. The crew’s personal belongings and valuables were still on board.
Another theory posited that some of the ship’s alcohol could had swelled in the heat and exploded, blasting open the ship’s hatch and scaring the crew into evacuating. But the hatch was still secured when the Mary Celeste was found adrift.
A more plausible theory suggests that the minor flooding in the ship’s hull was overestimated by the ship’s captain. Fearing the vessel would soon sink, the story goes, he evacuated.
Ultimately, the fate of the Mary Celeste and her crew is unlikely to ever get a neat answer. The story of the Mary Celeste, one of history’s greatest nautical mysteries, is likely to endure for centuries more.