An October Ghost Story: Mary Celeste

An October Ghost Story: Mary Celeste

We love a good ghost story, and sometimes real stories are the most frightening of all ….

In 1872, Captain Benjamin Briggs (a native of Marion, MA)—along with his wife, two-year-old daughter, and crew of seven—set sail across the Atlantic on the brigantine merchant ship Mary Celeste to deliver a cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol to Italy. About a month after their departure, the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia found her off the coast of Portugal, sailing haphazardly with her sails torn. What they discovered upon boarding was a seemingly seaworthy ship, good supplies of food and fresh water, the crew’s personal possessions, but not a trace of a single person. The last entry in her ship’s log was dated 10 days prior to the date she was found adrift. The ship’s only lifeboat was missing, and one of its two pumps had been disassembled. Three and a half feet of water was sloshing in the ship’s bottom, though the cargo of alcohol was largely intact. There was a six-month supply of food and water—but not a soul to consume it. A frayed line was trailing in the water behind the ship, and nine barrels of the alcohol were empty.

The many speculations about the source of what happened to the Mary Celeste and her crew include sea spouts, sea monsters, pirates, and the Bermuda triangle, as well as the theory that the ship was simply cursed (since it had a long history of accidents, including the death of three captains). At the salvage hearings following her recovery, the court’s officers considered various possibilities of foul play, including mutiny by Mary Celestes crew, piracy by the Dei Gratia crew or others, and conspiracy to carry out insurance or salvage fraud. No convincing evidence supported these theories  One explanation may be that, after a small explosion of alcohol fumes in the main hatch, the crew jumped into the lifeboat with intentions of trailing behind the ship until the danger was over but were unable to keep the line secured and the Mary Celeste sailed off without them.

Another theory notes that, on its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal and that the ship had recently been extensively refitted. Coal dust and construction debris could have fouled the ship’s pumps, which would explain the disassembled pump found on the Mary Celeste. With the pump inoperative,  Captain Briggs would not have known how much seawater was in his ship’s hull, which was too fully packed for him to measure visually. At that point Briggs—having just come through rough weather, having finally and belatedly sighted land and having no way of determining whether his ship would sink—might well have issued an order to abandon ship.

Once in the lifeboat the crew could have succumbed to hunger, thirst, and exposure while drifting in the life raft. Whatever their fate, it likely wasn’t a good one.

With no clear explanation, the Mary Celeste remains one of the most mysterious ghost ship stories around. After the salvage hearings, Mary Celeste continued in service under new owners. In 1885, her captain deliberately wrecked her off the coast of Haiti as part of an attempted insurance fraud. The story of her 1872 abandonment has been recounted and dramatized many times in documentaries, novels, plays, and films, and the name of the ship has become a byword for unexplained desertion.