What caused her crew to vanish without a trace?
There was a certain strangeness about the two-masted sailing ship that lurched through the Atlantic swell. Something was amiss, but it was not easy at first to discern what it was. The crew on the deck of the brigantine Dei Gratia had watched the erratic journey of the mysterious ship ever since it had emerged as a speck on the grey horizon. The Dei Gratia had gained steadily on it until, in the early afternoon, Captain David Morehouse took up a parallel course and began to study the ship’s odd configuration through his telescope.
The strange ship was a square-rigged brigantine like his own, but it had only two sails set. The others were either furled or hanging in tatters. The ship veered to left and right in the lightly gusting wind as if the helmsman were drunk. But Captain Morehouse soon realized why the ship was not sailing straight and smooth. For as the Gratia drew closer, he saw that there was no one at the wheel … no one on deck … in fact, no sign of life at all.
Morehouse had a signal run up, but there was no answer from the ghostly stranger. He ordered a longboat to be lowered, and three men rowed across to the ship. As they approached, they shouted: ‘Brig ahoy, brig ahoy. There was no reply. They swung their boat around the stern of the ship and peered up at the name painted there: Mary Cele, New York.
The last time anyone had seen the Mary Celeste had been a month earlier when, on 4 November 1872, it had sailed from New York bound for Genoa, carrying a cargo of 1,700 casks of crude alcohol. Aboard were the 37-year-old American master, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, and his first mate, Albert Richardson, leading a crew of seven. Also on board were the captain’s wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia. Briggs, an upright, God-fearing, bearded man, was making his first voyage in the Mary Celeste. His previous commands had been of a schooner and a baroque, but he had leaped at the chance of commanding the Mary Celeste when the consortium that owned it offered him a third share in the ship. It had originally been called The Amazon, but the owners gave the ship a new name, along with a badly needed refit, before sending it off across the winter Atlantic.
The Mary Celeste sailed out of New York’s East River and pointed its bow towards the Azores, which were sighted, according to the log, on 24 November.The weather until then had been good, and Mrs. Briggs had spent much of her days on deck. In the evenings she worked at her sewing machine or played on the melodeon which she had persuaded her husband to allow her to bring on the voyage.
However, once past the Azores, the weather changed for the worse. A moderate gale blew. It was hardly serious enough to worry an experienced captain, and Briggs ordered some of the sails to be furled. There was no panic and the ship’s log recorded only the barest facts. The following day was 25 November, and that morning the ship’s bearings were noted in the log.
It was the last entry ever made.
Ten days later the longboat from the Dei Gratia came alongside the Mary Celeste. First Mate Oliver Deveau and Second Mate John Wright clambered aboard, leaving the third man below to secure the boat. Deveau and Wright searched the ship, and what they saw deepened the mystery.
The rigging flapped loosely in the wind. The wheel swung noiselessly, water slurped in and out of the open galley door, a compass lay smashed on the deck, the ship’s boat was missing. But below decks, things were very different. Everything seemed orderly . . . except that there was no one to be seen.
In the captain’s cabin was Mrs. Briggs’ rosewood melodeon with a sheet of music still on it. The sewing machine was on a table. Little Sophia s toys were neatly stowed away. In the crew’s quarters, the scene was equally ordered. Washing hung on a line. Clothing lay on bunks, dry and undisturbed. In the galley, preparations seemed to have been made for breakfast, although only half of it appeared to have been served.
Deveau and Wright clambered back into the longboat and reported their discoveries to Morehouse. He suggested that the Celeste must have been abandoned in a storm. But why then, asked Deveau, was there an open and unspilled bottle of cough medicine along with the unbroken plates and ornaments in the captain’s cabin? A mutiny suggested Morehouse. But there was no sign of a struggle – and why should mutineers abandon ship along with their victims? Perhaps the ship had been taking water. Deveau confirmed that there were three feet of water in the hold and that a sounding rod had been found on deck, but three feet would be a normal intake over ten days for an old timber-hulled ship and could easily have been pumped out.
Morehouse decided to put the unanswered questions aside and concentrate for the moment on more important matters – salvage money, for instance. He sent some of his crew back across to the meandering Alary Celeste and within hours the hold was pumped dry. By the following day, the rigging was repaired.
The captain could spare only three of his seven-man crew to sail the Mary Celeste. He chose Deveau and seamen Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund. In an amazing feat of seamanship, the three sailed the Alary Celeste 600 miles to what was to have been her first port of call, Gibraltar, where the Dei Gratia was awaiting them.
The British authorities in Gibraltar impounded the Mary Celeste and ordered a public inquiry. Morehouse, Deveau and his men were closely questioned. A bloodstained sword was said to have been found under Captain Briggs’ bunk – was this not proof of foul play? The sword was examined and the stains proved not to be blood. Nine casks of alcohol were found to be dry and a further cask had been breached – could not the crew have gone on a drunken rampage? Deveau patiently explained to the inquiry that below decks the ship had been in perfect order. Could Briggs have panicked during a storm and ordered the ship’s boat to be launched? Little sign of this either – in the captain’s cabin, everything had been as orderly as it should have been at a gentleman’s breakfast table. The captain had even neatly cut the top off his boiled egg, which remained unbeaten on his plate.
But the question the investigators found most baffling was: how was the Mary Celeste able to remain on course without a crew for ten days and 500 miles? When the Dei Gratia caught up with the mystery ship, Morehouse was sailing on a port tack. The Mary Celeste was on a starboard tack. It was inconceivable, the inquiry was told, that the Mary Celeste could have traveled the course it did with sails set that way. Someone must have been aboard for several days after the last log entry. . . .
The authorities in Gibraltar were certain that the Mary Celeste s missing longboat and the crew would soon turn up to explain the unanswered questions. But they never did, and, on io March 1873, the court of inquiry awarded an ungenerous £ 1,700 salvage money to Morehouse and his men. It was about 15 percent of the value of the 200-ton ship and its cargo.
The inquiry closed but the arguments raged on. The occupants of the Mary Celeste had all been captured by pirates, they had been seized by a giant squid, they had stepped off onto an iceberg, they had died from yellow fever, the captain had gone mad. But the most extraordinary explanation of all was suggested 40 years later, in 1913.
Howard Linford, the headmaster of a school in Hampstead, London, claimed to have discovered a revealing manuscript among the property bequeathed to him by an old school servant as he lay on his deathbed. The servant, a much-traveled man named Abel Fosdyk, had written an account of how he had been an unrecorded passenger on the Mary Celeste – and the only survivor of the tragedy that befell her.
Fosdyk wrote that during the voyage Captain Briggs found his daughter playing precariously on the bowsprit – the spar that juts from the front of a sailing ship. He ordered the ship’s carpenter to use an upturned table to make a safe platform for her to play there. In doing so, the carpenter cut deep notches in the woodwork on either side of the bow mysterious marks that were indeed found on the Mary Celeste. One calm day, Briggs had an argument with his first mate over a man’s ability to swim with his clothes on, and the eccentric captain leaped over the side to prove his point. All the occupants of the ship rushed to the makeshift platform to get a better view, and the woodwork collapsed, flinging everyone into the sea. Sharks soon appeared and polished off all but Fosdyk, who clung to the remains of the platform until he was washed up on the African coast.
The story captured the imagination of readers around the world but has been rejected as being far-fetched.So the mystery of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste remains to this day. But what of the ship itself?
When the Mary Celeste was released by the Gibraltar court of inquiry, sailors refused to serve on the ship. They believed it was cursed. The ship changed hands 17 times in the next 11 years until it was bought by a group of Boston businessmen in 1884. They over-insured the ship and sent it off to Haiti. There, on a clear day and in a calm sea, the captain ran onto a coral reef. The attempted fraud was detected, and master and owners were all brought to court. Meanwhile, the old wooden hulk of the Mary Celeste rotted away unseen on the remote Caribbean reef.