Mary Celeste By Amy Marie Calleja
The disappearances of the crew of the Mary Celeste is one of the strangest sea mysteries of all time. • The Mary Celeste was a half-brig built in 1860 at Novia Scotia and launched in 1861. Her original name was Amazon. After passing through various owners, she was transferred to American registry as the Mary Celeste.
Captain Benjamin Briggs was an experienced seaman, having commanded three other ships before assuming command of the Mary Celeste at the age of 37. On November 5, 1872, Captain Briggs sailed with a crew of eight, and with his wife and two year old daughter also aboard. They anchored about a mile from port because of weather. On November 7, they were underway again, bound for Genoa, Italy. Their cargo: 1700 barrels of crude alcohol for fortifying wines.
On February 15th, 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting derelict by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Though slightly damaged (her compass stand had been knocked over and the compass destroyed - the hatch covers were also off.) she was basically seaworthy. Her boat was missing, as was the captain's chronometer, sextant, navigation book and ship's register. There was a lot of water between decks, in the forward deckhouse and in the cabin. • No sign of her crew or passengers were ever found. The captain's bed was unmade, and had the impression as if a child had lain there.
In the mate's cabin, which was locked, the boarders found a chart showing the vessel's progress until November 24. On a slate log, there was an entry for 8:00 am, November 25, showing that they had passed the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. The position at which she was found was estimated to be about 600 miles from her last marked position.
In the hold were the barrels of alcohol, apparently in good condition and properly stowed. The crew of the Dei Gratia split up, and three of them sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, hoping to claim salvage fees from her owners. • To their surprise, however, instead of salvage fees, they came under suspicion of murder for the disappearances of the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste.
Some of the many legends about the Mary Celeste suggest that she was found with fresh food on the table, or with a cat sleeping on one of the bunks, or that bloodstains were found on one rail (it turned out to be wine). So much time has passed, and the investigation was so confused, that the real truth about her is difficult to determine. • Oliver Deveau, the first mate of the Dei Gratia, captained the Mary Celeste on the way to Gibraltar. In making his own entries on the slate log, he erased some of the older entries. He claimed it was inadvertent.
One cask of the alcohol had been broached in the hold, and later it was found that nine of the casks were empty. The investigator, Frederick Solly Flood, took that to mean that the crew had gotten drunk off of the alcohol, and in a rage had murdered the captain and his wife. They then took to the boats in escape. However, crude alcohol cannot be consumed. It's poisonous.
A cut, made as if by an axe or similar instrument, was found on one rail. In addition, reddish stains, which when tested turned out to be wine, were found on the deck. Also, on the bow just above the waterline there were strange marks and they had found a knife with blood. • A halyard (rope) was found attached so that it trailed the vessel.
Many theories have been put forward about the Mary Celeste. Some are based on the supernatural, some on the fringes of cold logic. For example, many feel that a giant squid had eaten the entire crew of the ship. Others believe that the ship was cursed, and they draw attentions to the fact that the ship's first master fell ill and died within a few days of completing her maiden voyage. Others claim that pirates murdered the crew, despite the fact that the last documented pirate attack was in 1832.
The strongest theory appears to be that some of the barrels were broached in the hold. This caused a build up of fumes which was set off by flames in the galley, blowing the hatch covers off. Fearing another, larger explosion, Captain Briggs marshalled everyone into the boat, which he tied to the ship with the trailing halyard. They met rough weather, and the halyard separated. The boat either sank during the storm, or the passengers died of thirst and exposure afterward, while adrift. Some have claimed that there was no evidence of an explosion, based on the lack of soot or burn marks. However, alcohol is clean burning, leaving no soot. It also burns fast enough that the fumes in the hold could have flashed without leaving burn marks on the wood.
Whatever the real explanation, the Mary Celeste remains one of the most puzzling sea mysteries of all time.