Mystery of the Month: The Mary Celeste – Mystery Guides
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Mystery of the Month: The Mary Celeste

This month we ask: what happened to history's most famous ghost ship?

AI ghost ship
Source: Pixabay

Meals on the table, no sign of a struggle, and the crew...vanished...

What happened to the Mary Celeste? 

December 4 th 1872 – the crew of the Dei Gratia, a merchant ship en route from Canada, spot something strange on the horizon. They alert the captain, who joins them on deck - coming closer, they realise it’s another merchant ship, lurching from side to side, its sails torn. The name on the stern reads: Mary Celeste.

The Mary Celeste is perhaps history’s most famous ghost ship – and the mystery of what happened to her crew has endured since Captain Moorhouse and the crew of the Dei Gratia discovered her bobbing just off the Azores over 150 years ago. So-called “ghost ships” were a fairly common sight on the well-travelled trade routes of the British Empire – but the Mary Celeste was different. There was no sign of her crew…and no trace of them has ever been found…

Image of a merchant ship in a storm
Source: Pixabay

The Discovery

Captain Moorhouse dispatched two of his crew to search the Mary Celeste. On deck, they found the main hatch closed, but two smaller hatches open. Descending below deck, they found 3ft of water in the hold – and the crew’s clothing and supplies soaked. The ship’s cargo – 1700 gallons of industrial strength alcohol – had been left behind, as had the 6 months’ supplies of food and water. Captain Briggs’ log book was open on a table, the last entry dated 9 days previously – describing the Mary Celeste’s location as being near coast of Santa Maria Island, 400 nautical miles from where she had been found. And the most glaring piece of evidence – the ship’s lifeboat was missing – with no sign of the crew, or of Captain Briggs…and his wife and two year old daughter, who had accompanied him on the journey from New York.

The Aftermath

Captain Moorhouse and his crew sailed the Mary Celeste to the closest British-owned territory, Gibraltar, where an inquest was opened to determine her fate. The story was reported in the world’s press and captured the public’s imagination immediately – the Victorians devoured a good mystery as much as we love a Netflix true crime series! Theories abounded about what happened…

Victorian newspaper depicting various crimes
Source: British Library

The Theories

  • Mutiny! Many people thought that the crew had become drunk on the alcohol and killed Briggs and his family – however this is unlikely, as the alcohol was industrial strength…and therefore poisonous to drink!
  • Murder! Another theory was that Briggs, a deeply religious man, murdered his family and the crew in a fit of religious fervour – this is also unlikely, as Briggs was regarded as a well-liked and reliable pair of hands.
  • Piracy! Some people believed Moorhouse and his crew had killed the crew of the Mary Celeste to steal their cargo – but why would they then sail the ship to Gibraltar?
  • Explosion! An experiment conducted by University College London in 2006 determined that fumes released by the alcohol could have caused an explosion that panicked the crew and caused them to abandon ship. But why was there no damage to the ship?
  • Giant Squid! Was the crew devoured by a beast from the depths of the ocean? And did it eat the the lifeboat for pudding?!
Sea monsters attacking a ship
Source: British Library

So What Actually Happened?

The mystery of the Mary Celeste has never been solved, but the most likely theory is that Captain Briggs abandoned ship because he believed it was about to sink. The presence of water below deck, plus the fact that the sounding rod – an instrument used to determine the level of water in the hold – was found on deck back up this theory. Perhaps Briggs panicked, ordered his family and crew into the lifeboat, and a maritime mishap caused them to perish (we can’t rule out a giant squid attack).

A Sad End...

Amazingly, the Marie Celeste remained in service afterwards, and was eventually acquired by a Captain G. C. Parker – who deliberately sailed it into a reef near Haiti as part of a plan to defraud an insurance company. The ship failed to sink but was damaged beyond repair and abandoned on the reef, where it rotted away.

A sad end for an infamous ship whose mysterious legacy endures to this day...

Map showing where the Mary Celeste was eventually destroyed
Source: British Library

The mystery of the Mary Celeste has baffled historical sleuths for over 150 over to you! What do you think happened to this infamous ghost ship?

If you enjoyed this tale of adventure on the high seas, check out these Mystery Guides for more martime mysteries and histories!