What Really Happened to the Mary Celeste?

The Mary Celeste mystery is among the most compelling in nautical history. Found floating aimlessly and almost entirely intact, this apparently abandoned ship has become the stuff of legend. A so-called ghost ship.

6 May 2022

The Mary Celeste was a 282-ton brigantine American merchant ship. On 7 November 1872, it set sail from New York Harbour with a cargo of some 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol. It would not complete its intended journey to Genoa, Italy.

Who found the Mary Celeste

New York Harbor, May 1870's (Photo: MartaCecilia55 via iStock)

On 5 December, a British ship named Dei Gratia happened upon a drifting ship in choppy waters some 400 miles east of the archipelago of The Azores. Captain David Morehouse and his crew had found the Mary Celeste.

When Morehouse sent sailors to offer help, they found an inexplicable scene. The structure of the Mary Celeste, its cargo and contents were almost entirely unblemished and accounted for. The same could not be said for the ten people supposed to be on board.

The ship left New York with eight crew members led by the ship’s captain, Benjamin S. Briggs. The final two passengers were Sarah and Sophia Briggs, the captain’s wife and two-year-old daughter. Not a single one of them was on the Mary Celeste. And nor was there an explanation for their absence.

The Mary Celeste Mystery

Ship Interior (Photo: Vac1 via iStock)

The facts about the Mary Celeste when it was discovered raised more questions than they answered.

There was some evidence of chaos, most notably a missing lifeboat and more than three feet of water in the hold. Nine of the barrels therein were empty and one of the ships two pumps was disassembled.

But if this pointed to some emergency leading the Mary Celeste being an abandoned ship, there was just as much, if not more, indicating the contrary.
For one thing, the ship was still afloat, still seaworthy, its passenger and crewmen’s belongings safe below deck. Its cargo hatch was closed and its food and supplies were also fine and plentiful, enough to last six months. Even the logbook was there, the last entry dated 25 November mentioning only the sighting of land.

Ongoing Theories

A giant octopus, a sea monster, pirates and even the (not remotely nearby) Bermuda Triangle have been mooted as theories for why the people on the Mary Celeste abandoned ship.

There are currently two scenarios with a measure of scientific backing. Both offer reasons for why an experienced captain might have abandoned ship. A UCL study in 2006 concluded that an explosion caused by fumes from the leaking alcohol barrels could have been loud enough to do so without causing significant damage to the ship itself or leaving discernable traces of the blast.

Meanwhile, in 2007, a study supported by The Smithsonian pointed to the water flooding the hold and the dismantled pump as the best clues. They posited that Captain Briggs, possibly lost and in rough seas, believed the ship was taking on too much water, thus rushing everyone onto the lifeboat.

An Enduring Mystery

Navigation and sails (Photo: danielsbfoto via iStock)

There may never be a final answer to the Mary Celeste mystery. But the ship did sail on until 1885. That was when its then captain, G.C. Parker, was believed to have purposefully crashed it into a reef in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to commit insurance fraud. The Mary Celeste wreck remains there today.

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