What do you imagine when you think of a “ghost ship?” Is it a ship for ghosts, or is it a ship that is a ghost? Whatever your thoughts, there’s a real non-paranormal definition: It’s any seaworthy ship that’s found sailing without a crew aboard. But how on the seas in the drifting name of the currents would a ship set sail on it’s own. If that sounds like a mystery, then, paranormal or not, there’s some downright backstory behind how and why ghost ships sail. There’s a creepy story about one such ghost ship; the mystery behind why her crew went missing is largely unresolved. Ahoy mates, come aboard and let’s cruise the Mary Celeste.
Related media: Real Life Ghost Story – Mystery Of The Mary Celeste Ghost Ship
All Aboard: The Mary Celeste
On December 5, 1872, the Mary Celeste was spotted adrift 644 kilometers (400 miles) near the east coast of the Azores by the crew of the British brigantine Dei Gratia. Captain David Morehouse of the Dei Gratia led a boarding party aboard the Mary Celeste and found that her charts were tossed about, the crews’ belonging were still in their quarters. The only lifeboat aboard was missing, with one of it’s two pumps disassembled, and the vessel filled with seawater, about a meter (3 and a half feet) belowdeck.
There was even enough food supply that could last about six months, and the cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was perfectly intact — that’s a lot of food and moolah to leave behind. Sounds like a mystery, right? This has ever been one of the most strangest mysteries in nautical history. What really happened to the crew aboard the Mary Celeste? And why was a seaworthy vessel abandoned in the first place?
Decades of investigations have failed to provide enough evidence to why the vessel was abandoned. There’s been spurred speculation as to what might have happened. Several theories ranging from mutiny to pirates to sea monsters to killer waterspouts, (and the daring Davy Jones Locker might have been the case). Whatever really happened still remains a mystery.
In 1884, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a short story that posits the capture of a vengeful ex-slave — which was later featured in a 1935 movie, in which the Hunnish-American actor Bela Lugosi plays as a homicidal sailor. But in recent times, new investigations, drawing on modern maritime technology and newly discovered documents, has pieced together the most likely scenario.
The Mystery Aboard
The Mary Celeste set sail on November 7, 1872. The crew aboard the vessel were seven crewmen together with Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, Sara his wife, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia. The 282-ton brigantine cruised the Atlantic amidst turbulent weather for two weeks upon reaching the Azores. The ship log had been last recorded at 5 am on November 25. Ten days later, crewmen of the Dei Gratia rescued the Mary Celeste and sailed the vessel some 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) to Gibraltar.
Here, a British vice admiralty court held a salvage hearing to determine the case whether the salvagers — in this case, the Dei Gratia crewmen — were deemed to receive insurance benefits for the Mary Celeste. But the attorney general in charge, Frederick Solly-Flood, pressed for further investigations. And after three months, the court finally ruled against no evidence of foul play. The Dei Gratia crewmen received only a sixth of the insurance benefits due the Mary Celeste, which probably suggests that the authorities were either not convinced or otherwise.
“I love the idea of mysteries, but you should always revisit these things using knowledge that has since come to light,” says Anne MacGregor, a documentarian who relaunched the investigations, and the writer and director who produced ‘The True Story of the Mary Celeste.’
In 2002, MacGregor has ever since picked up on the case applying modern forensic techniques to historical questions.
“There’s so much nonsense written about this legend,” she said. “I felt compelled to find the truth.”
The Fallen Conspiracy Theories
In her Mary Celeste documentary film, MacGregor begins by asking what didn’t happen aboard the vessel. Considering the vessel’s seaworthiness, and with a full cargo, it was easy to debunk the event of pirates and sea monsters. A 19th century theory claimed that the crewmen drank a lot of alcohol aboard and probably caused a mutiny. If that’s the case, then the vessel would have been full of bloodshed and left at least a copse aboard.
Another theory claimed that alcohol vapors expanded in the Azores heat and blew off the main hatch, prompting those aboard to fear an imminent explosion, and abandoned the vessel. That’s not the case, because the boarding party found the main hatch intact and reported no claims of fumes. That’s true, MacGregor says, nine of the 1,701 barrels were empty, but those nine were made of red oak as recorded, and not like the others which were made of white oak — since red oak is more porous, therefore the likelihood of a leakage.
What about Bela Lugosi? That vengeful homicidal sailor played in the movie ‘The Mystery of the Mary Celeste.’ He might have been drawn from two German crewmen — the brothers Volkert and Lorenzen — who fell under suspicion because none of their personal possessions were found on the abandoned vessel. But a Lorenzen descendant told MacGregor that the pair had lost their gear in a shipwreck earlier in 1872.
“They had no motive,” MacGregor said.
“There are obvious limitations for historic cases,” she says. “But using the latest technology, you can come to a different conclusion.”
Now, The Mystery Afloat
The Mary Celeste was seaworthy.
“It wasn’t flooded or horribly damaged,” says Phil Richardson, the physical oceanographer, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and an expert in derelict vessels, whom MacGregor enlisted in her investigation. “The discovery crew sailed it, so it was in really good shape.”
The life of Captain Briggs’ before the Mary Celeste offered no clues, says MacGregor, after visiting Briggs’ hometown of Marion in Massachusetts, and interviewed a descendant of Arthur Briggs, a 7-year-old son the Briggses had left behind so he could get an education instead. After the interview, MacGregor learned that Captain Briggs was really experienced and kept his duties as a captain in high esteem.
“There was never a question that he would do something irrational,” she claims.
So, did Captain Briggs have a rational reason to abandon the ship?
MacGregor figured that if she could determine the precise spot the ship was abandoned, she’d know why it was. She had two clues: one, the transcriptions of the Mary Celeste’s log slate — the notations of the ship’s log before they were transcribed — that the vessel was 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Azores of Santa Maria on November 25; and two, that the Mary Celeste was some 644 kilometers (400 miles) east of the island. Based on these clues, she tasked Richardson “to work backward and create a path between these two points.”
Richardson then used water temperatures and ocean currents as at the time to crunch the numbers. This was data MacGregor had from the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS) — the database of global maritime information from 1784 to 2007 used to study climate change. MacGregor, together with her husband, Scott, and Richardson determine that the Mary Celeste could have drifted from its location to the Azores where it was found.
“We found out it basically just sailed itself,” says Richardson.
Why Abandon The Mary Celeste?
If that’s the case, MacGregor thought it wouldn’t be a captain’s decision to abandon a seaworthy ship with the sight of land. From the look at things, it seems the Mary Celeste was abandoned the morning of November 25, just after the last log entry was written. However, Santa Maria was the last port of call the ship could have docked. So the question still remains: why?
According to sources, the ship’s log was believed to have been lost somewhere in 1885, and the transcriptions before November 25, 1872, were the only means MacGregor and Richardson could then plot the course and positions of the vessel. The two then used these positions — together with ICOADS data and information like sea current and temperatures — to precisely measure the route of the Mary Celeste. They found that Briggs was actually 193 kilometers (120 miles) west of where he thought he was, and per his calculations, he should have sighted land three days earlier than he did.
On the night of the last log entry, the Mary Celeste probably faced a turbulent storm of more than 35 knots, so Briggs might have changed course and headed north of Santa Maria in search for a haven. But a rough sea, and probably some inaccurate chronometer wouldn’t prompt such an experienced captain to abandon a seaworthy vessel, MacGregor reasoned. And there could be more to this mystery.
On its last voyage, the Mary Celeste had coal aboard that lead to an extensive refitting of the vessel. This would explain the disassembled pump found on the Mary Celeste by crewmen of the Dei Gratia. MacGregor finally concluded that, ocean currents playing a rough time with him, knowing that he had an inoperative pump, and not being able to determine whether his ship was worthy, Briggs took no risks than an order to abandon the Mary Celeste at sea. However, MacGregor still can’t leave the story behind, and hopes to even learn more.
“The research goes on,” she says. “Because I have been touched by the story, as I hope other people will be.”
Let us know what you think happened to the Mary Celeste.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Mar 14, 2019.