Mary Celeste: Mystery At Sea

On November the 7th 1872, Benjamin Briggs woke up in New York. First thing he did was to walk towards his bedroom window and take a glimpse outside: it had been almost two weeks that the bad weather prevented him and his crew from sailing across the Atlantic to Genoa, Italy. But this time, the sky looked well, and a smile appeared under Captain Briggs black beard… With no further thinking, he rushed to Staten Island harbor to prepare the upcoming departure, followed by his wife and 2-year-old daughter, who would both come along.

Benjamin is a true seaman, born in Massachusetts to Nathan Briggs, an experienced sailor himself whose five sons went at sea. Nevertheless, he knows that no voyage should be taken lightly. Once aboard, he proceeds to check everything before he is given the green light to sail off. The ship Mary Celeste now exits the harbor and is not to be seen from the American shores anymore.

The crew enlisted aboard the Mary Celeste (Source:

On December the 5th of the same year, David Reed Morehouse is at the help of his vessel Dei Gratia near the Azores Island – about 1,300 kilometers away from the coast of Portugal – when he is warned that a ship has been spotted ahead: this is the Mary Celeste, whose captain Morehouse had met a month ago in New York… Frowning at the ship odd moves, he sends two of his men, Oliver Deveau and John Wright, to board the American vessel and investigate. After all, the ship should have already reached Genoa.

Uncharted waters. (Source: HauntedRooms)

Oliver and John come back on the Canadian Dei Gratia looking slightly distraught. When their captain asks them about the vessel situation, he is answered that the ship was completely deserted, although everything seemed quite normal aboard: the food supplies were untouched, so was the alcohol freight to be delivered, as well as the crew members’ personal belongings. The last entry in the log book was dated November 25 and did not evocate any havoc or particular damage that would have urged the crew to abandon the vessel.

But the only lifeboat was missing. What then had driven a seasoned captain and his carefully-selected-7-men-crew out of the ship? The mystery was only starting, and since that time, every kind of conclusion has been drawn – yes, even the ones including giant squids.

Capt Morehouse of Dei Gracia
Capt. Morehouse (Source: Gibraltar)

Morehouse salvaged the ship and led it to Gibraltar, where the court hearings started on December 17 to shed light on that mystery. However, unfortunately for the captain and his crew, who had proceeded to keep the ship and its freight safe at the risk of their lives – only 3 people were at the command of the Mary Celeste and 5 on the Dei Gratia deck, which was definitely not enough to steer in good conditions – the Attorney General was convinced that there had been criminal offense though he had no evidence of it. Morehouse would be really likely to suffer from the accusations in his future maritime career, and he only received £1,700 for the salvage (about 20% of the salvaged ship actual value).

Quick game: want to solve the mystery by yourself? Pick your favorite conclusion among the ones (really) discussed!

  • The crew eventually drunk some of the alcohol that was to be delivered in Genoa and assassinated Captain Briggs and his family. (However, the alcohol freight was denatured, thus not likely to be drunk… I know, life at sea is tough, but still.)
Hence the expression “Drunk as a sailor” (Source: Carlos Grethe, 1888 via maggieblanck)
  • Both captains Morehouse and Briggs had agreed on that scenario when they met in New York a few days before departure, as an insurance fraud attempt.
  • As gases emanated from the alcohol shipment, the likelihood of explosion and/or poisoning forced the captain to order the ship’s immediate abandonment.
  • A waterspout (kind of a tornado at sea) occurred during the journey, bringing the evacuation of the ship forward. (Variants include seaquakes and sea monsters attacks, like giant squids or… crabs.)
  • There would have been a racist African-American passenger aboard whose hate for white people would have made him murder the whole crew. (However, this solution was invented by a 25-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle, and somehow considered seriously for a short time.)
  • A swimming competition would have been set up, eventually leading to everybody on board exiting the ship (the story comes with a lot of details supporting the evidence that was found aboard, and in that version, the sole survivor managed to get into the lifeboat, reach the Azores and change identity in order not to be investigated about.)
  • Aliens had showed up in flying saucers and taken everybody with them. (Paranormal explanations also involve the Bermuda Triangle option, though the mystery took place miles away from the legendary ‘wreckful’ area location.)
  • Pirates from North-Africa would have boarded the ship and murdered the crew (why then was it found with its freight later on by Morehouse? Maybe pirates just like action.)
  • Aggressive rats would have hidden in the ship’s hold and drunk some of the denatured alcohol, which drove them crazy as they started to attack the crew. Briggs and his men tried to escape with the lifeboat but they were chased by the swimming rats… [What will happen next? Write your own end to the story!]
  • The crew would have mistaken a whale for an island, and whale (pun intended) they had anchored the ship to take a few steps on the ground, the animal would have dived into the ocean, killing them all.

Alright, so… You see? We are about as close to solving this mystery as we are to turning the voracious rats’ solution into a high-grossing movie.

About one and a half centuries later, the mystery remains, and the Mary Celeste is known to be the most famous ghost ship, her story being retold and reinvented – as early as 1883, the Los Angeles Times evocated that a fire would still have been burning in the kitchen, or that the last log book entry was dated one hour only before Morehouse found the deserted ship.

One thing is true though: neither Captain Briggs and his family, nor any of the crew members were seen anymore. Which led Brian Hicks to conclude that “the ghost ship may be the best example of the old proverb that the sea never gives up its secrets.”


Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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