"Very true," continued Captain X, "is of far more recent days and ranks as one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the deep. It also has reference to a vessel under sail, but the scene of the incident was the Strait of Gibraltar, a much frequented ocean thoroughfare. The facts are very simple. In the broad daylight, with a steady breeze blowing; a brigantine was observed whose eccentric behaviour plainly indicated that there was something radically wrong aboard. What was still more odd, she hoisted no signal for assistance, nor did she vouchsafe a reply when it was proffered.
To solve the mystery it was decided to despatch a boat to investigate (from the Dei Gratia), but when its
occupants boarded the Marie Celeste - for
such the craft proved to be - they were confronted with a riddle which has successfully
baffled all attempts to read it. Everything
on board the vessel was in perfect order;
none of the boats were missing; a chart
lay unfolded on the cabin table, which the
master had only recently consulted for near
at hand was a cigar partly smoked, the
the mouth end still damp; and in the galley
the fire was burning and dinner cooking.
Yet not a sign was there of captain or
crew. " Nothing could be clearer than they
had deserted the ship but a very short time
and that their departure was made in haste!
But the reason for the exodus and the means
by which it was accomplished are questions
that still await an answer."
The stuff of legend from Marie to Mary; none of the boats missing; partly smoked cigar and dinner cooking. The facts were so very different.....
Mary Celeste (often misreported as Marie Celeste) was an American merchantbrigantine that was found adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores Islands, Portugal, on December 4, 1872, by the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia. She was in a disheveled but seaworthy condition, under partial sail, with no one on board, and her lifeboat missing. The last log entry was dated ten days earlier. She had left New York City for Genoa on November 7, and on discovery was still amply provisioned. Her cargo of denatured alcohol was intact, and the captain's and crew's personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board—the captain and his wife, their two-year-old daughter, and the crew of seven—were ever seen or heard from again. After the Gibraltar hearings, Mary Celeste continued in service under new owners. In 1885, her captain deliberately wrecked her off the coast of Haiti, as part of an attempted insurance fraud.
Benjamin Briggs was born in Wareham, Massachusetts on April 24, 1835, one of five sons of sea captain Nathan Briggs. All but one of the sons went to sea, two becoming captains. Benjamin was an observant Christian who read the Bible regularly and often bore witness to his faith at prayer meetings. In 1862, he married his cousin Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, and enjoyed a Mediterranean honeymoon on board his schoonerForest King. Two children were born: son Arthur in September 1865, and daughter Sophia Matilda in October 1870.
By the time of Sophia's birth, Briggs had achieved a high standing within his profession. Nevertheless, he considered retiring from the sea to go into business with his seafaring brother Oliver, who had also grown tired of the wandering life. They did not proceed with this project, but instead each invested his savings in a share of a ship: Oliver in Julia A. Hallock, and Benjamin in Mary Celeste.[n 3] In October 1872, Benjamin took command of Mary Celeste for her first voyage following her extensive New York refit, which took her to Genoa in Italy. He arranged for his wife and infant daughter to accompany him, while his school-aged son was left at home with his grandmother.
Briggs chose the crew for this voyage with care. First mate Albert G. Richardson was married to a niece of Winchester and had sailed under Briggs before. Second mate Andrew Gilling, aged about 25, was Danish in origin although born in New York. The steward, newly married Edward William Head, was signed on with a personal recommendation from Winchester. The four general seaman were all Germans from the Frisian Islands: the brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen, Arian Martens, and Gottlieb Goodschaad. A later testimonial described them as "peaceable and first-class sailors". In a letter to his mother shortly before the voyage, Briggs declared himself eminently satisfied with ship and crew. Sarah Briggs informed her mother that the crew appeared to be quietly capable, "if they continue as they have begun"
While Mary Celeste prepared to sail, another brigantine, the Canadian Dei Gratia, lay in nearby Hoboken, New Jersey, awaiting a cargo of petroleum destined for Genoa via Gibraltar. Her captain, David Morehouse, and his first mate Oliver Deveau, were Nova Scotians, both highly experienced and respected seamen. As captains with common interests, it is likely that Morehouse and Briggs knew each other, if only casually. Some accounts assert that they were close friends who, on the evening before Mary Celeste's departure, dined together, but the evidence for this is limited to a recollection by Morehouse's widow, 50 years after the event.[n 4]Dei Gratia departed for Gibraltar on November 15, eight days after Mary Celeste, following the same general route.
Dei Gratia had reached a position of 38°20'N, 17°15'W, midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal at about 1 pm on Wednesday, December 4, 1872, land time (Thursday, December 5, sea time),[n 5]. As Captain Morehouse came on deck, the helmsman reported a vessel about 6 miles (9.7 km) distant, heading unsteadily towards Dei Gratia. The ship's erratic movements and the odd set of her sails led Morehouse to suspect that something was wrong. As the vessels drew close, he could see no one on deck, and he received no reply to his signals, so he sent Deveau and second mate John Wright to investigate. The pair established that she was the Mary Celeste from the name on her stern, then climbed aboard where they found the ship deserted. The sails, partly set, were in a poor condition, some missing altogether, and much of the rigging was damaged, with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. The main hatch cover was secure, but the fore and lazarette hatches were open, their covers beside them on the deck. The ship's single lifeboat was missing, a small yawl that had apparently been stowed across the main hatch, while the binnaclehousing the ship's compass had shifted from its place, its glass cover broken. There was about 3.5 feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold, a significant but not alarming amount for a ship this size. A makeshift sounding rod (a device for measuring the amount of water in the hold) was found abandoned on the deck.
The last entry on the ship's daily log, found in the mate's cabin, was dated at 8:00 am on November 25, nine days earlier. It recorded Mary Celeste's position then as 37°01'N, 25°01'W, off Santa Maria Island in the Azores—nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where Dei Gratia encountered her. Deveau saw that the cabin interiors were wet and untidy from water which had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order. In Briggs's cabin, Deveau found personal items scattered about, including a sheathed sword under the bed, but most of the ship's papers were missing, together with the captain's navigational instruments. Galley equipment was neatly stowed away; there was no food prepared or under preparation, but there were ample provisions in the stores. There were no obvious signs of fire or violence; the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship, by means of the missing lifeboat.
Deveau reported these findings to Morehouse, who agreed to bring the derelict into Gibraltar, 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away. Under maritime law, a salvor could expect a substantial share of the combined value of rescued vessel and cargo, the exact award depending on the degree of danger inherent in the salvaging. Morehouse divided Dei Gratia's crew of eight between the two vessels, sending Deveau and two experienced seamen to Mary Celeste, while he and four others remained on Dei Gratia. The weather was relatively calm for most of the way to Gibraltar, but with each ship seriously undermanned, progress was slow. Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on December 12, 1872, and Mary Celeste, which had encountered fog, arrived on the following morning. She was immediately impounded by the vice admiralty court, preparatory to salvage hearings. Deveau wrote to his wife that the ordeal of bringing the ship in was such that "I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe. I shall be well paid for the Mary Celeste"
On December 23, Flood ordered an examination of Mary Celeste, which was carried out by John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping, with the assistance of a diver, Ricardo Portunato. Austin noted cuts on each side of the bow, caused, he thought, by a sharp instrument, and found possible traces of blood on the captain's sword. His report emphasized that the ship did not appear to have been struck by heavy weather, citing a phial of sewing machine oil found upright in its place; Austin did not acknowledge that the phial might have been replaced since the abandonment, nor did the court raise this point. Portunato's report on the hull concluded that the ship had not been involved in a collision or run aground. A further inspection by a group of Royal Naval captains endorsed Austin's opinion that the cuts on the bow had been caused deliberately. They also discovered stains on one of the ship's rails that might have been blood, together with a deep mark possibly caused by an axe. These findings strengthened Flood's suspicions that human wrongdoing rather than natural disaster lay behind the mystery. On January 22, 1873, he sent the reports to the Board of Trade in London, adding his own conclusion that the crew had got at the alcohol (he ignored its non-potability) and murdered the Briggs family and the ship's officers in a drunken frenzy. They had cut the bows to simulate a collision, then fled in the yawl to suffer an unknown fate. Flood thought that Morehouse and his men were hiding something, specifically that Mary Celeste had been abandoned in a more easterly location, and that the log had been doctored. He could not accept that Mary Celeste could have traveled so far while unmanned.
James Winchester arrived in Gibraltar on January 15, to inquire when Mary Celeste might be released to deliver its cargo. Flood demanded a surety of $15,000, money which Winchester did not have. He became aware that Flood thought he might have deliberately engaged a crew that would kill Briggs and his officers, as part of some conspiracy. On January 29, during a series of sharp exchanges with Flood, Winchester testified to Briggs's high character, and insisted that he would not have abandoned the ship except in extremity. Flood's theories of mutiny and murder received significant setbacks when scientific analysis of the stains found on the sword and elsewhere on the ship showed that they were not blood.[n 7] A second blow to Flood followed in a report commissioned by Horatio Sprague, the American consul in Gibraltar, from Captain Shufeldt of the US Navy. In Shufeldt's view the marks on the bow were not man-made, but came from the natural actions of the sea on the ship's timbers.
With nothing concrete to support his suspicions, Flood reluctantly released Mary Celeste from the court's jurisdiction on February 25. Two weeks later, with a locally raised crew headed by Captain George Blatchford from Massachusetts, she left Gibraltar for Genoa. The question of the salvage payment was decided on April 8, when Cochrane announced the award: £1,700, or about one-fifth of the total value of ship and cargo. This was far lower than the general expectation—one authority thought that the award should have been twice or even three times that amount, given the level of hazard in bringing the derelict into port. Cochrane's final words were harshly critical of Morehouse for his decision, earlier in the hearing, to send Dei Gratia under Deveau to deliver its cargo of petroleum—although Morehouse had remained in Gibraltar at the disposal of the court. Cochrane's tone carried an implication of wrongdoing which, says Hicks, ensured that Morehouse and his crew "would be under suspicion in the court of public opinion forever"
Although the evidence in Gibraltar failed to support Flood's theories of murder and conspiracy, the suspicion of foul play lingered. Insurance fraud on the part of Winchester was briefly suspected, on the grounds of newspaper reports that Mary Celeste had been heavily over-insured. Winchester was able to refute these allegations, and no inquiry was instituted by the insurance companies which had issued the policies. In 1931 an article in the Quarterly Review suggested that Morehouse could have lain in wait for Mary Celeste, then lured Briggs and his crew aboard Dei Gratia and killed them there. Paul Begg, in his account of the mystery, comments that this theory ignores undisputed facts: Dei Gratia left New York eight days after Mary Celeste, was a slower ship, and would not have caught Mary Celeste before the latter reached Gibraltar. Another theory posits that Briggs and Morehouse were partners in a conspiracy to share the salvage proceedings. The unsubstantiated friendship between the two captains has been cited by commentators as making such a plan a plausible explanation. Hicks comments that "if Morehouse and Briggs had been planning such a scam, they would not have devised such an attention-drawing mystery", and also asks why, if Briggs was intending to disappear permanently, he left his son Arthur behind.
Other theories of foul play have suggested an attack by Riffian pirates, who were active off the coast of Morocco in the 1870s. Charles Edey Fay, in his 1942 account, observes that pirates would have looted the ship, yet the personal possessions of captain and crew, some of significant value, were left undisturbed. In 1925, the historian John Gilbert Lockhart surmised that Briggs, in a fit of a religious mania, had slaughtered all on board and then killed himself. In a later edition of his book Lockhart, who had by then spoken to Briggs's descendants, apologized and withdrew this theory.
Cobb believed that the transfer of personnel to the yawl may have been intended as a temporary safety measure. He speculated from Deveau's report on the state of the rigging and ropes that the ship's main halliard may have been used to attach the yawl to the ship. Thus, when the danger had passed, the company could return on board. The line could subsequently have parted, whereupon Mary Celeste sailed away empty while the yawl foundered with its occupants. Begg notes the illogicality of attaching the yawl to a vessel that the crew thought was about to explode or sink, while the modern writer Macdonald Hastings asks whether Briggs, an experienced captain, would have effected a panicky abandonment of the ship when, "if the Mary Celeste had blown her timbers, she would still have been a better bet for survival than the ship's boat". If this is what happened, Briggs "behaved like a fool; worse, a frightened one"
The following has been offered as a solution to the mystery:
Now, however, 21st century scientific techniques have been used to finally solve the 19th century mystery. An experiment, conducted by a scientist at UCL for a Channel 5 documentary which will be screened next week, shows that an explosion may indeed be the key to the fate of Captain Briggs, his family and crew.
Dr Andrea Sella [UCL Chemistry] built a replica of the hold of the Mary Celeste.
Using butane gas, he simulated an explosion caused by alcohol leaking from the ship’s cargo.
Instead of wooden barrels, he used cubes of paper. Setting light to the gas caused a huge blast, which sent a ball of flame upwards. Surely the paper cubes would be burned or blackened or the replica hold damaged.
Remarkably, neither happened.
“What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion,” says Dr Sella. “There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching.
“Given all the facts we have, this replicates conditions on board the Mary Celeste. The explosion would have been enough to blow open the hatches and would have been completely terrifying for everyone on board.
Such a massive explosion could have been triggered by a spark caused when two loose barrels rubbed together, or when a careless crew man, pipe in mouth, opened a hatch to ventilate the hold during the long crossing from New York to Italy. Records show that 300 gallons of alcohol had leaked – more than enough to create a terrifying explosion.
“It is the most compelling explanation,” says Dr Sella. “Of all those suggested, it fits the facts best and explains why they were so keen to get off the ship.” …
Adrian Lee, ‘The Express’
- See more at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/inthenews/itn060522#sthash.cM2pCGkh.dpuf