One day in 1872 the brig Dei Gratia, while butting her bows through the Atlantic rollers west of Spain, came across another ship that appeared to have been deserted in mid-ocean for no apparent reason – the Mary Celeste. When the Mary Celeste did not reply to their signal, the first and second mates of the Dei Gratia rowed over to the seemingly abandoned ship and hauled themselves on deck, little realising as they did so that they had stumbled across one of the greatest shipping mysteries of all time. It soon became clear that the Mary Celeste had no one aboard and to this day the mystery of what happened to her crew and passengers remains.
Beginning with the captain’s cabin, several things caught the eye of the first mate. The contents of the cabin were untouched – clothes, charts, books etc were all in their proper places. Even more curious, the money and the jewellery in the cabin had not been removed. But what had disappeared, and were nowhere to be found, were the captain’s navigation instruments. In the galley were the remains of an unfinished meal, and full cups of coffee were still on the table. The main stay-sail had been let down in a hurry and not stowed, while the fore top-sail seemed to have been carried away. There was, however, no sign (such as a damaged hull for example) that the ship had been caught in a violent storm and not enough water in the hold to indicate that the vessel might have been on the point of sinking – both of which might have served to explain the complete disappearance of the crew. On the contrary, everything seemed to be in its appointed place apart from one slightly disturbing find – the discovery of a sword with what looked like blood on its blade.
When the story of the strange ship was brought back to the mainland, it was speculated that the crew had got at the cargo of alcohol and, crazy with drink, killed the officers and made off in the small boat. This theory was discredited when it became clear that there was no sign of violence throughout the ship, the cargo of alcohol had not been tampered with and the stains on the sword were not blood as originally thought but rust. Since then, theories about the fate of the Mary Celeste and its crew have been rife – one of the more bizarre of which being that a sea-monster had appeared and eaten the crew one by one as they appeared on deck! Even if the crew had abandoned the ship, in the absence of any sign of a natural disaster or other threat, there was no reason why they would not have had sufficient time to pack money and jewellery – or at least finish a cup of coffee. No satisfactory explanation has ever been put forward for the disappearance of the Mary Celeste‘s crew and the total destruction of the ship on a later expedition in 1885 rendered the chances of doing so virtually impossible.
In popular culture, the mystery of the Mary Celeste has been used frequently as an icon by writers of fiction. In fact it was a fictional depiction by our old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is credited as popularising the Mary Celeste mystery. In J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement (click to read!), a story in which he renamed the ship the Marie Céleste, Doyle presented his theory on what had happened. Much of this story’s fictional content, and the incorrect name, have come to dominate popular accounts of the incident ever since, and were even published as fact by several newspapers at the time. Read it yourself and make up your own mind about whether this account is any more credible than all the other theories about what actually happened to the Mary Celeste!