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Okay...maybe you've seen the movie "Ghost Ship", a B-film from 2002 that had an intriguing premise and a spooky setting, but wasn't a lasting cinematic moment when it's all said and done.  Perhaps you are familiar, if ever so faintly, with the legend of the "Flying Dutchman."  Maybe not.  The Flying Dutchman legend is more famous than the Mary Celeste, but legend is all that it is.  A ghost story told by wizened old sailors, long ago dead.  It's a story that captures the imagination...but as is so often the case, truth is stranger than fiction.

The tale...the imagery...the contemplation of a ship adrift at sea...without a crew, is gripping.  It's gripping because the sea is gripping.  It is immense.  Powerful.  Vast.  Uncaring.  Menacing, even.  

Say what you will about the various branches of the Armed Forces...I have always been a Navy fan.  ( Dad served on a submarine)  Yeah...sure...the fly boys get all the glory.  But the sea...the nothing to mess with.   It can mess with you, if it chooses to do so, but you can't mess with it.  It is implacable.  It was especially so in the time before radio communications.  Once you were beyond sight of land, you were on your own.

I'm going to tell you all a story, and it is (mostly) fact, about a ship that turned up derelict...a true ghost ship, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on 1872.  Well...maybe not the middle, but it was discovered listing, without crew, between the Azore Islands and some 600 miles away from the mainland of Portugal, and it created quite a historical and literary stir.  It was a true "Ghost Ship."  For decades, it was the maritime equivalent of the fate of aviation's Amelia Earhart.  Earharts plane was never discovered, but the Mary Celeste was discovered intact...unmanned...still seaworthy.  Simply abandoned, for reasons unknown.

What happened to the Mary Celeste?  Pour yourself a hot mug of rum, or a warm cup of tea with brandy.  Light up your pipe, and draw your chair nearer to the fire.  Make yourself comfortable, and listen to me.

I will tell you a story.

The Mary Celeste was a 282 ton brigantine merchant ship, built in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1861. Though the word "Brigantine" may conjure up images of pirates, by the late 19th century the nautical term referred to a particular type of ship...a two masted sailing vessel, with square rigged sails on each mast.  Her original name was The Amazon, and she would've looked, by and large, like this:

Brigantine St. Lawrence II

From her beginning, the ship had a troubled history.  According to wikipedia, her first first captain died of pneumonia on its maiden voyage...the first of three captains to meet their deaths at her helm.  Two other captains lost their command after colliding with other ships en route to their destination, and in 1867 the ship ran aground during a storm off of the coast of Nova Scotia.  The original owners decided, then, to sell it for salvage to an American by the name of Richard Haines, of New York, for $1,750.  He invested some $8,800 to make the ship seaworthy again, and rechristened the ship as the Mary Celeste.  The ownership was divided amongst 4 partners, including one Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs.

Captain Briggs came from a family of Massachussetts mariners, and had established for himself a reputation as a "master mariner".  He was also a complete teetotaler, and everyone knew him to be a man of abstinence when it came to alcohol.  That's only worth mentioning because of the cargo that the Mary Celeste was carrying...1701 barrels of pure grain alcohol destined for the Port of Genoa, Italy, to be used to fortify wine.  His crew of seven were equally well reputed, and not known to give in to mid sea bouts of drunkeness.  They were all A-List seamen.

Briggs steered the Mary Celeste out of Port from New York on November 7, 1872.  On December 5, one Captain Morehouse, of the ship Dei Gratia, came upon the Mary Celeste drifting aimlessly between the Azores and the Strait of Gibralter.  Capt Morehouse was a friend and associate of Capt Briggs...a fact that would later cast suspicion upon him.  They had, in fact, dined together before the Mary Celeste set sail from New York.

But when he encountered the ship at sea, he suspected immediately that something was amiss.  It was at sail, but not moving purposefully.  It was meandering...listing to and fro.  He attempted to hail the ship with a horn for sometime, but got no response. Looking with his spyglass, he could discern no sign of any crew onboard.  So he dispatched his first mate in a dinghy, with a small landing party.  What they discovered became the stuff of legend.

The Mary Celeste was completely seaworthy, and completely devoid of crew.  Not a soul was onboard, not even the customary cat for mousing purposes.  The ship was outfitted with a small dinghy, for emergency purposes, but it was missing as well.  The cargo was intact, and still secured, but there were fumes of alcohol in the air onboard.  Clearly, some of the whiskey barrels had split open.  The appearances to the landing party were that the crew had abandoned ship abruptly.  Everyones personal possessions were still onboard.  Yet the ship was in an obvious state of disarray.

For one thing, everything was wet.  The beds were wet.  The Captains quarters were wet.  The cookstove, which was a heavy iron affair and secured with wooden chocks below deck, was had been moved somehow from the structures intended to hold it into place, and cooking utensils were strewn all about.  The stovepipe, which funneled smoke from the stove outside of the lower quarters, was dislodged.  A clock was turned upside down.  The chronometer, ship's log and sextant navigation book were missing.

The Dei Gratia towed the derelict ship into port, and an Admiral's Inquiry was initiated.  Afterall...10 people were unaccounted for, and the ship and its cargo had been heavily insured.  Capt Morehouse came under suspicion immediately...because he had known the Capt. of the Mary Celeste, knew the cargo she was carrying, and, as unlikely as it seems, might have had some motive to pirate the ship he towed into harbor.  Those suspicions died down quickly.

In fact, the inquiry never could answer the questions as to what, exactly, happened to the ship.  It was 1872.  A young author by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle made a name for himself by publishing a short story, fictional account of the mystery, 3 years before he penned his first Sherlock Holmes story.  He changed the ship's name to the Marie Celeste, and unfortunately many of the details in his fictionalized account have become entwined with the true history.

The landing party, contrary to legend, never found "warm cups of tea and plates of food" still resting on the galley table.  The galley was pretty much a mess.

Some people read a story like this and say to themselves..."so what?"  Some read it and wonder to themselves..."what might have happened?"  And then there are some who are driven by it, and make it a lifelong passion to try to solve a mystery such as this.

There is a person who has come up with a pretty plausible explanation.  Especially when you consider the fact that explanations over the past 140 years have careened from African pirates, to insurance fraud, to a drunken mutiny, to UFO's and alien abduction.  Yeah...all of those theories have been put forth, and more, over the years.

The most plausible theory has been put forth by a man who suggests that a "seaquake" was responsible.  His theory is that a shallow earthquake occurred, just below the surface of the seabed below the Mary Celeste somewhere past the area known, now, to be prone to such seismic activity.  Unlike a terrestrial erathquake, these "seaquakes" can evidence themselves as a quick upshifting, and then receding, of the ocean floor.  What transpires on the surface of the water has less to do with the richter scale of the quake than it does with the rapidity of the up and down movement of the ocean floor.

It cause a shockwave, or an upward thrust of water, followed almost immediately by a downward pull as the ocean floor recedes.  According to the ocean vessel directly above such an event would bounce up and down violently, which would explain the waterlogged condition of the crew quarters that the landing party from the Dei Gratia found, as well as explaining how such a heavy iron cook stove became unmoored from its chocks and its stovepipe busted loose.  The theory goes on to suggest that after the initial wave of jolts and bouncing, the crew noticed that the stove was busted loose and spewing embers and sparks into the galley, as well as the fact that fumes from some breached whisky barrels were thick in the air, and they feared a possible explosion.  A quick order was given to abandon ship, so they lowered their lifeboat and rowed away from what might have been an impending explosion.

When the quake subsided, and the Mary Celeste did not go up in flames, the crew members discovered that, in their haste to get away from the ship, they had failed to secure a rope line between their raft and the ship, which would ordinarily have been standard procedure.  As the Mary Celeste was at full sail when they abandoned her, it moved away from them faster than they could row towards her.  They had two options...

They could abandon the ship, and row for the nearest Azore Island, which probably would have been a viable plan...or they could pursue the ship and hope that either the wind shifted or died down, allowing them to overtake it eventually and regain control.  Given the insured value of the cargo, and their collective reputations as seamen, they might well have opted for the latter course.  In which case, it is highly likely that over the course of several days they saw the distance between themselves and the crewless ship increase incrementally, but consistently, until it eventually was out of reach, and they perished at sea.

Some five years after the discovery of the unmanned Mary Celeste, a raft was discovered off of the coast of Italy with 3 badly decomposed bodies strapped to it.  There are some who think those bodies might have been crewmen from the Mary Celeste.

We'll never really know.

As for the ship?  After it was towed into harbor in Europe, it was reclaimed by the partners who owned it (except, of course, for Capt Briggs).  One of those partners, a James Winchester, lost his father to a drowning accident onboard the ship, and it was later sold at a huge loss.  Again, according to the Wikipedia, the ship changed hands 17 times over a period of 13 years.  Seamen are a superstitious lot, I can easily imagine, and not many would want to crew a boat with such a bad history.  The last owner of the Mary Celeste tried to sink her deliberately off the coast of Haiti in order to get insurance money from the deal.  That was 1885.  The cargo was overinsured, and consisted mainly of catfood, boots and scrap.  The boat wouldn't sink, however, even though it was run up upon a shoal.  Fire was set to it, and it still wouldn't sink.

The owner was arrested and convicted of insurance fraud.

Originally posted to Keith930 on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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