The story of Mary Celeste is one of the greatest
sea mysteries of all time. How can everyone on board a ship simply vanish into thin air?
There are plenty of theories but no answers to this day…. Perhaps she was doomed from the start? I’m
not talking about that mysterious day on December 4, 1872, when she was found floating adrift
in the Atlantic. No, her sorrows go way back, to another life that was equally filled with
unlucky circumstance… She didn’t always go by Mary Celeste. She
was originally called Amazon. Hmm. Made in Canada in 1861, the vessel was about 100 feet
(30 m) long and 25 feet (~8 m) wide. Not the biggest or greatest ship of her time, but
her modest size wasn’t the reason why she had problems finding an owner. From her maiden
voyage on May 18, 1861, the Amazon already started getting a bad reputation for possibly
being a cursed ship… She suffered nasty hull damage after going
through a fishing dam. When she was docked in a shipyard for repairs, that shipyard caught
fire and almost burned to the ground. Amazon, however, remained untouched and continued
to serve as a merchant ship. A lot of her future owners would go bankrupt, each of them
selling the vessel to repay their debts. She also lost her first captain to illness. During
Amazon’s first journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the ship crashed into another vessel,
sending the latter to the bottom of the English Channel. After that, the unlucky ship ran
aground on her way back to Canada. She was left there, abandoned and damaged beyond repair. But, alas, she was taken and sold to an American
mariner. Amazon was completely renovated and dubbed Mary Celeste. She bounced from owner
to owner once again, finally falling into the hands of her new and final captain: Benjamin
Spooner Briggs. According to people who knew him, Briggs was a good captain and a master
mariner. He always handpicked his crew and was very mindful of the people under his command.
Many even say he was pretty harsh to those who dared violate the discipline. But he put
together the best crew, and those 7 men along with their captain and his family set out
on that fateful trans-Atlantic trip from New York to Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872. Along with the 10 people on board, the ship
was also carrying 1,700 barrels of denatured alcohol. This industrial liquid is highly
flammable if not contained properly. But Captain Briggs was a careful man. In fact, the trip
was supposed to begin two days prior on November 5, but Briggs had decided to wait for a minor
storm to blow through. So even with tons of flammable cargo, I imagine the captain knew
what he was doing. For reasons unknown to this very day, Mary
Celeste never did make it to Genoa. At some point in her journey, something terrible happened.
But this is where it gets totally bizarre. On December 4, 1872, about 400 miles (640
km) off the coast of Portugal, the crew of another ship, a Canadian brigantine called
Dei Gratia, noticed a vessel sailing erratically and heading right towards them. The captain
sent a signal, but there was no response. As the Dei Gratia got closer and closer, it
became apparent that there was nobody on deck. So, the captain pulled up and sent a few men
over to investigate. What they found (or, rather, didn’t find) would make the hair
stand on the back of your neck. There wasn’t a single soul on the ship.
Ok, well, perhaps they had to abandon? But here’s the thing: all of their belongings
and food were still there! The precious cargo was also untouched, and there were no signs
of some sort of struggle or trouble. It was as if all the people on board had simply vanished
into thin air! The only things that were missing were a lifeboat, a rope, the ship’s papers,
and the captain’s navigational equipment. Captain Briggs had a habit of keeping very
detailed and thorough notes in his journal. The last entry had been made on November 25.
It mentioned bad weather, but nothing more – nothing that would be enough to force
Briggs, his wife and daughter, and the crew to leave Mary Celeste in such a hurry. The
coordinates given put the ship about 800 miles (~1,300 km) away from the coast. Had she been
unmanned and drifting aimlessly for 400 miles (640 km) over the past 9 days? What on Earth happened to the Mary Celeste?
Or, more specifically, to her crew and passengers? The crew of the Dei Gratia soon became prime
suspects in the case. According to this first official theory, the men of Dei Gratia got
rid of everyone on Mary Celeste, made up a barely believable story about finding her
abandoned, and sailed her to the shore for a salvage reward. Seems like a reasonable
theory. I mean, if I just so happened to find a wallet that had been reported stolen, I
imagine the police would question me first! But after a thorough investigation, that theory
didn’t hold up. Although, the crew of Dei Gratia never did get the full payment for
salvaging Mary Celeste. But, hey, at least they weren’t being blamed anymore. Since
then, investigators have been left with nothing but theories, all of them with certain facts
contradicting others and making a mess of the whole thing. So, what’s the first thing that comes to
your mind when you imagine why a crew would abandon ship? Probably a storm, right? Especially
knowing that Captain Briggs had mentioned foul weather in his last journal entry. Some
other facts point to such a possibility, but it’s still unclear. For example, the pump
on Mary Celeste was apparently malfunctioning and undergoing some kind of maintenance when
this “bad weather” rolled in. Perhaps the captain didn’t think the ship would
survive the storm, given that it might easily flood with a broken pump. The only problem
is that there were no storms reported in that area at that time. When Mary Celeste was found,
her lowest area was under about 4 feet (~1 m) of water, but that wasn’t too scary for
a ship her size. Everything inside the ship was dry and undamaged. Besides, if there was
bad weather, do you really think they’d switch their ship with a slightly malfunctioning
pump for a tiny little lifeboat thinking they’d have better chances at weathering the storm?
Captain Briggs was smarter than that. One theory suggests that pirates could’ve
attacked the ship. But that theory doesn’t hold since all the personal belongings, food,
and valuable cargo were left untouched. Not to mention, the course Mary Celeste was on
ran directly through waters heavily guarded by the British Navy. No pirate would ever
risk sailing there just to attack a small brigantine. What if the crew mutinied against their captain?
Briggs was known to be pretty strict with discipline. Not to mention, the only belongings
they didn’t find on the ship were those of two of the crewmembers. Had there been
some horrific scene? Did they take everyone out, grab their things, jump in the lifeboat,
and flee to avoid getting caught? Again, it’s highly unlikely and pretty much disproven.
First of all, what chances do 2 men have against 6 others? Also, there were no signs of a struggle
or fight when the ship was examined. And finally, further investigation showed that those two
were German sailors that had been tricked on their previous journey and left with no
belongings at all. They hadn’t even brought anything with them in the first place! The final and most probable theory comes down
to the 9 alcohol barrels found empty on the ship. Those 9 barrels were the only ones out
of the total 1,701 that weren’t properly suitable for transporting alcohol. They were
made from a kind of porous timber that couldn’t stop alcohol from evaporating. Ok, that explains
why they were empty, but what about the missing people? Well, you see, when alcohol evaporates, it
creates a really dangerous zone around the source of the leakage by releasing highly
flammable fumes that can lead to an explosion. Captain Briggs might’ve noticed that some
barrels were empty and ordered everybody to get off the ship as soon as possible before
the hull explodes. This sense of emergency explains the food and belongings being left.
And I doubt the captain had time to jot all this down in his journal before evacuating
everyone to safety. So, everybody probably rushed into the lifeboat.
The captain likely grabbed his navigational instruments and the ship’s papers in case
she blew up and they’d need to continue their journey in the lifeboat. As for the
long rope that was missing, they probably used it to tie the lifeboat to Mary Celeste,
wait for as long as possible for the flammable fumes to air out, and then return to the ship.
At some point, the rope could’ve snapped and set the lifeboat with 10 people on it
adrift in the Atlantic with no way of returning to the ship and little chances of survival
out in the open ocean with no food or water. And still, even this theory has its flaws.
Why was there no smell of alcohol on board when Mary Celeste was found if 9 whole barrels
had leaked completely dry? You’d think the crew of Dei Gratia would’ve noticed it immediately.
Maybe they did, and they just assumed, well, the ship was carrying alcohol, hence the smell!
I guess we’ll never know, and the story of Mary Celeste shall remain a mystery… What do you think happened to the Mary Celeste
and her crew? Let me know your theories down in the comments! If you learned something
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