"Of all the unlucky vessels..." -The Ghost Ship "Mary Celeste"

4 December 1872, somewhere between the Azores and Portugal, the Canadian merchantman "Dei Gratia" sighted the Nova Scotia-built brigantine "Mary Celeste", slightly damaged, crewless and about to become the best-known ghost ship in naval history.

"Of all the unlucky vessels I ever heard of, she was the most unlucky." (David Cartwright, co-owner of "Mary Celeste")

"Mary Celeste" when she was still called "Amazon" in 1861

Worse things happen at sea. And since sailors have a lot of boredom to disperse on those long sea voyages and are reputed to be a superstitious lot anyway, tales of ghost ships have entered the realm of maritime lore since time immemorial. Basically, a ghost ship is a vessel found adrift on the high seas or beached on the shore, left by their crews or crewed by the dead, usually just one or two dead sailors. Usually, those unfortunates dying aboard a ship are buried at sea, their bodies committed to the deep until the sea shall give up her dead and in olden days, when plague might have wiped out whole crews, vessels found with no-one at the helm and no-one left living on board were not an uncommon sight. And then there were the stories of ships of the damned and their accursed master, most prominently Captain Willem van der Decken and the legendary Flying Dutchman, seen in the Southern hemispheres, East of the Good Hope, with red sails flying or bathed in a eerie red light, a portent of doom for those whose bows she crosses. Rich tales that not only inspired imaginative mariners, but professional storytellers as well, from Coleridge and Walter Scott to Hauff and Wagner and cohorts of 20th century journalists and pulp fiction writers. However, the origins of ghost ship stories did not ebb away when the early days of the Age of Sail were over. Far from it. While sightings of the Flying Dutchman are reported as late as the 1940s, ghost ships make the news every now and then to the present day. And the arguably best known case is that of the “Mary Celeste”.

 Golden Age of Illustration icon Howard Pyle's imagination of the "Flying Dutchman" (1900)

“Mary Celeste” never was considered to be a lucky ship. Launched in 1861 as “Amazon” in Nova Scotia, the brigantine had to delay her maiden voyage to London because her skipper fell ill. When she eventually sailed, she was damaged running into fishing equipment of Maine and finally making it to the Channel, the future ghost ship collided with a brig in the fog and sank her. Six years later, “Amazon” was driven ashore in a fierce storm off her native Nova Scotia and battered almost beyond repair. However, she was bought by an American shipping consortium, underwent a complete overhaul, was seized by debtors and finally set sail as “Mary Celeste” from Pier 50 on the East River, New York, under the command of one of her new owners, an old Atlantic hand, 37 years old Benjamin Briggs, of Wareham, Massachusetts, with her crew of 7, the skipper’s wife Sarah and his youngest daughter Sophie, two years old. “Mary Celeste” left New York for Genoa with a cargo of 1,701 barrels of undrinkable raw alcohol on 7 November, the last time she was seen before she became a myth. A week later, another brigantine, the Canadian “Dei Gratia” under her Nova Scotian master David Morehouse left New York for Genoa as well and about three weeks later, halfway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, “Dei Gratia” sighted a two-masted sailing vessel on an erratic course with some of her canvas flying loose and her rigging damaged. It turned out to be the “Mary Celeste”. The two brigantines closed and seeing no one on deck, Morehouse sent two men to investigate. They found nobody below decks either. “Mary Celeste” was abandoned. She had obviously been through rough weather, "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess“, as the mate of the “Dei Gratia” noted, her navigation equipment was missing along with her lifeboat and some barrels of alcohol she had loaded were discovered to be empty. All personal belongings as well as the food supplies were left untouched, but there was no trace of her people. The last entry in her log was made 9 days earlier off the Azores, nothing unusual was reported.

A contemporary newspaper illustration of "Mary Celeste" showing her in the state she was found in by "Dei Gratia" on 4 December 1872

Morehouse sailed “Mary Celeste” to Gibraltar and into a salvage court hearing there that ended with accusations of foul play in regards to insurance fraud against him and lost Briggs. Morehouse and his crew were acquitted of this and other charges and along with the idea of trickery committed by Captain Briggs, several other attempts to explain the fate of the crew of “Mary Celeste” came up, from piracy and mutiny to the kraken having plucked her people from the decks and other rather metaphysical ideas. Unsurprisingly, the myth of the Bermuda Triangle was brought into play as well, even though the “Mary Celeste” was traceably nowhere near the West Indies, let alone the Bermudas. None other than Arthur Conan Doyle saw to it that one or the other myth rather than a scientific explanation is usually seen at the base of the “Mary Celeste’s” tale. His short story “J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement” about a hence unknown survivor spawned a series of hair-rising tales and made “Mary Celeste” the best known ghost ship in naval history and admittedly, the events of late November and early December 1872 were never fully explained. Quite in contrast to the ship’s further fate. She was released after the salvage court hearing’s ending, sailed again under new ownership, retained her reputation as “unlucky ship”, naturally, and was finally sunk in January 1885 with a cargo of cat food and rubber boots somewhere off Haiti in an attempted and this time proven insurance fraud.

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