On Nov. 5, 1872, Benjamin Briggs of Wareham, Mass., piloted the brigantine Mary Celeste to sea loaded with cargo for Genoa. It was the last time anyone saw Briggs or any of his crew alive. Over the decades, many people would solve the mystery of the Mary Celeste. Just never correctly.
By 1872 the Mary Celeste was 12 years old. Since builders first laid her keel in 1860 her owners had modified her several times, lengthening her, adding a deck to expand her capacity and building a cabin on her man deck.
While probably not the prettiest vessel ever to sail, she was seaworthy. Benjamin Briggs came from a seagoing family and had earned the rank of captain after more than 10 years sailing. Married with two children, he and his brother Oliver had contemplated giving up the sea and starting a hardware business in New Bedford. Instead, Benjamin poured his savings into a two-fifths share of the Mary Celeste.
By November, the ship had taken on a cargo of denatured alcohol, which is undrinkable but commonly used for fuel and other industrial purposes.
Captain Briggs, then 37, handpicked his crew of seven and made space on the ship for his wife and daughter. Briggs was well-respected as a seaman, and as a man in general. He was Christian, not fond of drinking and fair and even tempered. When he sailed the Mary Celeste out of New York Harbor in 1872, it was the last time anyone would see him, or anyone else on the vessel, alive.
The Mary Celeste at Sea
On Dec. 4, after roughly a month at sea, the crew of a Canadian vessel, the Dei Gratia, sighted an odd vessel sailing toward them off the coast of the Azores. It was Mary Celeste. The Mary Celeste was partially under sail and abandoned.
Puzzled, the captain of the Del Gratia divided her crew and brought both ships into Gibraltar. There he applied for the bounty that was due him for rescuing the derelict and its cargo. The admiralty court could glean little from the condition of the Mary Celeste. Her lifeboat was missing, along with the entire crew, the captain, and his wife and daughter. Briggs’ son had stayed at home in Massachusetts.
The ship was under sail when found, but not well-rigged. There was evidence that water had flowed into the ship’s bilge, probably through hatches left open on deck. The ship’s binnacle, which houses its compass, suffered damage – its glass cover broken. The captain’s papers and personal effects were missing. But the hull of the vessel was unscathed, and there was no reason the ship could not have sailed.
Initially, inspectors found what they suspected were blood stains on the deck and on the captain’s sword, but these were found later to be something other than blood.
The Investigation and Trial
The admiralty court conducted an inquiry in the case of the Mary Celeste. It would determine how large an award to give to the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia. The judge in the case, Frederick Solly Flood, suspected the Mary Celeste was abandoned as part of a crime. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.
Flood ordered inspections and conducted thorough interviews of everyone involved in the case, but he could find no motive or evidence to support a crime. In the end he awarded the captain of the Dei Gratia a small bounty – roughly one-fifth the value of the Mary Celeste’s cargo – and sent the ship on her way to deliver her cargo.
Theories and Aftermath
Writers, historian and superstitious seamen dreamed up countless theories about the Mary Celeste. Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story that explained the ship’s fate. Sailors discovered it sailing perfectly with its tiller lashed in place (it wasn’t). Others speculated the crew had mutinied, that they had fallen overboard, that a sea monster attacked the Mary Celeste or a waterspout caused the crew to abandon her. Others suggested a murder had been carried out and the ship simply abandoned.
More imaginative writers suggested her crew had turned to piracy and captured another vessel, robbed it and started new lives with their ill-gotten gains. Most of these theories could not explain why Briggs and his wife would leave behind their son and family in Massachusetts, or why a reputable crew would suddenly turn into criminals.
In fact, no one ever discovered what happened to the Mary Celeste. New owners refitted the ship and put it back into service, despite superstitions that it ghosts haunted it. By 1885 Boston businessman Wesley Gove had purchased her. Despite his efforts, Gove was unable to make a success of the Mary Celeste. He cooked up a scheme to load her with junk, over-insure her and deliberately wreck her in Haiti.
The scheme worked as far as it went. The Mary Celeste went to the bottom off Haiti, but insurance investigators caught on and refused to pay Gove for the fraudulent losses he claimed.
This story was updated in 2021.
Image: Unconfirmed, possibly Honore Pellegrin (1800–c.1870). This speculative attribution suggested in Paul Begg: Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea. Longmans Education Ltd, Harlow (UK) 2007. Plate 2, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons