Merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered floating unmanned and abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean on December 4th, 1872. The ship had been at sea for over a month when found, and reportedly still had over six months’ worth of food and supplies on board.

Cargo and personal belongings of the crew were found untouched – including valuables – although a lifeboat was missing. What The fate of the Mary Celeste’s crew remains unknown to this day, feeding the legend of the archetypal ghost ship.

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History

The Mary Celeste was a 107 foot-long brigantine vessel with a 26 foot-long beam. She was originally built in 1861 and named the Amazon, which was her name until 1867 when she ran aground off the coast of Nova Scotia. Salvaged and repaired in 1868, she was renamed the Mary Celeste by her new owners.

Under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs (pictured, left), his wife and daughter and a crew of seven, the Mary Celeste sailed from Staten Island to Genoa, Italy in 1872. The experience of this crew was not in question; in addition to a life at sea by the captain who had commanded five other ships and owned many more, the crew had five experienced European sailors among them.

On December 4th, 1872, a lookout on another ship, the Dei Gratia, spotted the Mary Celeste over 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. The helmsman spotted a ship that was yawing slightly, had torn sails, and looked unmanned. It was common for pirates of the day to stage ships to appear as abandoned so that they may ambush another ship – so the Dei Gratia observed the Mary Celeste for several hours before deciding to move closer and investigate. In the meantime, the Mary Celeste was sailing erratically on a starboard tack and heading for the straight of Gibraltar.

The chief mate of the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste and reported that he did not find anyone on board, but discovered that the ship was “a thoroughly wet mess.” There was a lot of water between the decks and 3.5 feet of water in the hold, yet the ship was not sinking. The ship’s papers were missing, but the captain’s logbook was unmolested. The forehatch was open, but the main hatch sealed. The clock was not functioning, the compass was destroyed, and the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. The only lifeboat, a yawl that was stored on top of the main hatch, was also missing. The hoist for the main sail was missing. A rope was found tied to the back of the Celeste with a frayed end dangling in the water some many meters behind the ship.

Upon further investigation, it was discovered that of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol stored in the hold, nine barrels were found to be empty. All personal effects of the captain and crew were in order and still on the vessel and there were no signs of a struggle or any sort of violence. What was clear was that the captain and crew left the ship in a hurry.

Ultimately there would be no evidence of piracy, foul play, mutiny, or theft.

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Theories

Some have suggested the Mary Celeste fell to pirates, the crew being murdered and thrown overboard. Contradicting this theory is the fact that nothing was taken from the ship; it was left unmolested.

Some suspected the crew of the Dei Gratia as having murdered those on board and staged the event hoping to claim the ship under salvage rights; however this was discounted as there was no sign of a struggle and the captain of the Dei Gratia was a personal friend of Captain Briggs.

Mutiny was briefly suggested, but the fact that the ship was over 600 miles from land casts doubt that the crew would mutiny so far off mainland and take the lifeboat rather than the much more valuable Mary Celeste. Friends and relatives of the crew reported never hearing from their loved ones ever again – also highly unlikely if the crew mutinied.

Foul weather has been suggested, as was postulated that the crew rushed to the lifeboat in a hurry and left. What complicates this theory is that the Mary Celeste was not destroyed, was not sinking, and outside of the water in the lower hold – had no signs of being battered or even a threat of capsizing. Additionally, other ships sailing the same route at the time didn’t report any poor weather and many wonder why the crew would abandon a large brigantine for a tiny yawl if the weather was indeed inclement.

Other weather theorists question if a tsunami or “rogue wave” came through and washed the captain and crew overboard, perhaps with little warning – and that would explain the standing water in the cargo hold. Detractors are quick to point out that no tsunami or earthquake activity was reported at that time, and that the entire crew would have to have been up on top of the deck at the time – also highly unlikely.

Perhaps the most plausible theory is that the nine empty barrels of alcohol had leaked thus spilling alcohol and possibly creating a fire or explosion. The theory goes on to say that perhaps the captain and crew evacuated to the lifeboat and towed themselves behind the Mary Celeste in observation with the intent of waiting to see if the entire ship would explode. At some point during this observation, they became separated from the Mary Celeste and ultimately were lost at sea and perished.

Lending credibility to this suggestion was the fact there were nine empty alcohol barrels. Coincidentally, these were constructed of red oak instead of white oak like the others. Today, we know red oak is more porous and more likely to emit vapor. This would have allowed alcohol vapor to collect in the hold. Any spark – even caused by friction of the barrels rubbing together – could have acted as a catalyst for a magnificent explosion. Though the ship was found not destroyed, it is thought that the crew was perhaps more concerned about the threat of explosion given the leaky barrels and decided to abandon the ship.

From here pure speculation fills in the details: Captain Briggs ordered the hold to be opened to inspect the cargo. Upon opening the hold, a violent rush of fumes and steam blow out. Believing his ship about to explode, Captain Briggs ordered everyone into the lifeboat with the instructions to follow the Mary Celeste on a tow line. Only the line wasn’t secured well and in the next set of harsh sea conditions, it was separated from the Mary Celeste.

The captain and crew would have died from hunger, thirst, or exposure. Of course, the major flaw in this theory is the fact the main hold was found locked and secured by the crew of the Dei Gratia. Handlers who unloaded the barrels of alcohol later did not report smelling any vapors or fumes. Lastly, there were no traces of the alcohol from the nine empty barrels, and what happened to the alcohol is just as much a mystery as what happened to the crew.

We may never know what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, but there certainly is a dearth of possibilities. One thing we do know: no trace of the lifeboat or any of the crew was ever found.

What do you think happened?

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43 COMMENTS

  1. So crazy

    Wish there was a way to figure it out and discover the bizarre reason for their disappearance

  2. If the crew had deliberately abandoned ship surely the captain would have taken his logbook? It’s one of the great mysteries to be sure – it definitely happened, but no satisfactory explanation.

  3. The mystery of the Mary Celeste has been solved years ago by someone simply bothering to research it properly.

  4. I think that what has happened to he merry celest is just really stupid why would a person do that for no reason?
    I am 10 years old i am a girl and i will never dream of doing that!

    • do you believe in it? have you researched it? i suggest you do cause you don’t know what might of happened and it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in it its something to look into just incase it is true

      thankyou 🙂

  5. And i do not believe in aliens it is just soo silly, how can you go on a ship and murder a crew for no reason, then throw them overboard. its just soo silly.

    • i do not think its silly in fact i think its rather exciting and a mystery besides aliens no way but u do know that this captain maybe wanted to be safe??

  6. I think it is a curse or the ship is haunted.I also think the crew thought the ship was haunted and got to scared

  7. Hmm, I say start at the beginning. Was there a crew onboard to begin with? What if someone had taken the crew hostage and set the ship adrift or a skeleton crew sailed it out just far enough to set it on a lone course then left the ship on small boats. But I think the answers are probably found at the very start before the ship set sail.

  8. the pumps on the ship failed by dust a wood chips when the boat was having a refurb, thus clogging them up no one checked them when the refurb was completed..when the boat started taking on water the captain briggs ordered the crew off to the nearest island twenty miles away , the life boat hit a freak wave captising it killing everyone aboard

    • jason martin :
      the pumps on the mary celeste where not working,caused by dust a wood chips when the boat was having a refurb, thus clogging them up no one checked them when the refurb was completed..when the boat started taking on water they where unable to pump the water out. the captain briggs thought the ship was sinking and ordered the crew to abandon ship to the nearest island twenty miles away , the life boat hit a freak wave captising it killing everyone aboard

      • Certainly a plausible outcome. One would have to wonder why the captain himself would leave the ship though.

        In an era when the captain “went down with his ship”, why did a lifelong man of the sea abandon his vessel before it was obviously distressed? (If the ship was found months later still afloat, surely the distress at the time of evacuation could not have been that severe). How did a veteran captain with a crew of five lifelong seamen all collectively & incorrectly assume the ship was sinking?

        I love the fact that every possible answer adds ten new questions. That’s what makes this a great mystery. 🙂

  9. I thought it was very interesting and a lot of help for my homework for school so what you just said is stupid

  10. frantic captain with familial emotions tugging-fumes to spook the soul of the temperate-let us get in the life boat{s} and then the seaquake-unfortunate dear Watson, unfortunate.

  11. I thought that the Mary Celeste was spotless when they found it. I didn’t think it was wrecked with water in it. That was the whole point of the mystery.

  12. the pumps were in perfect shape, there was little to no water in the hold, the barrels were never opened, everything was clean and in tact, this article is very different from what i heard from my teacher

  13. What’s is curious is no violence, no efforts indicated that they had tried to do something about the water, all valuables left behind and nothing out of place. The nine alcohol barrels could have numerous answers. They were leaking and so they were dumped at sea and the barrels restowed with the others, seems the most likely. Especially since the barrels were tucked away with the others. Explains why no fumes or spilled alcohol was ever found. Seems very unlikely they drank it. If aliens had come I suspect they would have been as likely to drink from the white oak barrels as the red. Often we make correlates in a story that may just be coincidence. That they got into the life boat in a hurry seems obvious, since life boat is gone and the sextant taken with plans to chart their way home. Also seems likely they were then lost at sea. The only mystery seems to be why they got off. Even a tsunami would have left the boat a wreck with stuff flung everywhere. If you believed there were signs of plague on the ship you would get off quickly and definitely. to want to take anything tainted with you. My vote is on plague or other illness.

    • I think that is the most sensible idea because there was no violence no treasures or food taken so that could result in an answer as sickness

  14. According to more reliable sources there was less than one foot of the water in the hold of the Mary Celeste at the time of discovery. For an abandoned ship this is an extremely small amount of water. The ship was in perfect condition and as the a crew member of the Dei Gratia put it, in a fit enough state to sail around the world. Which adds to the mystery…

  15. It was mermaids.. That’s all I can think of. They were lured into the sea by beautiful mermaids, not before guzzling a shit load of alcohol 😉

  16. What happened was the crew all got drunk and started dancing a conga line, so when the bloke at the front fell overboard they all followed him. Simples.

  17. Tis true me hearties that ye shall never know what befell them poor souls, save to say that that the truth is a stranger as long as time is on my side…haha harrr.

  18. Honestly, my theory is that the captain didn’t trust the alcohol and he thought it was going to explode. Seeing as it was found with a lifeboat missing, maybe they sailed away on that and were drowned by a wave. Btw this is only my theory, maybe not very good but I am only 11 :3

  19. I would also like to add some facts to the mix:

    The Amazon (The original name for the Mary Celeste) had a history of calamity
    1) The first master fell ill and died
    2) On her maiden voyage, the ship suffered a large amount of damage in her hull after running into a fishing dam off the sea.
    3) During her first Atlantic voyage, she collided with a two-masted ship in the straits of Dover which sank. She again required repairs.
    4) She then proceeded to run aground on her return voyage to America.
    5) She then went on to change hands between a number of owners. None of these made any profit; some even went bankrupt.
    6) James Winchester, an American, bought her at a New York salvage auction for $3,000 (£1966)
    She then went through further repairs and renovations.
    When she was fully restored, the ship looked utterly unlike to the original ‘The Amazon’.
    Her name was then changed to Mary Celeste.

    Was she cursed? Who knows, maybe one day the mystery will be solved, but in a way, I hope it isn’t; then we loose our story of ‘The Ghost Ship’.

  20. I think the captain became mental , because if anybody drive or do any other work while their sleeping time or the captain calculated a wrong thing , so they escaped using the life boat.

  21. I think the Dei Gratia crew probably killed the crew and tried to claim salvage. But that is without knowing anything about them/if they had been in trouble with the law previously.

    • What a great article, thanks for sharing! It is much better than mine. This was one of the blog’s first articles, back in June of 2011. We sure have come a long way in content and quality, ha! Maybe this story deserves a re-write to the standards we have today. I think there is more information in the comments here than the actual article. 😉

      Cheers, thanks for this share. Great read.

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