The Mary Celeste - Facts not fiction

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The Mary Celeste

Some thoughts on the mystery

Looking at the facts, there is an obvious explanation:-
For some reason the Captain and crew panicked and took to the ships boat. This could have been due to a mistake in sounding the pump and thinking she was sinking, or bearing in mind the nature of the cargo, there may have been an small explosion or rumbling in the hold. We do know that when the cargo was finally unloaded in Genoa nine barrels were found to be empty. This level of shrinkage was considered normal, and differences in the wood used to make the barrels could account for leaks.

The records state there was a lifeboat, it is likely for good reasons Briggs ordered his men to abandon ship. He snatched up his navigational instruments, and in great haste everyone took to the boat. It may be significant that the main halyard, a stout rope three inches in circumference, was found broken and hanging over the side.

This is detailed in the cross examination of Augustus Anderson in the Admiralty inquiry where he states "there were ropes hanging over the side". If the captain and others were trailing behind the ship, waiting to see if she exploded, perhaps suddenly the wind took off snapped the rope. This might sink the small boat, but even if it did not, it would have been difficult to keep afloat in bad weather and make land.

weather The records of the Servico Metrologico in the Azores says that the weather deteriorated that morning and a storm blew up involving gale force winds and torrential rain. The Captain of the "Dei Gratia" says in his sworn record that the weather had been blowing very hard for seven or eight days previous and had only moderated in the morning of the 4th.

A sign outside the Gibraltar Court
The Gibraltar Court today

So that left the poor people from the 'Mary Celeste' crowded into a tiny boat at the mercy of the Atlantic, in heavy seas. Perhaps the same violent rains quietened down a fire in the cargo and the final story is that Captain Briggs got it wrong, and paid the ultimate price along with his wife, child and crew.

Another theory suggested that there was a mutiny, however, this was a short voyage, a small professional crew, a respected and experienced Captain and first officer. It seems unlikely that this was the cause.

The poor "Mary Celeste" did not enjoy a good fate either, she became regarded as a ship seamen, and owners, wished to avoid. She changed hands frequently. Twelve years later she sailed from Boston with a mixed cargo and was wrecked off the coast of Haiti apparently by her subsequent owners to cash in on her insurance.

But her history is probably typical of ships of the era. She started life as the "Amazon" and arrived practically a wreck in New York in 1868. She was sold in a public auction for $10,000 and arrested in Boston. From Boston she sailed to New York and was re-fitted at a total cost of $11,500 before she sailed into her fate in the history books.

To put the whole thing in perspective, when the court in Gibraltar had settled this matter (they were more concerned in ownership of the Vessel and the cargo, rather than solving any mystery) their next case was the forgotten derelict Vessel "The Latin".

Neither was the "Mary Celeste" the only vessel found abandoned, in April 1849 the Dutch Schooner 'Hermania' was found dismasted but otherwise sound, with the Captain, his wife, child and crew missing, and in February 1855 the 'Marathon' was found in perfect order abandoned.

Why this site was created in 2001

My interest started when I came across a transcript of the court inquiry. Reading the facts there demonstrated to me that much of what we think we know about something, may be things made up after the event.

My account was written in 1995 for an online Bulletin Board System (BBS) download file, so when the Web arrived, it seemed a good idea to create a website. This is the fourth website created on this domain about the mystery.

As a result or earlier sites I have received a lot of correspondence from interested parties, aquired more information, and been sent pictures.

Two television companies have contacted me about making programmes about the mystery, and I assisted presenting a documentary about the "Mary Celeste" for TV3 France.

Old and new theories

The Bermuda Triangle

Looking at the theories, it is worth pointing out how unlikely some are. The Bermuda Triangle is far, far away from the ship's route. There were no submarines or sea monsters reported active in the area, and the aliens that visited me last week from the planet Zog assured me they were NOT involved. A Dr Who episode suggested it was the work of the Daleks but they can't swim or climb ropes.

It was a short voyage, with a good captain and first officer, a cook and four professional seamen, who were there by choice. A mutiny is, therefore, not likely. The cargo was not of high value or one that could be disposed of easily, and under the circumstances it is unlikely that an insurance fraud was involved.

If the food on board was contaminated, this would have been quickly discovered, as it was eaten by the new crew and the onward voyage to Genoa was uneventful.

A Monster of the Deep

A sea monster

A popular theory at the time was that a giant squid, octopus, kraken or other large sea-creature attacked the ship and snatched off all its crew and passengers and devoured them.

It was not until 2020 that we find reports of Orcas attacking yachts and whilst some are large enough to have scared sailors, the ships lifeboat was missing. If attacked by a large creature it seems unlikely they would abandoned the relative safety of the vessel for a small boat.

The modern attacks are centered on the Stait of Gibraltar and Gulf of Cadiz and involve damage to the steering gear. There was no evidence of this in the case of the "Mary Celeste".

Taking on water and cargo problems

A theory at the time of the inquiry was that the Captain and crew may have abandoned ship because they thought she was about to sink. The court considered that an error in sounding the pump may have indicated she was taking on water, or the cargo being flammable and explosive may have frightened them.

Captain Briggs had never carried alcohol before, and may have been nervous about doing so, being an abstainer. It should be stressed, however, that the alcohol carried was of a strength and type that would not be palatable to drink. Some books falsly claim it was 'denatured alcohol' this is clearly nonsense. The cargo was Spirit shipped for the purpose of fortifying wine. The practice of denaturing ethanol by adding methanol started in 1905.

Having personally made and tasted similar ethanol, its ability to explode exceeds its properties as an enjoyable beverage.

The empty alcohol barrels

Barrels for storing alcohol
When the ship was unloaded, the cargo was found to contain nine empty barrels. According to Brian Dunning's well researched Skeptoid Podcast #289 December 20th, 2011 the explanation is as follows:

The reason they were empty would have been clear to any cooper. All of those many barrels were of white oak, except for those nine, which were of red oak. Of the species of wood sold as white oak, the majority have occluded pores. This makes the wood watertight, which is why white oak is used for wine barrels and other barrels intended to hold liquid. The pores in the wood of the twenty or so species of red oak, on the other hand, are open; allowing liquids to seep through the wood. Consequently, red oak barrels should only be used for dry goods. But, for some reason, Meissner Ackermann & Co. (owner of the alcohol) used nine of the wrong type of barrel.

The Seaquake Theory

An interesting explanation is that of Captain Williams an expert in the effects of Seaquakes - He had a lot of information, and a very well presented website, which is currently offline.

A seismic event may not be such a new idea, as in a letter from the Servico Meteorologico Açores in reply to an inquiry from Charles Edey Fay, they conclude "There was no record of any earthquake." so this question must have been considered, and rejected in 1942.

BBC Radio Four play

BBC Radio Four

A friend gave me a tape of a dramatisation of the story, based on a recent book, produced by BBC Radio 4.

The BBC dramatisation does not do justice to either Captain Briggs, or the Captain and crew of the 'Dei Gratia'. It is poorly researched and inaccurate in a number of details - for instance it states the alcohol cargo was for "the manufacture of paint". It also suggests that the Court in Gibraltar believed foul play had taken place. Mr Frederick Solly Flood, clearly believed that, but the court did not. Indeed the court record concludes:-

"There was a great courage and risk to both vessels in dividing the crew of the Dei Gratia as was done and great skill in bringing the two vessels safely into the Port of Gibraltar"

It is, however, true that Flood (a man more familiar with drink than Captain Briggs), said in the inquiry that he believed that alcohol and a "Drunken Crew" were responsible. There is no evidence for this whatsoever.

Books about the "Mary Celeste"

Charles Fay's book

A search at the online bookseller Amazon - which by co-incidence bears the same name as the original vessel - indicates there are a considerable number of books around on the subject.

The definitive book on the subject is by Charles Edey Fay. I have the first edition from 1942. It was reprinted 1988 and his theory is very plausible.

It certainly is the source anyone seriously interested should read. If you buy a book about the mystery, make it this one. It is packed with facts, cites its sources, and debunks many myths.

The appendix shows a wide range of supporting documents, including the Gibraltar Divers Report and the analysis of the supposed 'blood stains' by Doctor Patron.

My original account is not based on any book, but instead on the court record. I have extracts from a number of accounts printed in various books and magazines, and have received a lot of additional material as a result of this website.

Regrettably many writers simply repeat what others have written, and invent "evidence". It is always better to base ones views on original verifiable material. Fay was an insurance investigator and did a thorough job.

Site of the wreck of the vessel found

Clive Cusslers book

The 'Mary Celeste' was deliberately wrecked on January 3, 1885, when it sank after striking Rochelais Reef off the northern coast of Haiti near Gonave Island. In August 2001 it was reported that the wreck was located by Clive Cussler and his National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) who have discovered 75 shipwrecks- this has renewed popular and media interest in the story.

Subsequently doubt has been cast on this particular find as the wood of the wreck is not consistent with the age of the "Mary Celeste".

A strange matter of time

A reader has drawn my attention to the difference in dates given for when 'Mary Celeste' and the 'Dei Gratia' met mid ocean. The explanation is down to a Matter of Time. It was also reported that the hands on the ships clock were reversed. However this was due to it being dismantled for cleaning after the discovery of the abandoned ship.

UK Channel Five documentary 2006

Channel 5 UK television

UK Channel Five aired a documentary about the Mary Celeste in their 'Revealed' series featuring the recreation of an explosion and a reasonable account, but with one glaring error by an 'expert' where he describes the cargo as Methanol. It was certainly not, it was potable alcohol referred to today as Ethanol which is quite different in its physical properties and toxicology, indeed in 1872 Methanol was an exotic chemical produced in tiny quantities and of limited use - certainly was not something added to wine!

It is a reflection on the global economy of the day that it made sense to ship alcohol from the USA to Europe.

Other websites

There seem to be an increasing number of websites about the 'Mary Celeste'. Regrettably some authors of blogs copy and paste content from this site and present it as their own thoughts. Please DO NOT do this, the content here is copyright and DMCA notices will follow.

This website is an ongoing project

The story of the "Mary Celeste" may never be satisfactorily explained, and it seems that is why it retains its enduring fascination. New information and theories continue to come along, books are written and there is a lot of websites about it.

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