The Most Mysterious Maritime Mystery – The Marie Celeste

The Marie Celeste, (in fact, in reality it was called the Mary Celeste), is the greatest maritime mystery of all time. She was built in 1861 by Joshua Dewis in Nova Scotia, Canada and was initially named the Amazon. The Amazon was rather calamitous; her first captain died of pneumonia within a week of taking charge; his replacement struck a fishing trawler, forcing the ship to return to the shipyards for repairs where it subsequently caught fire; on it’s first trans-Atlantic crossing it once again collided with another vessel. In 1867, she ran aground during a storm in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia; it was the final straw, her owners, sick and tired of it’s bungling sold her to James H. Winchester of New York City, who re-named her Mary Celeste. On 5 November 1872, the ship set sail from Staten Island, New York bound for Genoa, Italy under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. She was carrying a cargo of seventeen hundred barrels of commercial alcohol, intended for fortifying Italian wines in Genoa; it was expensive stock with a current evaluation of over half a million dollars. The souls on board the Mary Celeste included the captain and seven crew, the captain’s wife Sarah and their two-year-old daughter Sophia Matilda. All of the crew were very experienced, trustworthy, able and seriously competent, but as it sailed away from the hustle and bustle of New York, it would be the last time that any of the ten were seen again, alive or dead.

Another ship, Dei Gratia, captained by a friend of Captain Briggs of the Marie Celeste departed Staten Island, New York one week later; it was following a similar route to the Marie Celeste across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. On 4 December 1861, the Dei Gratia was some six hundred miles west of the coast of Portugal when the helmsman sighted a ship about five miles off the port bow. The helmsman noticed that the vessel was lurching slightly and that her sails were scattered and torn. The captain of the Dei Gratia directed his vessel to draw up to within four hundred yards of the Marie Celeste, where they observed her for two hours; she was under full sail, erratically following a starboard tack but she was flying no distress signals. The chief mate of the Dei Gratia, Oliver Deveau led a party in a small boat to board the Mary Celeste. What the party discovered was quite astonishing; there was a lot of water between decks and nearly four feet of water in the hold but there was no fear of the ship sinking and was still seaworthy. Yet there was nobody on board, everybody had simply vanished, the only lifeboat, a yawl appeared to have being intentionally launched. What made the empty vessel all the more extraordinary was the fact that everything on the ship was in it’s rightful place and there were no signs of a rushed leaving.

On closer inspection, the event became all the more bizarre; all the ship’s papers with the exception of the captain’s logbook were missing; the clock was not working and the compass was smashed, in addition the sextant and the marine chronometer were missing. Compounding the mystery – there had being no attempt to weigh the anchor, roll up the canvas or tie the steering wheel – all contributing to the ship’s wild drifting. Mysteriously, the peak halyard, which is used to hoist the main sail, was found tied to the ship, with the other end, terribly frayed, trailing in the water behind. Deveau’s party inspected the ship’s cargo, finding it to be completely intact; however, when it was eventually unloaded in Genoa, nine barrels were found to be empty but there was no evidence of a leak. Also, no protective clothing or raingear had being taken off the ship onto the yawl; nor had any of the six month provisions of food and clean, fresh water. Initial solutions offered, thought that the Marie Celeste had been the victim of a piracy raid but the cargo had not being touched nor had the crew’s personal valuables, making such an attack seem very unlikely. On closer inspection of the ship, things were discovered that indicated that the ship had been vacated in a hurry; such as an untidy mess in the captain’s quarters and unfinished calculations in the First Mate’s quarters. Unfortunately, the captain’s log only added to the puzzle as there was no mention of any bad weather or any unforeseen events, the last entry was dated 24 November and placed her one hundred miles west of the Azores. In addition to the captain’s log, the ship’s slate showed that the Marie Celeste had reached the island of Santa Maria in the Azores on the morning of the 25 November.

So the Marie Celeste was in good shape and seaworthy, yet the crew had abandoned her in a hurry but there was no sign of a piracy raid, a mutiny or any kind of struggle nor was any severe weather reported. None of the crew or passengers were ever found, neither was the yawl. The mysterious ship was sailed to Gibraltar by the Chief Mate of the Dei Gratia, where an investigation was conducted by the Vice Admiralty Court. Marine experts trawled the vessel and discovered what was believed to be a few spots of blood in the captain’s cabin, where they also found a cutlass and a knife. They also discovered a deep gash on the ship’s railing that they deduced was caused by a blunt object or perhaps an axe. However, the Consul of the United States in Gibraltar also conducted an investigation and stated that the gash was caused by mere wear and tear and they deciphered the ‘blood’ markings as simply rust. The crew of the Dei Gratia, fell under suspicion, the insurance company only paid out one-sixth of what the ship and cargo had been insured for. The cargo, heavily insured, was sailed to Genoa, minus the nine missing barrels mentioned above. James H. Winchester received back his seemingly cursed ship, he considered selling it but relented and put it to work again, it was a decision that he would live to regret. Tragically, the ship was involved in another accident, off the Massachusetts coast in which Winchester’s father lost his life. The ship was a horror show.

James Winchester was appalled with the cursed ship, selling it immediately at an enormous loss. But the curse on the ship continued, it changed hands an unbelievable seventeen times in the following thirteen years. The beleaguered ship was in terrible shape when it ended up in the hands of GC Parker who deliberately wrecked it in the Caribbean Sea in an insurance fraud on 3 January 1885, thus ending the Marie Celeste’s twenty-four hideous years. But she was to get the last laugh; Parker had loaded the ship with an over-insured cargo of scrap but she refused to sink, running aground on a reef just off the western coast of Haiti. The crew attempted to burn her, but as stubborn as ever she refused to burn. The fraud was revealed and Parker was flung in jail, the ship went in her own time, slowly falling off the reef and sinking. Was that the end of the story? Was it heck? For decades people have puzzled over what could have taken place on the Marie Celeste’s maiden voyage. Many propose that an act of piracy must have taken place but there was no sign of an attack or even a struggle onboard and in addition there had been no act of piracy in the area of the Azores for decades. Others have maintained that the crew of the rescue ship, Dei Gratia, must have had a hand in the crew and passengers disappearance. But again there was no sign of an attack, the captain’s of the two ships were good friends and all investigations praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their exemplary seamanship throughout the affair. So have you any better ideas as to what happened? Check out Part Six of this tale to read some of the more thoughtful and outlandish reasons as to what may have happened.

The fact that the captains of the two ships, Marie Celeste and Dei Gratia were good friends has led many to speculate that they may have been in cahoots in an insurance scam. However, the profit on such an enterprise would have been very modest, too modest one would think to stage such an elaborate ruse. Some assert the theory of a storm but the weather had been favourable and even if they had hit a freak storm, why would they depart a seaworthy ship in favour of a tiny yawl and indeed take no protective gear? Another theory that is proposed is that the ship may have encountered a tremor from a minor earthquake that may have opened the barrels of alcohol, the crew panicked and abandoned ship, later trying to catch up with the ship and failing to do so. But this is a rather dodgy theory because why would they have not weighed anchor or set the helm? Also, although the area is susceptible to seismic activity, there were no reports of any activity at that time in the area. A logical theory put forward is that the ship encountered a waterspout, which creates a tornado-like effect, the water surrounding the ship may have been sucked up, creating the impression to the crew that the ship was sinking. Hence mass panic and they abandoned ship. Perhaps. Another possible theory, is that the alcohol leaked, the fumes and resultant steam caused the crew to abandon the ship in a hurry as they feared an explosion, they tied a rope to the ship and dragged along it for awhile to observe the ship and see what may occur. So it could have been merely a safety precaution, hence the lack of provisions taken onboard the yawl, but the rope broke and they were marooned. Possible, though I guess we will never know the exact truth.

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