The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste

She began life as the Amazon, built from Nova Scotia and registered to a British Company in 1861. During her maiden voyage, Amazon sailed to the nearby Five Islands port in Colchester County to take on a cargo of timer bound for London. Her Captain took ill whilst supervising the loading and after returning him to Spencer’s Island, he died. A new Captain, John Nutting Parker took over the voyage, during which further mishaps occurred, including the vessel hitting fishing equipment, the Amazon made it to London. On the return journey, she hit a Brig and sank it in the English Channel.

After working the trade routes between England, the West Indies and the Mediterranean for six years during which time she had another new Captain, William Thompson, she ran aground in a storm at Cape Breton Island and was abandoned as a wreck. She changed hands several times in the following year before eventually ending up with an American sailor, Richard Haines who bought her and restored her, naming himself Captain and registering her as the Mary Celeste in New York.

Haines was subsequently forced to part with the Mary Celeste, due to financial difficulties, his creditors took her on as a consortium which altered its body a number of times over the following three years. This group of men headed by majority holder James Winchester, with Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs had her repaired, re-fitted and extended in 1872 before setting her to run her first voyage with her new identity from New York to Genoa, with a cargo of poisonous industrial alcohol used in the fortification of wine.

Briggs was a religious man, born and raised in Massachusetts, one of five sons of a sea-faring man. He and three of his brothers would follow their father onto the waves. At 27 years of age, in 1862 he married his cousin Sarah Cobb, with whom he later had two children, Arthur born in 1865 and Sophia born in 1870. He owned a schooner, the ‘Forest King’, but was giving serious thought to settling down to a land-based life with his family. His brother Oliver nursed the same notion, however neither followed it up, and both invested instead into their own business ventures, Benjamin with the Mary Celeste and Oliver with the ‘Julia A. Hallock’.

Mary Celeste departed from New York Harbour on November 5th, 1872 with a general crew of four Germans, Second Mate was a Danish New Yorker and the First Mate, a nephew by marriage of Winchester’s, as well as the steward who also came recommended by Winchester. The crew were also either previously known by Briggs or hand-picked by him for the voyage. Following a delay of two days anchored on Staten Island due to inclement weather, the voyage proper began on November 7th. Also on board were Brigg’s wife Sarah and their young daughter, Sophia. Their son Arthur had remained behind with his grandmother due to his education.

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Benjamin Briggs

The vessel ‘Dei Gratia’, another brigantine followed the Mary Celeste from nearby New Jersey after a period of eight days, heading on a similar route to Genoa, via Gibraltar carrying a cargo of petroleum, captained by David Morehouse, with Mate Oliver Deveau, both highly experienced seamen from Nova Scotia, it is thought Morehouse and Briggs were acquainted with each other. It was later claimed that the two were close friends and dined together the night before Briggs sailed, although this claim has not been backed up with firm evidence and remains anecdotal by way of Morehouse’s widow, fifty years after his own death.

Nothing further is reported until around 1pm December 4th 1872 (Land time), when roughly half-way between the Azores and Portugal, Captain Morehouse on the Dei Gratia came up onto deck and was notified that a vessel was sighted approximately six miles distant sailing somewhat erratically. The Helmsman had been plotting her progress intermittently for some time. Morehouse studied the ship and noted that her sails appeared to be set inappropriately for the wind, causing her hap-hazard course. The Dei Gratia steered course towards the unknown ship as it veered in her direction, and after drawing close signals were raised to hail the ship to no avail, no signs of life were seen on deck and so a yawl was launched with Deveau and John Wright aboard, who rowed across and ascertained it was the Mary Celeste who drew up alongside and attempted to hail the crew. No response was given so they boarded the ship, and after inspection above and below deck realised the ship was empty.

There were no signs of a struggle to indicate piracy or mutiny, the ship was in order save for torn rigging and sails, others remaining unfurled, and the steering set to starboard course. Below deck the belongings of the crew remained stowed although some were gathered about untidily on the floor, and it has been stated that the Captain appeared to have been sitting down to breakfast when he vanished, leaving his eggs untouched. The stove had been moved from its restraints, and the aft hatch cover remained in place, whereas the fore-hatch cover was placed on the deck, beside the opening and the sounding rod, used to measure the depth of any water taken on, was abandoned next to it. In the hold remained the cargo, ruling out theft. The ship’s yawl was missing as were the captain’s navigation equipment and some of the official paperwork, charts and so on. The last entry in the log was for ten days previously and showed no signs of any untoward event. There were enough fresh provisions for a further six months. The glass cover on the ship’s compass was broken, and the interior was wet, with some personal effects scattered around.

It was decided by Captain Morehouse to bring the Mary Celeste in as salvage, to port in Gibraltar, and a third crew member was added to Deveau and Wright who would steer her in behind Dei Gratia. It was arranged that should they become separated as a result of weather or similar set back, that Gibraltar would be the rendezvous point. Although slow going hampered by fog, both vessels, first the Dei Gratia, and then the following day the Mary Celeste reach Gibraltar safely, where an inquest and a salvage court were set in motion.

The Dei Gratia was subsequently afforded a replacement Captain and continued on her voyage to Genoa, whilst Morehouse elected to remain in Gibraltar for the proceedings, and no doubt the salvage payment which was anticipated to be considerable due to both the value of the ship, and the cargo she carried, over 1700 barrels of alcohol. During the court session however, the finger of blame was pointed at several consecutive faces, including Morehouse himself, when it was theorised that the disappearance of the ship’s captain, family and crew were all part of some elaborate insurance plot. He eventually received just £1400 for his troubles, and his good name sullied for the rest of his career.

As to the fate of Briggs and his family and the crew of the Mary Celeste, nothing further was heard. Popular theories have included aliens, ghosts, pirates, mutiny, insurance fraud, an accident involving every person on board and some well-placed hungry sharks, and giant squids. So let’s look at those logically. I’m not even going to elaborate on the visitors from outer space, or the afterlife, as I believe we can rule those out. Pirates would quite possibly have taken the ship or at the very least the majority of the cargo, as well as the many expensive belongings left behind. If the crew had mutinied, they would have remained on board after forcing the others into the small boat; anybody who has read the Bounty will know that a mutiny generally involves offloading the Captain and his supporters whilst the victors get the spoils (or vice-versa!)

A giant squid could easily have picked off the passengers, we could suppose, but it’s quite reasonable to feel it wouldn’t have come back for the boat, the navigation equipment and the charts. If it were an elaborate insurance scheme with Morehouse in on the plan, it would seem unlikely that Briggs would choose to leave his son behind. Cut marks on the deck seem to tie in with a later claim that there was an unlisted crew member aboard, one Abel Fosdyk, whose story involved a temporary platform constructed firstly as a safe play area for baby Sophia, and then later as an observation post for a swimming competition where the audience gathered to watch, when it suddenly collapsed throwing everybody on board into the ocean where they were devoured by waiting sharks who presumably weren’t hungry when the competition was taking place, but got suddenly peckish when the main course arrived. It was later stated that these “cut marks” bore no relevance to the disappearance of the crew, and were more likely a result of the prior refit or caused naturally by conditions at sea.

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Sarah Briggs and Arthur

The final theory is a combination of several ideas, each one singularly possible, or a result of some or all combined, which include a sudden water-spout lifting the ship, causing a wave to cast over taking some or all of the crew and passengers with it, (possibly survivors striking out in the smaller vessel to attempt rescue), or as the result of a sub-marine earthquake which are claimed to be quite common in the Azores although not necessarily reported if not felt on land. Scientists of this theory present that not only was there no way of recording such events in 1872, but that the Island population had no newspapers in which to note it. It is hypothesised that such an episode if occurring just 15km off-shore, the force would be enough to take a ship down, or lift it and spin it without causing much interior upheaval, such as the small number of personal belongings found wet on the floor, and the movement of the stove, and breaking of the compass cover.

There could quite possibly have been an added concern that such an event may well have caused some of the alcohol to leak rapidly (nine barrels were later discovered to be empty) and fumes to escape, (two hatches were open) mixing with the water in the hold, which was unable to be pumped as the bilge pump was inoperable. If a miscalculation were made as to the depth of the water, and with the possibility that the fumes could spark from the stray ashes from the stove, this could lead the captain to believe the ship was under threat of explosion or sinking, and so abandoning ship was a precaution.

It is felt that should this be the truth of the events, it may be reasonable to suggest that they had every intention of re-boarding the vessel when the situation was alleviated, however found themselves cast adrift unexpectedly. This theory in part suggests the missing navigation equipment, but lack of provisions, they were only around 6km to 15km from land, it is possible then that the captain presumed to set course for land, but decided against it because of the value of the ship and cargo and instead decided to try and catch her up. The other possibility is that the yawl was lashed to the boat, via the halyard (a large length of rope was missing from the rigging), but an aftershock caused her to overturn or be pulled down like a large anchor, causing her line to be ripped free and drowning everybody on board. Slightly wishy washy, with some holes but any combination of these factors makes the more likely theory than a giant squid preying on a ship.
Sometime after the recovery of the Mary Celeste, she made her way to Genoa, from where she returned in 1873 to New York. Due to the mystery and embellished tales of murder and intrigue which caused the disappearance of the crew, nobody wanted to take her on, and she was left for a time to rot before being sold to a new consortium in 1874. She spent the next five years virtually anonymously sailing a trade route around the West Indies and the Indian Ocean, making a steady loss on her cargoes, before her captain Edgar Tuthill died during one voyage, after his crew put in at St Helena in a vain effort to gain him medical assistance.

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Sophia Briggs

She was sold the following year to a group of businessmen from Boston, was re-registered a number of times and had two further captains in rapid succession. The second Gilman Parker in 1884 hatched a plan to insure a worthless cargo for $30,000 and sail her to Haiti where she was deliberately grounded on a notorious reef, and capsized. Her salvageable cargo was sold for $500 and the buyers subsequently discovered its worthlessness and lodged complaint. An investigation turned up the over-insurance, for which a claim had been entered, and Parker and his co-conspirators were held up on charges for insurance fraud, and for barratry (wilfully casting away a ship), which carried a possible death sentence. To prevent the implications of one charge on the more severe one, the fraud trial was dismissed on condition the monies were repaid. The subsequent barratry trial was deferred and Parker was let free. With his professional career in ruins, and his name tarnished, he died in poverty just three months later. His co-conspirators didn’t fare any better, although being made to repay the fraudulent insurance pay-out, one went mad and another committed suicide.

Oliver Briggs, brother of Benjamin, was lost when his own ship, the Julia A Hallock foundered in a storm off Spain in the Bay of Biscay. Having been carrying a cargo of coal, the dust from which was extremely volatile, Oliver faced a similar decision to that which his brother may well have faced just a few weeks before. On January 8th 1873, he and his first mate, a man named Perry, were the only survivors as the Julia A Hallock sank. Clinging to a piece of wreckage, they remained afloat until four days later when the wreckage was discovered by another ship. Perry was alone on the piece of wood. Oliver had given up and sank beneath the waves just two hours before rescue. Perry later tried to visit Sophia Briggs, mother of Oliver and Benjamin, who had yet remained hopeful that her other son and his family would be found alive. He wanted to tell her how brave her son had been, trying to save his crew. She was however too consumed with grief, and asked him not to come.

As to the fate of the missing party from the Mary Celeste, well four months after Oliver’s death, and six months after the mysterious disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste, in May 1873 two lashed together rafts were spotted off-shore of Spain. When they were recovered, one carried a body of someone either wrapped in an American flag or not wrapped and the flag was flying. The flag from the Mary Celeste was not found on board. The other raft contained five (or four, depending on source) more heavily decomposing bodies. These remains were never formerly identified but have been given to believe could have been some of the missing Mary Celeste party. Attention to details such as sex and age of the persons appears not to be noted due to extent of decomposition. Their subsequent whereabouts regarding burial and so forth is not mentioned in normal channels. A memorial to the ship stands in Nova Scotia where her hull was originally laid.

Phoebe