Mary Celeste: The Mystery Explained
This episode looks at one of the greatest of all maritime mysteries – the extraordinary tale of the Mary Celeste.
On 4 December 1872, in the middle of the Atlantic near the Azores, the brigantine Dei Gratia chanced upon another brigantine. She was under sail but entirely silent, and it soon becomes clear that she was entirely deserted. She was called Mary Celeste.
Ever since – for over 150 years – the mystery of why the Mary Celeste was abandoned and what happened to the ten souls on board has spawned thousands of conjectures, conspiracy theories, fictions and fantasies; mostly myths made from fractured truths.
To find out more – and in a bid finally to unpick the myth from the reality, Dr Sam Willis spoke with maritime historian Graham Faiella, author of The Mysterious Case of the Mary Celeste: 150 Years of Myth and Mystique . They discuss her story from beginning to end – from her construction in the Bay of Fundy, through her life as a merchant ship, on to her final fateful voyage, and then to the remarkable enquiry that took place in Gibraltar, as British maritime authorities were the first to embrace the challenge of trying to understand what happened.
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From The Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. We begin with great news that the Mariners Mirror podcast has been nominated for an award as part of the Maritime Media Awards for 2023. Yes, we have been nominated for the Babcock International First Sea Lord’s Award for best use of digital media; I actually think that they should win an award for having an award with the longest title. Anyway we have been nominated, no doubt for the fact that we’ve only been going a short time but already have enjoyed 300,000 audio downloads, and several significant hits with our clever video and animation production, including an animation of a curious 19th century propeller design that’s been seen 4.2 million times on Instagram. But enough of our past glories because today we’re looking into one of the greatest of all maritime mysteries, the extraordinary tale of the Mary Celeste. For those of you who don’t know the story, well, you probably know the name and the outline of the facts that in the winter of 1872 the Brigantine Dei Gratia chances upon another Brigantine in the middle of the Atlantic near the Azores. She is the Mary Celeste, she’s under sail, but she is silent, and it soon becomes clear that in fact she is entirely deserted. Ever since for over 150 years the mystery of why the Mary Celeste was abandoned and what happened to the 10 souls on board has spawned thousands of conjectures, conspiracy theories, fictions and fantasies, mostly myths made from fractured truths. To find out more and in a desperate bid to unpick the myth from the reality I spoke with the historian Graham Faiella, a man who has written nothing short of a library of maritime books, including The Mysterious Case Of The Mary Celeste, 150 years of myth and mystique. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. He is a man who really does have salt in his veins, it’s the fantastic maritime mythbuster, here’s Graham.
Graham, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.
Well, thanks very much for the invitation Sam, it’s a great pleasure.
It’s such a wonderful story, the Mary Celeste, do you remember how you first heard about it or is it something that’s always been around your historical consciousness?
Well, I’ve been writing about seafaring and ships and the sea, and in particular the stories of ships and the people who sailed in them, and whether they’re actual professional seafarers or otherwise, for a long time. The Mary Celeste wasn’t really on my radar, I mean I’ve known about it as a sort of metaphor really for a ghost ship, but the details of it I wasn’t absolutely clear about. But the way I came to it in this regard to writing a book about it was that I was commissioned, or invited to write about it, by a commissioning editor at the History Press publishers, Amy Rigg. And I first said, oh, I’m not sure about that, because it’s not really something that I was one hundred percent interested in as such, but I did say I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, if someone wants me to write a book about it and get royalties that was fine with me, especially if it’s my general sort of bailiwick. So I looked into and it was far more interesting than I actually suspected. I mean up until a few years ago, or even less I would suspect, I thought it was the Marie Celeste, and I would guess that ninety percent of people still think of it as the Marie Celeste. And how it became the Marie Celeste from original Mary Celeste is an interesting story in itself. But I came to it with a fairly blank slate really, because I didn’t know the details. But the whole story of the Mary Celeste, this is what to me always makes a good narrative, it’s a good story. There’s no question about it, whatever kind of book you write, whatever kind of picture you paint, there has to be a story that makes sense, there’s a coherency about it, and an interest and something that grips you. And to me the great story about the Mary Celeste was actually more about what sprung up after the discovery of the Mary Celeste and the Court of Inquiry at Gibraltar and all of the myths and fake news. And this is what I found interesting and so pertinent about it in a very universal way, ie, the search for the truth about this mystery. And if you take off of this mystery the search for the truth, and how that search over the ,decades became so bowdlerised and barnacled and misshapen, so what we see today is fake news, alternative facts, no matter how obnoxious they might seem and contemporary, is now a news story.
Yes, absolutely, I mean, it’s a wonderful way of thinking about it. We all know what happens at the end of the story. Let’s start I think about a general context of 19th century seafaring, because you make a point very early on that it wasn’t unusual to find an abandoned ship, and I think that will surprise a lot of people. So will you talk to us a little about seafaring in the 19th century and the Wild West of the sea?
Yes, the thing is in the 19th century there were an awful lot of what were called derelicts, just derelicts that drifted around
Ships that were adrift.
Ships that were adrift and generally speaking unmanned or abandoned in one way or another, and the only thing on them was often a dog or something on the poop deck or whatever. But they were abandoned for reasons generally speaking of weather or collision with another vessel or something like that, or any number of perils of the sea. And usually they drifted around literally in their hundreds; there are tabulations by Lloyds, who do all the shipping information each year, how many derelicts were found. So those are the number of derelicts found, and they are two to three hundred and this by the way is mainly in the North Atlantic. We don’t get an awful lot in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, mainly because they weren’t so densely trafficked in that time. There was a lot of shipping going on but the North Atlantic was the scene where you often found derelicts at se for one reason or another. But the difference with the Mary Celeste is that they were often left to wander, there’s no reason to take them in as a prize, to make a salvage claim, because they were usually so dilapidated, half underwater; if they were wooden ships, for example, dismasted, they were usually when you say derelict, they were a wreck you know.
And a danger to other shipping, though.
They were very lucky actually in the North Sea. There are many occasions when ships that were found derelict were sunk by whatever ship discovered them, put out of action. Some said that they wouldn’t be a danger to shipping. The North Atlantic is a little bit different because it’s a big place. They were still a danger to shipping; there have been instances of ships drifting back and forth across the North Atlantic two or three times. There’s a famous one, the Mary Walston which was found in probably the Western Atlantic, she drifted around. And of course in the Atlantic you have that gyre of currents and making go around basically centred on the Sargasso Sea, around and around. Mary Walston, I think I got the name right, went aground eventually after three years on the coast of Scotland, I think it was, so there were a lot of ships drifting around.
Yes. And the question obviously stands out as to why did the Mary Celeste become famous, but we’re not going to answer that immediately. Let’s go back to the beginning. Talk a little about her construction and where the Mary Celeste was born.
Right? Well she wasn’t the Mary Celeste when she was built, she was the Amazon. And she was built in the Bay of Fundy upon the mainland side, Spencer’s Island, which is a nothing place at the time. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was built by a young guy who wanted this ship building, and he built the Amazon. She’s 198 tons or something, 200 foot long thereabouts, ie. a very typical Canadian maritime type of vessel which will trade around the coast and this and that. But she had something that as I said in the book became quite an interesting aspect of her at the time. This was in 1861, so mid mid 1800s. She was a Brigantine rig, ie. square rigged on the foremast and fore and aft rig with a gaff mainsail on the main mast. In those days, the square sails on sailing ships in general, the second sail up on any mast was the topsail; they were usually single topails, major big sails. The only bigger sail was the mainsail really or the big sail below it. But they were big, and they were really hard to handle when men had to go up on the yard arms and all the sails then to furl them when they needed to be taken in. I mean they were a devil, especially if you’re in some very inhospitable place. And usually when you had haul in the topsail it was a very inhospitable circumstance. So towards the later years of the 19th century, the single topsail was split into two smaller upper and lower topsails, and this had a bearing on the Mary Celeste when she was found because one of those was all in tatters, and the other one was set up to a point. So she was a single topsail Brigantine, and she did her trading right across the Atlantic, very very typical sort of nondescript type of vessel, not a greyhound of the sea. She carried cargo, lumber, timber, whatever cargo effectively that she would be able to find around the Maritime Provinces. But of course, the first image of her was actually painted in November, I think it was, 1861, at Marseilles, so she was doing transatlantic crossings. And then typically they would sail down to the Caribbean, possibly northern South American ports. But there were hundreds of them, and they were the workhorse of the merchant marine at the time.
So we’ve got lots of lots of ships like her and also lots and lots of derelicts adrift in the North Atlantic. So nothing we’ve discovered so far explains why she suddenly became so famous. Let’s talk about her final voyage. What do we know about her captain and her crew?
Well, what we know and what was really one of the worst aspects about the later mythology was the captain in particular, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, who was a Yankee ship master, and he’d been a sea captain for quite some time anyway. And he was from a background of a God fearing Yankee family near Cape Cod, south of Cape Cod, on the Massachusetts shore, and as was the principle at the the time he wrote into the Articles of Agreement, the Ship’s Articles to contract the crew, no grog allowed on board, he was a teetotaller, and so that was significant. Because, again, other fake news about how the Mary Celeste came to be abandoned later on with him or his wife, which is not atypical at the time. And by the way, this was the first time that Captain Briggs had sailed in the Mary Celeste, he was a part owner of it when he was given, I think, a third of the shares in her by the owner, Winchester, who had by then become become the owner of the ship, and by the way she had become re- registered as American flagged only a few years beforehand. He took her over, reworked the ship, put another deck on, increased tonnage slightly from 198 to about 280 tons, the capacity of the hold was increased, and so on. So the crew that he picked, he had his wife, and two year old daughter on board, the other seven year old son that he did not want to take because they wanted to him to continue with schooling. But it wasn’t terribly unusual to have your spouse with you; by spouse I mean wife. Because I don’t know of any sailing ship captain who was a woman in those times. Certainly there are other important figures. But anyway, so himself, his wife, his three year old daughter, and then seven crewmen. Again, the fact that his wife and daughter were on board, he would have picked them very carefully. They would not have been the rowdy virtual homicidal maniacs that a lot of people portray, yes, quite a lot of people portrayed afterwards in various myths about what happened. So he was careful to pick good seamen; his first mate he knew very well, he’d sailed and in fact had skippered a ship before so he was punctilious about the good character of his crew, four of whom were Prussian German, I’m not sure if they were Americanized or not, this would have been in New York City by the way, in October of 1872. But in the press later on, the fact that they were Prussian German, bearing in mind that Germany didn’t exist at the time, was a xenophobic sort of reaction, and a calumny on part of the crew, and their supposed disposition to malfeasance so they say. Anyway, he got onboard, what he said and what his wife said when she wrote home about when they were leaving, so we’ve got a pretty good set here. And they did and they were a pretty good set, they were a very good set, because in some crews, on some other ships, in Yankee ships in particular at that time, they were not a good set. You know, they were people, except for the officers, the deckhands were people picked up from God knows where, press ganged into service and all this sort of thing. So he had I’d say a good sea going and seafaring set of people under him. He took with the cargo 1701 casks of alcohol. It’s important to remember that this alcohol is an industrial type of alcohol, which was intended for use in fortifying wines, in Italian wines in particular, it was not something that you just cracked open the cask and had a good drink of because
because you’d go blind
you know, you’d be crazy. So that was important as well. Anyway, they set off on the seventh of November 1872, after a few days hesitation ,with ten souls on board as they call them on a ship. They set off from New York City harbour on the seventh of November 1872 across to the Straits of Gibraltar for discharge of the 1701 casks of alcohol at the destination of Genoa; after that nothing is heard of her because there’s no way to communicate with any vessel at sea at that time, telegraphy was not a shipping thing; even though it had been in use over land, it wasn’t introduced on ships until the early 20th century years. So she took a month or so getting across the North Atlantic; it was said to have been a particularly turbulent year for stormy weather over the North Atlantic. Well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Shipowners, Shipmasters, were used to that, it was their bread and butter. If they couldn’t deal with the heavy weather across the North Atlantic, it could well be turbulent, they’d be going around Cape Horn, the Southern Ocean, this wasn’t something that is going to bother them. If it did
Literally their jobs, coping with that was how they made their money and survived.
Yes, And so anyway nothing was heard from the fourth of December 1872 until another Brigantine, approximately the same size, a little bit bigger than the Mary Celeste, which had set out from New York City a week later on the 15th of November of that year, came across this abandoned derelict ship sailing roughly halfway between the Azores and Portugal. Captain Morehouse and his mate Oliver Deveau looked through the spyglass and said what’s up with that ship . She’s sailing erratically and bearing in mind that she was headed for the Straits of Gibraltar, ie.roughly southeast on that route and in that location, she would have been about southeast, but she was heading west, back to where she had come, erratically in a rather drunken course. So they went aboard; Captain Morehouse sent three men in a boat, two of which went aboard, mate Oliver Deveau and another seaman to look her over, sail was up and they found, to summarise very briefly, they found a ship that although she had three and a half feet of water in her holds and in the bilges, which wasn’t a lot, the ship that found her, the Dei Gratia, it was said she had made more water in the bilges than the Mary Celeste had.
That’s a great fact.
Basically, a few sails were tattered but she unlike other myths in the future that said she was under sail, she was this and that, she was not under full sail, her gaff mainsail was down unfurled on the boom, she had a few foresails up, some were down not furled, anyway down, and a few sails on her foremast were still intact. So she looked like she’d been through a little bit of a battle but she was still sailing and with a loose rudder, ie the helm up, she could swing this way and that way with the winds and currents which is why she is sailing erratically. They went aboard, made a little audit of her and Captain Morehouse said look, let’s take her to Gibralter, we’ll claim her as a salvage and see what kind of monetary prize award we can get there, because by the way, she was actually headed to Gibraltar for orders ie to discharge her cargo of petroleum which she had in casks and barrels which was the usual way to carry that cargo at that time. Anyway,
But the cargo was intact, the Mary Celeste cargo was still intact, but no people.
Oliver Deveau when he testified that cargo was uncut, she was intact, there’s nothing untoward about it. He could see nothing that had been disturbed about it, which was very important. And the only unusual thing was that the hatch cover on the fore hatch, which was a hatch going down to the cargo hold, was open and left lying on the deck beside the hatch. Also the lazarette hatch at the stern of the ship was open, and the hatch cover there was lying on the deck as well. And those factors would be important in trying to surmise what had actually caused the abandonment of the vessel. So Morehouse put three of his men on, and by the way, obviously they didn’t find anyone, neither hide nor hare, on the Mary Celeste. So she was what people called a ghost ship. Well, ghost ship whatever, she was a derelict really. But what was the key was that she was seaworthy, she wasn’t holed or dismasted, raggedy running rigging lying over the sides and so on. But it took Deveau and his men, two other men, a couple of days to put her in order; the binnacle which held the compass in front of the steering wheel was knocked over for no reason that anyone could discover. Odd sort of arrangement with the binnacle, as a small aside, is that binnacles are usually bolted to the deck. . Yes, that binnacle was actually apparently lashed out on cleats to the deck with lashings. I found that rather odd, I’ve never heard of that before. To me, it suggested that maybe she had been bolted, which would have been the usual thing, and lashed back as a makeshift. So the thing anyway was that he put her in good order, Deveau did, sailed in tandem with the Dei Gratia, the ship that found her, towards Gibraltar. And a lot of later story said oh, the Dei Gratia took her in tow. Well, can you imagine a Brigantine of roughly the same size as the ship that you found, the derelict, trying to tow a 280 ton vessel under sail. I mean, they would have been there by maybe the following year; anyway so they both sailed together. And the Dei Gratia got into Gibraltar on the 12th of December. Oh, by the way, this is the fourth of December, so she took eight days to get there till 12th of December. And the Mary Celeste arrived a day later because she had to shelter on the North African coast because of bad weather in the Straits of Gibraltar. Anyway, she arrived on Friday the 13th of December, not a very great date to arrive. Immediately arrested because the shipowners of the Dei Gratia put in a claim for salvage, and under those conditions a request or demand was made. The ship that is being investigated or claimed is arrested to detain her at the port as a matter of principle. The Court of Inquiry was set up in the Law Courts of Gibraltar. Gibraltar was the first place that they’d put into, so that was where the Court of Inquiry was held. It was established and started on the 18th of December under Judge Cochran, who was a Nova Scotian born, and he was the Judge of the Court because he happened to be there, they didn’t import him from Nova Scotia. The interesting characters of the Court of Inquiry, the figurehead of them was the Queen’s Proctor, Frederick Solly- Flood, who was as interesting a character as you could hope to have. And I don’t want to go into his history because it’s in the book, and it’s the longest history. But he ended up in Gibraltar as the Attorney General because he was effectively a failed barrister from the UK. He was of Irish parentage, but an Englishman born of a fishmonger in London. But he became a barrister, jailed because he had gambling debts, had to sell his legal business and move to Gibraltar, and eventually became the Attorney General, and he was the lead prosecutor. This is called an Admiralty or Vice Admiralty Court of Inquiry, which is a civil court under Queen Victoria’s auspices. Proctor, which is what Solly-Flood’s title was, Queen’s Proctor; a Proctor was the lawyer or lead prosecutor in shipping and ecclesiastical courts at the time. Again, maritime legal things are not my forte, and I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but at the time that’s what the term was. And he was the one who prosecuted it to expose any defects in the claimants claims for salvage reward.
Right. Yes. And what did they discover? What what do they think happened?
Solly-Flood was a colourful character, but he was what a lot of people have described as a rather jumped up panjandrum, arrogant little and very curious individual. I think he thought more of himself than his self actually warranted
When he saw the words and heard that through investigations the surveys on the Mary Celeste at Gibraltar had discovered things like marks that look like hatchet marks on the rails or blood on the deck, of bloody sword spalling which is splintering of the boards, either side of the stem of the of the ship, spalling being coming loose, which is quite common in those times when wooden ships butt into heavy weather. Anyway, his assumption, and in fact forever after, he believed that there had been violence, affray, that caused the Mary Celeste to be abandoned, and specifically that members of this very upstanding and righteous crew, and probably most particularly the Prussian German deckhands, had got at the alcohol, got raging drunk, took over the officers and murdered the captain, his wife, his child and the crew, jumped ship and waited basically for any passing vessel to take them away. Solly- Flood’s contention, which was in the Court of Inquiry, was never substantiated by evidence. And I’m hearing echoes of a lot of very contemporary things at the moment. His contention, that was never substantiated, was that the violence afoot, perpetrated by members of the crew that had left her abandoned because they’ve murdered everybody on board, essentially, that was his case. Further investigations on surveys of the vessel showed that the blood on the deck was not blood, it could not be, there was nothing blood about it, it’s probably rust. There’s a sword on board that he thought oh, he saw the blood, thought it was besmeared with blood. It was rusting for God’s sake, it had been on board for years. And so it went on from 18th of December until the fifth of March. Oliver Devoe, first mate of the Dei Gratia and the one who skippered the ship Mary Celeste into Gibraltar was called three times to the inquiry. But he had to be called back from Genoa because the Dei Gratia actually was released from being kept there for sail to her destination, she would have been running up costs.
Did he have a kind of calmer interpretation of what happened?
Well, the captain of the Dei Gratia was David Morehouse, he didn’t play that much of a role, he was interviewed just before the Court of Enquiry. It was Oliver Deveau, who was the first mate, who actually provided the clearest, most unassailable audit as a first hand witness of what he saw when he went on the Mary Celeste on the fourth of December, and having sailed her to Gibraltar for that matter. So he knew the ship and he was, as I say, an upright sort of seaman. He wouldn’t have become first mate or taking command of a ship, as he had in the past anyway, if he hadn’t been really. None of his crew who testified were other than what we would call reliable witnesses really. Captain Morehouse, contrary to a lot of stories in the future with an account of the Dei Gratia, never set foot on the Mary Celeste while she was at sea, it was just Deveau and two of the deck hands who sailed as ordinary seaman, who went on board her,and then the ones who took her to Gibraltar. We don’t know all the names of the crew of the Dei Gratia, by the way; there were ten in number, the same as the Mary Celeste, although we only know the names of Deveau and three or four of the crew, Captain Morehouse and the three or four of the ordinary seaman who gave evidence at the inquiry. So his view of what the ship was like, he had no axe to grind, all he was doing was giving his first hand account of what he saw. It was empirical observed evidence which he had no reason to make anything other than what it was.
Yes. So I mean, the whole mystery is then how did this become so inflated and how has it’s fame survived?
Yes, I’ve often thought about that because there were a lot of derelicts but not that many were brought in as salvage claims. For one thing, a lot of them were just left to drift or sink, and not that many were brought in for salvage claims. But the other thing was that it was very unusual to find the ship under sail abandoned. But what made it significant too was that she was under her own power as it were, sail, under saii with no one on board. And the fact that she was sailing even in a derelict condition with no one on board made it more curious. The other fact that made it more curious is that the Court of Inquiry at Gibraltar was extensively reported by the local press and Lloyds of London, Lloyd’s List, and Shipping and Mercantile Gazette and other shipping information as well. So it was quite common news at the time, and bearing in mind also that people in those days were more interested in shipping, generally speaking than they are today today, because they were so much closer to that sort of business.
It’s part of everyone’s life.
I think the other thing is that the details of the case were so blown up, and the fact that there was the possibility that someone had murdered, that a crew had murdered the rest of the ship’s people. And then that sort of drama I think really inflamed a lot of the interest in it. But let me just say that the other thing that later on made it so interesting was because after the Court of Inquiry, a lot of the news reports, they reported it fairly In a very pointed way, they didn’t make much fuss, they just said Solly- Flood thinks this, the investigations showed this that and the other etc. It was only until much later on, that reports, the myths and the fake news and everything, sort of blew up, like flights of Gryphons, people made swords, because there was no answer to the mystery. And I think another substantial highlight of why people found it so intriguing was that today we love mysteries and we’d like to know what the answers are, and the intriguing thing about the Mary Celeste is because it had no answer. There is a mystery without an answer. And that is a principle of nature that abhors a vacuum, into which floods all of these positives, so called solutions or possibilities. So it was a vacuum waiting to be inundated by supposition, alternative facts, fake news. But the interesting thing from the sort of popular point of view is that not many people know, I don’t think they know, much about the details of the Mary Celeste of the Court of Inquiry, all of that sort of thing anyway. But the other thing was that the Mary Celeste continued, she was released and allowed to sail after the Court of Inquiry, she went to Italy to offload her cargo. And then she came back, she was sold a number of times. Captain Winchester who owned her sold her off and she continued to sail for another dozen years. Then she was wrecked on a reef off the west end of Haiti, near Port-au-Prince, under very suspicious circumstances. They were more than suspicious, they were borne out to be fraudulent. In between the Court of Inquiry and then, Mary Celeste continued to sail as an ordinary merchant ship.
Yes, She’s still there, I think that’s fascinating.
She wasn’t a Ghost ship, it wasn’t as if she was sunk; she sailed and she was the Mary Celeste. The way she was actually wrecked and why she was wrecked is a story in itself, because people said that there is fraudulent business, and there almost certainly was, there definitely was.
Well, I think it’s a story we’ll come back to another time Graham, you’ve done brilliantly sharing this story with us, it’s absolutely fascinating. I’m determined to get someof the minutes of the Court of Inquiry to bring to our listeners. So maybe in the next few weeks you’ll be able to hear that. Thank you very much indeed for your time today.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
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