Wednesday, December 4, 2013

DECEMBER 4 = The Mystery of the "Mary Celeste"

"We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don't get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she'll sail. Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of Am. Consul and about 20 days after to Messina care of Am. Consul who will forward it to us if we don't go there."

- From a letter by Captain Benjamin S. Briggs to his mother, November 3, 1872

These words of Captain Briggs reflect the high spirits of an experienced sailor hoping to make a safe passage aboard a ship which he didn't know well. Sadly, his hopes were not to be realized. His ship, the merchant Brigantine Mary Celeste was discovered on today's date, December 4 in the year 1872, adrift, unmanned and apparently abandoned.  The ship's compliment of ten, which included Capt. Briggs, 37, seven crewmen, and two passengers - Capt. Briggs's wife, Sara, 31, and their daughter Sophia, 2 were all missing and were never found.  Their fate remains a mystery to this day.

The Mary Celeste is Found Adrift....

The Mary Celeste began her life in 1861 as the Amazon (as which she is pictured above) at the port of Nova Scotia. But by November of 1872,  her name had been changed to the Mary Celeste and her registry had been changed to the port of New York. On November 7 she set sail for Genoa , Italy under the command of Capt. Briggs bearing a cargo of 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol.  The Del Gratia, carrying barrels of petroleum and commanded by a old friend of Briggs, Captain David Morehouse, sailed from New York on November 15.  On today's date,
the Del Gratia was about 600 miles west of Portugal when her lookouts sighted a ship about 8 miles off of her port bow.  She was drifting listlessly and her sails were slightly torn. Moving closer the ship was identified as the Mary Celeste. Seeing nobody aboard at least above decks, Morehouse sent his first mate, Oliver Deveau to investigate.

And Nobody is There.

Deveau reported that nobody at all was aboard. The personal items of the crew and the passengers were still there securely packed in their places. All of the ships papers were missing except for the captain's logbook, the last entry of which was a routine note of the ships position a few days earlier.  Otherwise, there was no sign of the ten people with whom the Mary Celeste had left New York. The cargo of alcohol was securely stowed, except for nine barrels which were found to be empty, but undamaged.  Several of the hatches were open, the lifeboat was gone, and a heavy rope was tied to the ship's stern, but was torn at the end.  "The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess" said Deveau, who found about three feet of water in the hold.  But he also reported that the ship was still quite seaworthy and in no danger of sinking.  Also two of the most important navigational tools were missing; the sextant and the marine chronometer.

And a Legendary Mystery is Born.

There were news reports of murder and seizure by pirates at the time, along with suggestions of mutiny by a drunken crew.  But the record of Captain Briggs (left) as a fair and competent officer, as well as the knowledge that the crewmen were all professional sailors lent little credence to that story.  And the fact that all but a few barrels of the cargo were all still there dispelled the idea of piratical attack.  An inquest into these strange events was held in the Vice Admiralty Court in Gibralter, and as there was no substantial evidence of mutiny, pirate attack or any violence, salvagers were awarded insurance payments amounting to about one sixth of the insurance that had been placed on the Mary Celeste. This suggested that the authorities were suspicious of the motives behind
the Del Gratia and her captain, thinking that there had perhaps there had been some sort of collusion to commit insurance fraud. The events created considerable news at the time, but would have been forgotten had it not been for a fictional account of the story that was published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1884 and several subsequent treatments of the story, including a movie starring Bela Lugosi in 1935. These accounts added such lurid, but fictional details as meals prepared and left uneaten, a pipe still lit, and the lifeboat still being there.  These and later accounts tended towards such supernatural explanations as ghostly evil powers, the always reliably sinister Bermuda Triangle, and of course UFO's and space aliens.  The fact is that the explanation is likely much more mundane.

The key might very well be in the barrels that were found empty, but undamaged.  And it was not that they were drained by the crew in a drunken frenzy.  The rest of the barrels were all made from white oak which is naturally water tight and was for this reason normally used to hold liquids.  However the nine barrels that were empty were all made from red oak, which is porous and usually used for dry goods.  For some reason these barrels were used to hold some of the alcohol.  It has been suggested that these barrels may have leaked their contents in sufficient quantity to give off strong fumes which may have even been strong enough to cause a brief but frightening explosion.  This may have given rise to fears that the cargo was about to explode.  This would account for why the ship had clearly been abandoned in a hurry. The theory goes that Briggs ordered the passengers and crew into the life 
boat which was tethered to the ship with  a heavy rope, hoping to return to her when the fumes had dissipated. 

There are other explanations.  One advanced recently by Smithsonian Magazine makes no mention of a torn rope found attached to the ship and says that the leaking barrels would have given off a smell which would have lead to their discovery. Then the barrels would simply have been emptied. But this explanation holds that based on ships records found among the papers of the Attorney General in charge of the investigation, Frederick Solly-Flood it is possible to chart the position of the ship more accurately than previously possible. Due to a faulty chronometer Briggs may have miscalculated the true position of the Mary Celeste.  This and ships pumps which were not working properly would have made Briggs believe that his ship was in danger of sinking when she wasn't really. This would have lead him to put the crew and his family into the lifeboat.  

But a storm arose which tore the lifeboat away from the Mary Celeste and either drowned it's helpless inhabitants, or left them to drift until they died of exposure. But of course, this is all speculation. Whatever the explanation the fact remains that ten human souls including the wife and the young daughter of Captain Briggs along with all of their hopes and dreams for the future were lost, and scattered to the winds of the ocean.



The Mary Celeste as the Amazon =

The Mary Celeste discovered on 12/4 =

Captain Briggs =

Movie poster =

The Mary Celeste in a storm =

+ 143.

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