When the merchant ship Mary Celeste set sail from New York on November 7, 1872, all signs pointed to an uneventful journey. When it was discovered just under a month later — completely abandoned, yet still in seaworthy condition, and with personal effects from its missing crew intact — it quickly entered maritime lore.
Almost exactly 142 years later (reports differ if it was December 4 or 5), the Mary Celeste still fascinates; its strange tale inspired a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, a Doctor Who storyline, deep-sea adventurer and novelist Clive Cussler, and multiple songs and novels.
What happened aboard the Mary Celeste? Why did its crew and passengers, which included captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their toddler daughter, simply vanish, leaving a ship full of cargo (including enough food and water for six months) behind? A mystery this juicy has obviously inspired plenty of theories (Mutiny? Pirates?) and speculation (Kraken attack? Aliens?) over the years.
One guess has to do with the fact that the ship was toting over 1,700 barrels of industrial grade alcohol in its hold, though not all Mary Celeste experts agree.
In 2007, documentarian Anne MacGregor made The True Story of the Mary Celeste. The film, which was partly funded by the Smithsonian, used contemporary technology to launch a forensic investigation into the case.
MacGregor began by asking what didn't happen. Speculation concerning sea monsters was easy to dismiss. The ship's condition — intact and with full cargo — seemed to rule out pirates. One theory bandied about in the 19th century held that crew members drank the alcohol onboard and mutinied; after interviewing crewmen's descendants, MacGregor deemed that scenario unlikely. Another theory assumed that alcohol vapors expanded in the Azores heat and blew off the main hatch, prompting those aboard to fear an imminent explosion. But MacGregor notes that the boarding party found the main hatch secured and did not report smelling any fumes.
In his book Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew, author Brian Hicks supports the alcohol-vapors theory. He reasons that the condition of the ship when found (as if it had been "left to air out"), combined with the fact that it had been drifting for approximately 10 days, may indicate that dizzying fumes affected the crew so much that they fled the ship. Then, the fumes may have had time to dissipate before the ship was discovered, hence no telltale smell.
Though Hicks and MacGregor differ on the alcohol issue, they both agree that the ten souls aboard deliberately abandoned ship and met a tragic end at sea.
In MacGregor's version, continues Smithsonian.com:
The night before the last entry in the ship's log, the Mary Celeste again faced rough seas and winds of more than 35 knots. MacGregor learned that on its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal and that the ship had recently been extensively refitted. Coal dust and construction debris could have fouled the ship's pumps, which would explain the disassembled pump found on the Mary Celeste. With the pump inoperative, Briggs would not have known how much seawater was in his ship's hull, which was too fully packed for him to measure visually.
At that point, says MacGregor, Briggs — having come through rough weather, having finally and belatedly sighted land and having no way of determining whether his ship would sink — might well have issued an order to abandon ship.
After its doomed voyage across the Atlantic, the Mary Celeste remained in use for 13 more years. It met its rocky end off the coast of Haiti in 1885 while carrying a cargo of boots and cat food, an act that subsequently embroiled its final owners in an insurance-fraud investigation.
Image of Mary Celeste (then named Amazon) via Wikipedia.
Ghost ship image via Smithsonian.com.