Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Ghost Ship Mary Celeste

Toward the end of December of 1972, the Battle of Salt River Canyon which was the first major engagement during the 1872 Tonto Basin Campaign under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Crook will take place. It was a major battle in the ongoing Yavapai War, also known as the Tonto Wars, from 1871 to 1875.

Often the Yavapai were mistaken for Apache. In fact, American settlers mistakenly referred to them as "Mohave-Apache," "Yuma-Apache," and "Tonto-Apache," because of their close relationship with tribes such as the Tonto and Pinal Indians. 

Almost a month before U.S. Army Lt. Col. Crook engaged the Yavapai Indians, crewmen of a British ship, a brig named the Dei Gratia, spotted an abandoned ship adrift in the choppy seas about 400 miles east of the Azores. That was on December 5, 1872.  As the Dei Gratia's Capt. David Morehouse noted in his ship's log, it was the first time anyone had discovered that the unmanned Mary Celeste. 

The Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine. Seeing the Mary Celeste was under partial sail but deserted, Capt. Morehouse grew concerned. He worried about the possibility of foul-play and changed course to come alongside Celeste. 

Capt. Morehouse sent a boarding party aboard the deserted ship. Immediately they took note of the fact that her lifeboat was missing. Belowdecks, the men found the ship's charts and ship's log. According to the ship log's last entry, the Celeste had battled heavy weather for close to two weeks while trying to reach the Azores. That entry was recorded at 5 a.m. on November 25.

While there was no sign of life on the Celeste, Capt. Morehouse's boarding party did find the belongings of her crew. In fact, all of her crewmen's belongings were still in their quarters. The boarding party noted that one of its two pumps had been disassembled, and there were three and a half feet of water sloshing in the ship's bottom. Though that was the case, its cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was intact. And even more important, the boarding party found that the ship had a six-month supply of food and water intact. 

The Mary Celeste was seaworthy without a soul aboard. And that, well that started the mystery of the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste. Of course, to add to one of the most enduring mysteries of the high seas was the fact that no one knows what happened to her captain, crew, and the ten passengers who had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste. 

We know the Mary Celeste began its voyage on November 7, 1872, when she left New York with a crew of seven and its Capt. Benjamin Spooner Briggs. Also aboard was Capt. Briggs's wife, Sarah, their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, and eight other passengers.

Speculation being what it is, anyone's guess, there are all sorts of theories of what took place. Some say there was a mutiny, and the crew threw everyone overboard. Some say pirates boarded the ship and killed all aboard. Of course, Capt. Morehouse's boarding party didn't find anything to indicate that either thing had taken place. 

Other than those who actually speculated with all sorts of certainty that sea monsters swallowed up all on board, there are those who said that the Dei Gratia' crew were involved in the deaths of all aboard the Celeste. That was a theory going around later as a result of the courts and the suspicions of others.

Fact is, after spotting the Mary Celeste and then boarding her to give assistance, the crew of the Dei Gratia had to sail the ship about 800 miles to Gibraltar. That was where a British vice-admiralty court convened a salvage hearing. In such cases, it was a hearing to determine if the salvagers, in that case, the crew of the Dei Gratia, were entitled to payment from the ship's insurers. 

But because the attorney general in charge of the court inquiry suspected mischief on the part of the crew of the Dei Gratia, he decided to investigate the case. Because of that, it was only after more than three months that the court found no evidence of foul play. 

So, finally, the crew of the Dei Gratia received a salvage payment. But, and this is what lends itself to the belief by many that the British knew more than they revealed at the time, only a small part of the insurance money for which the ship and its cargo had been insured was paid. That in itself suggested to many that the authorities were not entirely convinced of the Dei Gratia crew's innocence.

Over the years, there have been many theories of what took place. There are many who have come up with all sorts of conclusions, all without facts, all supposition, and all without any merit. For example, 
even though the complete lack of any evidence supports the fact that no one really knows what took place, there are those who still suspect murder and conspiracy. Unfounded as they are, there are people who have come up with all sorts of crime stories that have zero evidence to support them.

Those who suspected insurance fraud were refuted. Those who suggested that Capt. Morehouse and his crew waited for the Mary Celeste, then lured everyone from the Celeste aboard Dei Gratia and killed them there, have absolutely no proof that such a thing took place. And really there is nothing to support the theory that the crews of both ships, including passengers, were somehow in cahoots to swindle the insurance carrier and split the salvage money. Believe it or not, there was a historian who speculated that the captain of the Mary Celeste killed everyone about in a fit of insanity. Of course, there were zero signs of such an event ever taking place.

As for the notion that there was an attack by pirates off the coast of Morocco? That theory leaves out the fact that pirates would have looted the ship. Remember, the boarding party found all of the personal effects of the captain and crew of the Mary Celeste undisturbed -- even those things that had value were not touched. Also, if pirates had looted and killed all, they were known to set ships ablaze before leaving them. 

Believe it or not, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who would gain fame for his character Sherlock Holms later, based a short story on his theory that a vengeful ex-slave killed everyone and simply used the lifeboat to make his getaway. 

Of the lies that were told over time, lies that people believed, there was were those that created details to make the story more interesting. Though false, in June of 1883, The Los Angeles Times retold the story of the Mary Celeste saying, "Every sail was set, the tiller was lashed fast, not a rope was out of place. ... The fire was burning in the galley. The dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold … the log written up to the hour of her discovery." Of course, that was not true. But that didn't matter. Also, I'm sure people believed it.

As I have said over the years, a lot of what we think is true in history is not. The problem is that people assume they did simply because their fabricated tales sound so feasible. John Wesley Hardin wrote in prison about how he outdrew Wild Bill and lived to tell about it later.  Wyatt Earp who told newspapers how he killed Curly Bill in a supposed shotgun dual and how he later killed Johnny Ringo. For both Hardin and Earp, people believed them because it sounded like something they would do. 

For Hardin and Earp, it's a pity that there's no evidence or witnesses to support their claims. But really, that has not stopped people from believing their fabrications over the years. Even today, there are still those who believe that Hardin outdrew Wild Bill and that Earp killed Curly Bill. People want to believe that they did it because it's generally believed that both Hardin and Earp were capable of doing what they claimed -- even if their claims were not true. 

It's the same case with people who made outlandish claims of murder and mayhem on the Mary Celeste. Over the years, people have believed that's what happened simply because they believe there are bad people capable of killing everyone on board that ship. It doesn't matter how absurd the theory, or if there is no evidence to prove it happened, there are people who will believe it. Yes, in spite of the fact that no one will ever know what happened on that ship.

She is probably the most famous ghost ship known to all. And what deepens the mystery of Mary Celeste is that her yawl and the captain's navigation instruments were missing when she was found. That alone has encouraged all sorts of speculation as to why she sailed the sea alone. After all, while no one knows why the captain, crew, and passengers would have simply left, and were never seen again, that's what happened. It appeared they did and vanished in the vastness of the ocean. For some unknown reason, it's believed that they all simply boarded their lifeboat and left the Mary Celeste to drift. That mystery will never be solved.

As for the Mary Celeste? She was returned to New York in September of 1873. By then, because the newspapers were filled with all sorts of sensational stories of her captain, crew, and passengers all being slaughtered in one way or another, the possibility of sea monsters swallowing up the crew, and other fantastic tales of mayhem, no one wanted her. She became a leper, a novelty of sorts, a floating crime scene with no evidence of a crime, a haunted ship, a place where monsters lurked. Because she was seen as a ghost ship, for a few years she "rotted on wharves where nobody wanted her."

She was finally bought and refitted in the late 1870s. Under new ownership, the Mary Celeste sailed the Indian Ocean routes. In February 1879, her captain, Edgar Tuthill, had died. This encouraged people to think the ship was cursed. This was especially so when it was found out that Capt. Tuthill was her third captain to die prematurely.

In February 1880, she was sold again. It was in November 1884, that she became the pawn in an insurance swindle. Along with a new captain, Gilman C. Parker, her new owners conspired to scuttle the Mary Celeste for the insurance. To do that, they filled her with worthless cargo while at the same time falsifying the ship's manifest as having valuable goods aboard. They insured her supposed "valuable goods" for $30,000. It would be worth about $800,000 today. 

On January 3, 1885, the Mary Celeste approached Port-au-Prince, the capital and chief port of Haiti. Through the channel between GonĂ¢ve Island and the mainland, Capt. Parker piloted the Celeste. That area is known for its large but well-charted coral reef known as the Rochelois Bank, and it was there that Capt. Parker deliberately ran Celeste onto the reef ripping out her bottom open. She was wrecked beyond repair. And soon afterward, the crooked captain and his crew loaded into her lifeboat and simply rowed themselves ashore. It was there that they almost immediately put in insurance claims for the supposed "valuable goods". 

While there, Capt. Parker made the mistake of selling a piece of the ship's goods to an American who was associated with the American Consulate in Haiti. When that American realized that what he bought was worthless, he notified the consulate, and soon the ship's insurers were also notified. It didn't take long before the insurers began an investigation. And not long after that, their investigation uncovered the entire swindle. 

In July of 1885, the ship's Boston owners, Capt. Parker and a few of the crew were tried and convicted in Boston for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. Capt. Parker was also charged with wrecking a ship which was a hanging offense at the time. While he escaped the hangman's noose, it's said the curse of the Mary Celeste wreaked vengeance on Capt. Parker because he died just three months later a broken man. 

There is a story about how salvagers tried to sell pieces of the Mary Celeste but no one wanted pieces of that ship. Most believed she was cursed. Bringing a piece of the Mary Celeste aboard another vessel was seen as bad luck. Even something innocent was said to be seen as a harbinger of death.

Tom Correa



  1. Hello, Tom: Thanks for an interesting post. I'm glad you take time to look into history like this, so that I can be educated! I'd rather garden! Hope you're having a fine fall day. I am, too, here in Redding. I enjoy all your posts. We're going to be pretty happy come Nov 3!!! Thanks!

  2. Hello Elizabeth,
    I really appreciate that you like my posts. And yes, I agree! We will be very happy on November 3rd!
    Much thanks,


Thank you for your comment.