On December 5, 1872, the American merchant ship, Mary Celeste was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. Floating serenely on the water, the vessel was completely abandoned – the sails were partly set and some were missing altogether, the hull was waterlogged but not excessively so and a lifeboat was missing. The last entry in the Captain’s Log was ten days old.
What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste?
It’s one of the most intriguing naval mysteries of the late 19th century: A merchant ship, found off the coast of the Azores Islands but still seaworthy, its cargo completely intact but its crew gone – never to be seen again.
Why would a Captain abandon a ship unless it was the absolute last resort?
The Mary Celeste was initially found by another merchant ship – the Canadian Dei Gratia, captained by David Morehouse. When Morehouse noticed the Mary Celeste floating erratically, he sailed closer but no response came from the ship. Subsequently, he sent a crew aboard and found that the ship had been abandoned. Even though the hull was waterlogged, most of the crew’s possessions remained untouched.
Morehouse left his crew to sail the derelict vessel back to Gibraltar, where it would be salvaged and he would be rewarded for bringing it in.
To obtain payment for the salvage of the Mary Celeste, the salvage court in Gibraltar had to decide upon the nature of its abandonment. The Attorney General of Gibraltar, Frederick Solly-Flood, took the case and was himself convinced of foul play – that the Dei Gratia were responsible for the crew’s disappearance, accusing them of violence in an effort to claim reward for the salvage.
However, that hypothesis was never proven and the mystery of the Mary Celeste would only deepen with time as it began to enthrall conspiracy theorists and storytellers in equal measure.
In fact, it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who first popularised the mystery of the Mary Celeste in an early short story known as J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.
The story is a first-person account from a survivor of the ‘Marie Celeste’, as Doyle wrote, that he published anonymously in 1884. Highly fictionalised, Doyle wrote that the Marie Celeste was found in immaculate condition – complete with set dinner tables – heightening the mystery surrounding it’s disappeared crew.
Over the years, first-hand reports would appear in the papers from men that claimed to be on the Mary Celeste before it was abandoned, though most of these accounts were riddled with errors and only served to obfuscate the facts of the ship’s abandonment even further. Some of these fantastical reports were even printed as ‘fact’, ensuring that the mystery of the Mary Celeste has become synonymous with derelict ships.
What actually happened to the crew? We will likely never know.
Perhaps, the truth may be stranger than fiction.
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