A two-masted ship called the Mary Celeste set sail from New York on Nov. 7, 1872, headed for Italy. Less than a month later, the ship was found floating adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no one aboard. The captain of the ship, his seven-member crew, and his wife and daughter were nowhere to be found. One lifeboat was missing, but the ship appeared to be completely seaworthy, and there was plenty of food and water aboard. For well over a century, the question has haunted historians and lovers of the sea: What happened to the Mary Celeste?
Over the years, many theories have emerged about the fate of the Mary Celeste. Some have theorized that the crew mutinied, killed Captain Benjamin Briggs and his family, and then took off in the lifeboat. Others point a finger at the possibility of piracy, possibly at the hands of the crew of the Canadian brigantine that found the Mary Celeste adrift. More fanciful theories imagined that a giant octopus or some sort of sea monster attacked the ship, though these speculations never explained why the Mary Celeste was undamaged when it was found.
The mystery so captured the public’s imagination that more than 10 years later, readers were riveted when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for “Sherlock Holmes”, wrote a popular short story about the mystery surrounding the ship. Doyle’s tale centered on an ex-slave who captured the ship while seeking revenge. Other theories that were less exciting but possibly more grounded in reality looked into the possibility of insurance fraud, or proposed that a fire or an explosion caused the family and crew to abandon ship.
The ship itself had a somewhat suspicious past. After its former captain died and the ship collided with another ship while crossing the English Channel, the new owners saw fit to rechristen the ship as the Mary Celeste, hoping to dispel any bad luck. However, bad luck — if that’s what it was — continued to haunt the ship even after its crew and passengers disappeared in 1872. The ship continued to sail for another 12 years until it ran aground in Haiti, in an incident later discovered to be part of an insurance fraud.
In recent years, two theories have come to the forefront regarding the fate of the Mary Celeste. Documentary filmmaker Anne MacGregor began an investigation in 2002, relying on transcriptions from the ship’s log and on interviews with the descendants of the Briggs family and the crew members. MacGregor speculates that Briggs ordered the ship abandoned when he was in sight of the island of Santa Maria, one of the Azores, which the seagoers reached several days later than expected due to a faulty chronometer. This may have caused confusion about where they actually were.
The other big clue for MacGregor was the 6 feet of water found in the hold of the Mary Celeste. Normally, a captain would order the hold pumped out. However, a disassembled pump was found on the abandoned ship, so Captain Briggs may have had no way to get rid of the water the ship was taking on, and no way to know how bad the situation was. If he thought his ship was on the verge of sinking, he may have ordered everyone to abandon it while they were within sight of land.
Another theory comes from researchers at University College London. These scientists point to the fact that the Mary Celeste was carrying barrels of flammable alcohol, more than 300 gallons of which had leaked, creating a very dangerous situation. The researchers conducted an experiment that shows that with only a small spark, the alcohol could have created a pressure-wave explosion that produced a massive flame. However, in the experiment, the explosion and flame subsided quickly, leaving behind no soot or evidence of a fire. If this type of explosion occurred in the hold of the Mary Celeste, it would explain the hurry of the captain to get his family and crew off board.
Even with historians and scientists at work, no one still can say for sure what happened to the Mary Celeste. Given the evidence and the research that’s been done into the mysterious matter, with so many clues left unanswered, what do you think happened on that fateful day in 1872?