Ghostship – The Mary Celeste Story


Ghost Ship – The Mary Celeste Story


The British brig Dei Gratia was about 400 miles east of the Azores on  December 5, 1872, when crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas.  Capt. David Morehouse was taken aback to discover that the unguided vessel was  the Mary Celeste, which had left New York City eight days before him and  should have already arrived in Genoa, Italy. He changed course to offer  help.


Morehouse sent a boarding party to the ship. Belowdecks, the ship’s charts  had been tossed about, and the crewmen’s belongings were still in their  quarters. The ship’s only lifeboat was missing, and one of its two pumps had  been disassembled. Three and a half feet of water was sloshing in the ship’s  bottom, though the cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was largely  intact. There was a six-month supply of food and water—but not a soul to consume  it.


Thus was born one of the most durable mysteries in nautical history: What  happened to the ten people who had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste?  Through the decades, a lack of hard facts has only spurred speculation as to  what might have taken place. Theories have ranged from mutiny to pirates to sea  monsters to killer waterspouts. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1884 short story based on  the case posited a capture by a vengeful ex-slave, a 1935 movie featured Bela  Lugosi as a homicidal sailor. Now, a new investigation, drawing on modern  maritime technology and newly discovered documents, has pieced together the most  likely scenario.


“I love the idea of mysteries, but you should always revisit these things  using knowledge that has since come to light,” says Anne MacGregor, the  documentarian who launched the investigation and wrote, directed and produced The True Story of the ‘Mary Celeste,’ partly with funding from  Smithsonian Networks.


The ship began its fateful voyage on November 7, 1872, sailing with seven  crewmen and Capt. Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and the couple’s  2-year-old daughter, Sophia. The 282-ton brigantine battled heavy weather for  two weeks to reach the Azores, where the ship log’s last entry was recorded at 5  a.m. on November 25.


After spotting the Mary Celeste ten days later, the Dei Gratia  crewmen sailed the ship some 800 miles to Gibraltar, where a British vice  admiralty court convened a salvage hearing, which was usually limited to  determining whether the salvagers—in this case, the Dei Gratia  crewmen—were entitled to payment from the ship’s insurers. But the attorney  general in charge of the inquiry, Frederick Solly-Flood, suspected mischief and  investigated accordingly. After more than three months, the court found no  evidence of foul play. Eventually, the salvagers received a payment, but only  one-sixth of the $46,000 for which the ship and its cargo had been insured,  suggesting that the authorities were not entirely convinced of the Dei  Gratia crew’s innocence.