One hundred and fifty years ago today, a routine sea voyage became an enduring nautical mystery. December 5 nautical time marks the sesquicentennial of the discovery of the “ghost ship” Mary Celeste. Today we take a closer look at one of the historical events that inspired In Myrtle Peril.
For millennia humans have crisscrossed the globe by sea, often a harrowing prospect, and countless ships have fallen prey to the dangers of the open water. But few have captured the imagination (including mine!) the way the Mary Celeste disaster did. It began as an ordinary journey—so ordinary, in fact, that Captain Briggs decided to bring along his wife and baby daughter, but leave their older son at home. No one expected it to go so mystifyingly wrong.
What the sailors from Dei Gratia discovered, however, was far from ordinary. The ship was surprisingly free of damage—only a bit windblown and wet throughout from rain and spray. The cargo of industrial alcohol was apparently undisturbed, the crew’s belongings where they’d been left, and the final log entry offered no hint of trouble, giving Mary Celeste’s position as being within sight of land.
All signs pointed to the crew having left the vessel in a hurry—but why? And where did they go? Even as the discovery was made, theories about their fate surfaced. Was it mutiny? Pirates (who then left the valuable cargo behind)? Foul play from within the ranks? An insurance scam?
There were some clues. Nine of the barrels of alcohol were empty, likely from evaporation—perhaps fumes had built up in the hold, causing a flameless explosion that made it seem the ship was about to go down. A sounding rod and a disassembled pump were found aboard the deck—did Captain Briggs mistakenly believe the hold was full of a dangerous level of water, indicating the Mary Celeste was sinking? Alarming cuts to the hull and a sword with red stains deepened the mystery.
But other factors were even more mystifying. There was no damage from an explosion; the ship wasn’t sinking; the stains weren’t blood but rust; and the marks on the hull were consistent with expected damage to a vessel sailing under its own accord for several days. The log book explained nothing. And no trace of the crew was ever found. Ten people simply vanished into thin air.
An extensive investigation at the Admiralty Court in Gibraltar attempted to explain the disappearance—and assign blame. Had the crew of the Dei Gratia murdered everyone aboard the Mary Celeste for the salvage money? Attorney General Frederick Solly-Flood thought so, and his relentless pursuit of the truth provides much of what we know of the ship’s fate, via court records from the salvage hearings. In the end Solly-Flood could prove nothing, and his theories were discounted. His doubts were never allayed, however: the Dei Gratia crew was awarded far less than the ship’s value in salvage fees, indicating that suspicion still clung to them.
The sight that greeted the crewmembers of the Dei Gratia continues to haunt people to this day. Over the years, many stories have circulated, until the facts have become obscured by legend and tall tales. Theories abound about what caused Captain Briggs to abandon ship, but the truth will (probably) never be known. For more information regarding the history of the Mary Celeste, check out the following resources:
Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks
…And for one author’s notion about what might have become of a girl like Sophy Briggs, pick up your copy of In Myrtle Peril today.