The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. Part One: The Facts
On 5 December 1872, off the shores of the Azores, a merchant ship encounters a ghost ship. What happened to the crew?
The news of the Indonesian cargo vessel with no crew, which reappeared nine years after it disappeared off the coasts of Myanmar, brought back to mind the case, much more mysterious and yet to be resolved, of the brigantine, the Mary Celeste.
Among the many legends that fill the pages of seafaring literature, the story of the cursed vessel which continues its voyage with sails unfurled and no-one at the helm, as if it had a will of its own, is perhaps one of the most common in adventure stories. Each one of us certainly remembers some sort of movie version of this myth. Few know however, that the person who spread this legend was the father of Sherlock Holmes, the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, taking inspiration from the real story of the Mary Celeste. But let’s begin by sharing the facts that we know.
400 Miles East of the Azores Islands
On 5 December 1872 the lookout of the merchant brigantine, Dei Gratia, heading towards the strait of Gibraltar, alerted the captain, David Morehouse to the presence of another sailing ship. The ship was sailing in a strange manner. The main sail was furled and the one on the topmast ripped by the wind. The ship was in the throes of the wind and tended to broach, as if there was no-one to guide her!
Morehouse recognised the sailing ship adrift as the Mary Celeste, which was captained by his good friend, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, with whom he had dined in New York shortly before they both set sail towards the Mediterranean with their respective vessels. Worried about his colleague, the captain of the Dei Gratia launched a lifeboat and entrusted his first mate, Oliver Deveau, with the job of going to find out what was happening inside the ship and, if needed, to help the sailors.
The sighting, as marked by the first mate was at 38° 20′ north 17° 15′ west, approximately 600 miles from the Portuguese coast. Boarding the ship was not easy for the rowboat. Notwithstanding a number of calls to the crew of the Mary Celeste, nobody appeared to pull in the sails and the wind continued to drag the boat around. Probably Deveau and his men thought an epidemic had weakened the sailors, but when they were able to climb on board the Mary Celeste they found themselves in front of a real surprise: there was absolutely nobody on board the ship!
The conditions in which the men from the Dei Gratia found the brigantine added to the mystery. The ship was in disarray, even though there were no signs of violence. The clock and compass were broken. The hold was filled with nearly a metre of water because the pumps had not been activated. But for the rest, nothing was missing, even the food and water supplies were intact.
The log book was in its place and the last entry noted how the ship had just come through a bad storm. Even the sailors’ personal effects and their savings were in their place. The only things that were missing, besides the crew was the sextant, the documents regarding the cargo, and a small lifeboat. What had happened to the Mary Celeste?
Captain David Morehouse towed the brigantine to Gibraltar, where the Authorities opened an investigation which yielded no results. The first hypothesis taken into consideration by the English inspector Frederick Solly Flood, was that the two captains – Morehouse and Briggs – who were friends, had made an agreement to defraud the insurance company and divide the profits from the sale of the Mary Celeste. Indeed, the brigantine, as established by the law of the sea, now belonged to Morehouse.
Also according to the inspector, Briggs had killed his crew, made up of six men, before hiding himself in the cargo hold of the Dei Gratia. The accusation theory fell flat when it was discovered that the captain of the Mary Celeste owned property shares in the ship. In this manner, the man would have defrauded himself to the exclusive advantage of Morehouse! In addition, on board the ship were also the wife and two-year-old daughter of Captain Briggs, while his older son had remained in the United States to go to school. Did Briggs kill them as well? Or was the wife part of the plot?
Prosecutor Flood’s theory was full of holes and was soon abandoned, while the investigation sank into the abyss. And so would have the story itself had a certain writer with a penchant for mystery – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of course! – not thought to dust off the memory, publishing, a few years later the facts in a story published in the very popular Corhill Magazine. And so began the myth of the Mary Celeste and its secret, which intrigues us still today.
Books, Cinema and Comics
From Conan Doyle onwards, the mystery of the Mary Celeste has jumped from paper to celluloid, via comics. It was also investigated by one of my favourite characters Martin Mystere, created by Alfredo Castelli and published by Sergio Bonelli Editore, in a great adventure called “Il libro degli arcani – The book of the arcane”. In this comic, Mystere considers the main hypotheses on what could have happened to the brigantine. But as we will see in the next article, none of them are able to fully convince him.