- Historic Sites
The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste
A Classic Riddle of the Sea From an Absorbing New Book
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Early in the afternoon of December 4, 1872, at a point about midway between the Azores and Portugal, the Nova Scotian brigantine Dei Gratia was proceeding on a southeasterly course when her master, David Reed Morehouse, sighted a sailing ship on his port bow, to windward. Through a glass he perceived that she was another brigantine, beating northwest under very short canvas. As the gap between the ships narrowed, he was unable to make out any people on the stranger. He ordered a boat lowered and sent first mate Oliver Deveau, with second mate John Wright and a seaman, to investigate.
Rowing up to the silent ship, the men read the name Mary Celeste on her bow, and on reaching her, Deveau and Wright clambered onto her deck. The investigators soon confirmed that there was not a soul on board. The brigantine’s one boat was gone. Both her fore and lazaretto hatches were uncovered, and her hold, containing hundreds of wooden barrels marked “alcohol,” held water to the depth of three and a half feet. The ship’s jib and foretop staysail were set, but the foresail and upper fore-topsail had been blown away, the lower fore-topsail was flapping loose, and the main staysail lay sprawled atop the forward house; all the other sails were furled.
More interesting to Deveau and Wright than the disorder wrought by the elements were the many evidences of human order to be seen. The captain’s chronometer and sextant, the navigation book, and the ship’s register were missing, but the log book lay on the desk in the mate’s cabin and the log slate, or running log, on the cabin table; the final entry on the latter gave the Celeste ’s position at 8 A.M. , November 25, as six miles northeast of Santa Maria, easternmost of the Azores. The ship’s stores contained provisions for six months and ample drinking water. In the seamen’s quarters forward, and by the berths amidships, occupied until recently by the Celeste ’s cook and two mates, were sea chests packed with clothes. The captain’s cabin likewise contained clothing, stowed in boxes and hanging from hooks, including, besides masculine attire, dresses, a pair of woman’s overshoes, and “articles of child’s wearing apparel; also child’s toys.” A melodeon stood opposite the captain’s bed, which had been slept in—by a child, Deveau guessed. Under the bed Deveau found a sheathed sword with faint discolorations on its blade.
At the end of half an hour the Dei Gratia ’s mates returned to their ship. Captain Morehouse was particularly concerned about the fate of the Mary Celeste ’s people since her master, Benjamin Briggs, was a friend: indeed, Morehouse may have dined with Captain Briggs and his pretty wife at New York’s Astor House the night before they and their two-year-old daughter Sophia started to sea on November 7.
Mate Deveau proposed that he sail the derelict to Gibraltar, and Morehouse, spurred by the prospect of salvage money, detailed two seamen to go with the mate. That evening the Mary Celeste ’s skeleton crew pumped her dry, set her sails, and got under way: The Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on the evening of December 12, and the Mary Celeste the following morning.
On December 18 the vice-admiralty court met at Gibraltar to consider Captain Morehouse’s claim for a salvage award. The queen’s proctor, acting as attorney for the Crown, promptly convinced himself that the Mary Celeste ’s crew had broken into the alcohol below decks and gotten drunk, murdered the Briggses and the chief mate, and escaped in the boat. This picture of foul play accorded oddly, however, with Captain Briggs’s reputation as a firm but fair master, or with the near certainty that, having his wife and child on board, he would have made sure that his crew included only men of upright character. A survey of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol in the Celeste ’s hold, moreover, showed that none had been tampered with, while chemical tests would establish that the supposed bloodstains on Briggs’s sword were, in reality, nothing of the sort.
It was not until February, 1873, that the court released the Celeste to proceed to Genoa and so earn her freight at last. In March the court rendered judgment, awarding £1,700 to the Dei Gratia ’s master and crew as salvors. By then, lingering hopes that the Celeste ’s people might still turn up were fading.
But why had those people abandoned a vessel “fit to go round the world,” in the words of a seaman who helped sail her to Gibraltar, for a small boat affording no protection from the elements and little enough from the sea itself? The court had no answers.