- 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
Eleven years later an English magazine published an anonymous short story based loosely on the discovery of the derelict Celeste . A well-written if barely credible tale of wholesale murder for motives of racial vengeance, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” included several embellishments that were absorbed into the evolving legend of the vessel, notably the spelling of her name as Marie Celeste and the circumstance of her “boats”—two of them—being neatly slung in their davits. [In 1892 the story’s author was revealed to be Arthur Conan Doyle.]
Other romancers added their own improvements to the story: thus, in one frequently repeated version, the derelict was encountered sailing under a full spread of canvas, and the Dei Gratia ’s boarding party found a partly consumed breakfast on the cabin table, including cups of tea that were still lukewarm . Authors variously conjectured that the Celeste ’s people had been carried off by a giant octopus and by pirates; that Captain Briggs, overcome by religious mania, had butchered his family and everyone else before flinging himself into the sea; that fumes from a submarine volcanic eruption had driven the ship’s company mad with thirst, causing them to jump overboard.
Further errors and inventions proliferated until 1942, seventy years after the event, when, by coincidence, two American writers laid out all the known facts in two carefully researched books: George S. Bryan’s Mystery Ship: The Mary Celeste in Fancy and in Fact and Charles Edey Fay’s Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship .
That the Celeste ’s people perished there can be no doubt. As to why they abandoned her, the best published authorities, Messrs. Bryan and Fay, incline to the theory of Dr. Oliver Cobb, a younger cousin of both Captain Briggs and Mrs. Briggs. Dr. Cobb ascribed the captain’s sudden alarm to the threat of explosion posed by fumes of alcohol that had escaped from the porous red-oak barrels and been warmed by the surrounding waters while being confined in the hold. Did these gases rumble menacingly, as Captain Morehouse believed? Or did spontaneous combustion occur, blowing off the fore hatch cover, as the Celeste ’s then principal owner, Captain J. H. Winchester, afterward maintained? Dr. Cobb could not say. He felt certain, however, that the presence of Mrs. Briggs and Sophia had hastened the captain’s decision to remove everybody.
According to Dr. Cobb’s hypothesis, Captain Briggs ordered the light sails furled and the mainsail lowered, then had the vessel hove to on the starboard tack. The ship’s boat was lowered; simultaneously, the main peak halyard, an inch-thick rope, was readied for use as a towline, one end being left attached to the gaff and the other bent on the boat’s painter. Gathering up chronometer, sextant, and ship’s papers, Captain Briggs ordered everyone into the boat and followed them; they cast off, and within a minute or so the ten people were well astern of the ship, linked to it by four hundred feet of slack halyard and falling rapidly farther astern. All at once a strong northerly breeze unexpectedly filled the Celeste ’s square sail; the halyard leaped out of the water to snap taut, and as the ship gathered headway the straining line parted—and the little boat was adrift.
No doubt the men rowed desperately, trying to overtake the ship, but it was hopeless: in no more than an hour or so the Celeste , a fast sailer, was out of sight.
She drifted on, mile after mile, encountered a squall and lost her foresail and upper fore-topsail. After no one can say how long, she came about to head west and shipped a sea, water cascading into her forward house and cabin and pouring into the hold through the open fore hatch. Hours or days later she again came about and headed east, only, in time, to reverse course once more. When the Dei Gratia met her, she was holding a reasonably straight course northwest by north.
But whether or not the foregoing scenario describes what actually happened will never be known. More than a century later the disappearance of the eight men, woman, and little girl in the Mary Celeste remains, as an American naval officer who inspected the derelict at Gibraltar wrote, a “sad and silent mystery of the sea,” the most baffling of all and one of the most poignant.