What really happened to the crew of the mysterious merchant ship?
It was 1pm on 5 December, 1872. Seemingly a day like any other at sea.
On board the Dei Gratia, helmsman John Johnson was steering the ship through the Atlantic Ocean, around 600 miles west of Portugal.
Looking through his spyglass, he sighted a ship around five miles away.
But there was something wrong.
The ship was moving strangely, in a drifting motion, as if nobody was steering her. And her sails were torn.
Alerting his second officer John Wright, the pair decided to move closer.
‘Isn’t that the Mary Celeste?’ Johnson asked. Wright nodded, gravely.
Another merchant ship which had been headed for Genoa, Italy.
But it should have reached its destination already, given that it’d had a head start on the Dei Gratia.
After observing the ship for two hours, the Dei Gratia’s chief mate, Oliver Deveau, climbed on board the Mary Celeste to see if he could work out what happened.
And what he saw shocked him to the core…
All of the ship’s papers were missing, except for the captain’s logbook.
The only lifeboat on the ship had gone, the compass on board smashed.
Mary Celeste’s cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol was seemingly fine, and a six-month supply of uncontaminated food and fresh water was still on the ship.
Strangest of all, the crew’s personal possessions had been left on board, making a piracy raid look unlikely.
And there was no sign of a struggle taking any place.
So why was it that it looked like the Captain of the Mary Celeste, Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, 2-year-old daughter Sophie and their crew of seven men had abandoned the ship in a hurry?
Maritime history’s greatest mystery
It’s maritime history’s greatest mystery.
And of course, this has led to a range of theories attempting to explain what happened onboard the doomed vessel.
First, the crew of the Dei Gratia found themselves as the focus of a nasty rumour.
That they’d come into contact with the Mary Celeste and decided to murder those onboard, staging the event to tow it to safety then claim the ship under salvage rights.
This was quickly discounted though, due to the fact there was no sign of a struggle. The Dei Gratia’s Captain was also a close friend of Briggs. There didn’t appear to be a motive, and three months later, a court found no evidence of foul play.
When the Marie Celeste was returned to land and her cargo unloaded, it was discovered that nine of the barrels of alcohol were actually empty.
Could it have been that the crew had helped themselves, before murdering Briggs and his family in a mutinous drunken rage, before throwing their bodies overboard and escaping in the lifeboat?
But again, this theory comes under disrepute.
Briggs was a religious man and a vocal tee-totaller. It’s unlikely he would have permitted his crew to drink alcohol on board. And his crew were men with unblemished records.
Was booze to blame?
Still though, it seems likely that alcohol was to blame, with a theory that holds credence with scientists and maritime historians alike.
The empty barrels may have leaked, spilling alcohol and creating a fire or explosion.
The nine empty barrels were made of red oak, unlike the others which were made of white oak. Red oak is more likely to emit vapour as it is more porous, therefore this alcohol vapour could have collected in the hold.
Any spark, even friction of barrels rubbing together as the ship sailed, could have threatened an explosion.
More recently, in 2006, a scientist from University College London, Dr Andrea Sella, undertook an experiment to show what he thought had happened to the ship.
Dr Sella built a replica of the ship’s hold then stimulated an explosion caused by alcohol leaking from the cargo.
This created what he described as a ‘a pressure-wave type of explosion.’
At the time, he told the Daily Express: ‘There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching.
‘Given all the facts we have, this replicates conditions on board the Mary Celeste. The explosion would have been enough to blow open the hatches and would have been completely terrifying for everyone on board.’
It certainly explains why Briggs and his crew would have been so likely to get off the ship in such a hurry, without grabbing any of their treasured personal possessions.
Speculation follows then, that Briggs ordered everyone to get off the ship into the lifeboat, following the Mary Celeste on a tow line until they got help.
However, the line was badly secured and the lifeboat became separated from the vessel in the choppy seas, causing the whole crew to later perish.
Still, despite this new information, it’s still unlikely the mystery of what happened to Briggs and his crew will ever be solved for certain…
Want to read about other mysterious ships? Take a look at this…