Mary Celeste - The Ghost Ship


The Mystery

On December 4, 1872 Mary Celeste, also known as the 'Ghost Ship', was found without a single soul on board while she was still on sail. She was spotted off the coast of Portugal heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar. Nobody had a clue about what happened to the crew... the weather was fine and it was known that she had set sail from New York with experienced and able captain and crew. 

A Short Background

The Mary Celeste was Originally named "The Amazon", when it was built at the shipyards in Spencer Island in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1861. It was launched in the same year which also happened to be the year when the American Civil War broke out. The brigantine Mary Celeste was 31 meters long, 7.6 meters wide and displaced 282 tons of water. However since her launch, she had always been under the influence of some evil power for some strange reasons. 
Engraving of Mary Celeste 
Mary Celeste 
During her first decade of operations, she was involved in several misadventures and passed through many changes of ownership. Look at the following chronological events: 
  • The First master Robert McLellan fell ill and died. 
  • On her maiden voyage that was commanded by John Parker, the ship suffered a big damage in her hull after running into a fishing dam off the sea. Mary Celeste required major repairs at the shipyards. Later, a fire broke out at the shipyards, terminating Parker’s command. 
  • During her first Atlantic crossing, she collided in the straits of Dover with a two-masted ship which sank. Mary Celeste again required repairs. 
  • Upon her return to America she ran aground off Cow Bay, Nova Scotia. 
  • After she was pulled out of the rocks, she continued to change hands between a number of owners. No one made any profit. In fact, some of them went bankrupt. 
  • Finally she was purchased by an American, James Winchester. James bought her at a New York salvage auction for $3,000. She went through extensive repairs and renovation. When she was back again, the ship looked completely different and hardly had any resemblance with 'The Amazon'. Her name was then changed to 'Mary Celeste'. 

    The Ill-fated Incident

    In October 1872, Mary Celeste was made ready on a birth in New York's East River for a voyage to Genoa, Italy. The captain of the ship was Benjamin Briggs aged 37. Briggs’ 30-year old wife Sarah and 2-year-old child were also in the ship. And there were 7 crew making it a total of 10 on board. Captain Briggs was a very experienced and able seaman and captained five ships in his career. He himself was an owner of many ships and had spent most of his life on the sea. 
    Benjamin Briggs, Captain of Mary Celeste 
    Benjamin Briggs 
    Mary Celeste departed New York City on November 7, 1872. She was carrying a cargo of 1701 barrels of raw commercial alcohol valued at some $35,000 and had full insurance. 
    Strangely after almost a month of her sail, on December 4, 1872 a British Empire vessel named Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste between the Azores and Portugal. She apparently looked abandoned although still under sail. There was not a single soul on board. 
    So what could have been the cause of such mysterious abandonment? The weather was fine and she had 6 months of food and water. The crew were all very able seamen and trustworthy. Even the personal belongings including valuables were untouched. 

    Possible Explanations

    Here are some speculations and theories behind the mystery of Mary Celeste: 


    Some speculated that the Mary Celeste had fallen pray to the North African pirates who were known to be operating in that area. The pirates would have killed all on board and threw the bodies overboard. 
    However, there was no such incidence of piracy reported in the Straits of Gibraltar during such time and for the past one decade. This is possibly because the British Navy were stationed there. Even if there was any piracy, it is almost impossible to believe that the pirates would spare all personal and valuable possessions of the crew members. Nobody seems to have even touched the cargo. Also, there was no sign of violence on the ship. 

    The Dei Gratia Crew... The Suspects?

    Another theory was that the crew of the ship Dei Gratia that salvaged the abandoned Mary Celeste, would have murdered all on board and then fabricated the story of Ghost Ship in order to claim the salvage rights. But this seems very unlikely. There was no sign of any struggle on Mary Celeste. Secondly, Dei Gratia departed one week after Mary Celeste did and could not have caught up with it. Also Morehouse, the captain of Dei Gratia was a good friend of Briggs. 

    Insurance Scam

    Some thought that the entire incident was probably planned out to make a fake insurance claim. But that would have required Morehouse of Dei Gratia to connive with Briggs to make it happen. While this was possible, the ship Mary Celeste was not owned by either of them. The owner was James Winchester. Also, the insurance value was quite modest. So such a planned and staged act for such a modest amount looks quite improbable. 


    It's true that when the crew of Dei Gratia salvaged the Mary Celeste, they found a lot of water in between the decks and about 3 and half feet water in the hold. Also, two out of the three water pumps were found to be disassembled while only one was working. This led to the theory that Mary Celeste would have been hit by a severe storm and while it was sinking, captain Briggs ordered the crew to evacuate. 
    But there are fallacies to this theory as well. There was no such storm reported in that area of Atlantic during the time when Mary Celeste was discovered abandoned. Also, the water level was not enough for a captain to order evacuation. The ship was still in sail worthy condition. However, it is possible that since Brigg's own family was on board, he would have been extra cautious. Then why didn't they all return and explain the story to all? 

    Drunken Crew

    It was found that 9 out of the 1701 barrels of alcohol were empty. So there was a speculation that the crew members would have consumed all the alcohol, got drunk and murdered the captain and his family due to Brigg's tyranny over the years. Sounds good, but seems unlikely. Briggs was known as an able and well behaved captain. Also, he was never heard consuming alcohol himself and therefore likely not to have allowed crew members to consume alcohol on board. 


    A modern Captain David Williams offered an explanation stating that there was earthquake under the sea. As a result the nine barrels would have got dislodged and the alcohol would have leaked. So that explains the empty barrels. Heavy rumbling of the sea made the crew members panic and they jumped into a small sailing dinghy boat. Later they tried to catch up with Mary Celeste but could not, and died on the sea. 
    Well, this sounds interesting too. But the fact is, the crew of Dei Gratia did not report any sign of rumbling or aftershock. Also, there was no quake reported at the nearby Portuguese islands or Azores during that time. 


    Out of all the theories, a possible explosion causing Mary Celeste's abandonment seems to be the one most likely, although it too has its own caveat. This theory was offered by James Winchester, the owner of Mary Celeste himself. 
    The nine barrels of alcohol which were found empty, were made of red oak and not of white oak like the other non-empty barrels. Red oaks are generally more porous. There may have been slow alcohol leakage through those. That would have created alcohol vapor in the hold. The barrels, that were tied with steel bands would have rubbed against each other. The friction in the steel bands then created a spark which would have then caused an explosion. 
    Captain Briggs seeing a violent gush of fumes and fire, would have panicked and ordered the crew to immediately get on to the life boats. In hurry, the crew could not possibly tie their boat to the ship with a strong rope. And subsequently, a strong wind would have swayed them off and all would have drowned, or died out of hunger or exposure to weather. 
    However, the counter argument to this theory is that when Mary Celeste was salvaged, no one could get smell of the alcohol fumes outside the hold, nor could they see any burn marks. Who knows whether the nine barrels were actually loaded empty at New York itself! 


    Many other theories sprouted over the years, some interesting and others absurd. One theory suggested that the crew abandoned the ship due to sea tornadoes. Another stated that enemy submarines caused panic to the crew resulting in the abandonment. Yet another one mentioned that the ship anchored at a shifting sandbar, and the crew thinking that they were in a hopeless situation, used the lifeboat and were lost in the sea, and the sand bar shifted again setting the ship free. But there is yet no explanation that substantiates the Mary Celeste abandonment with evidence and facts. 
    Years later, a man even claimed that he was the sole survivor of Mary Celeste. He narrated that the captain challenged the first mate to a swimming race near the ship and they were both killed by a shark. While the crew were watching the scene in horror, a freak wave came and hit the ship throwing all overboard and drowning everybody, he being the only exception. The ship itself however did not sink and kept sailing on its own. In the later years, there were more such claims of survival made by others, but none could be verified with any evidence. 
    Larry Kusche (the American research librarian, author and a pilot) in his famous book 'The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved' first published in 1975, noted... 
    "None of the stories could be substantiated and today the fate of the occupants of the Mary Celeste is as much a mystery as the day the ship was found deserted at sea". 
    Although lack of any clear evidence to the abandonment continues to keep such a great mystery alive, a greater mystery is how this entire incident got connected to the Bermuda Triangle after all! Mary Celeste was found abandoned in a sea area between the Azores and Portugal and at a place which is about 590 miles west of Gibraltar and thousands of miles away from the so called Bermuda Triangle Location. The connection to the triangle was perhaps a creative imagination of an author. 
    Raj BhattacharyaBy Raj Bhattacharya 
    Raj, a seasoned travel writer and Bermuda destination expert, has extensive global travel experience. This website reflects his profound insights, garnered over nearly two decades of dedicated findings and research on the island. Raj has assisted countless Bermuda-bound visitors by providing direct, personalized responses to their queries and imparting his wealth of knowledge through this platform. This site serves as an indispensable guide for those seeking informed and reliable insights into Bermuda's treasures. 
    Know more about Raj Bhattacharya 

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    Your Reviews

    NOTE: I manually evaluate all posts and include only the ones that are original (not copy pasted from other sources) and having some serious matter. 
    Sonny (March 2019) 
    Dennis Slade is right; neither the plotted course nor the actual course of the Mary Celeste would have brought it anywhere near the Bermuda triangle. It left port from New York which is 775 miles north of the Bermuda triangle's northern-most point (Bermuda) and it would have set out nearly due east across the Atlantic since the destination was Genoa, Italy. The last entry in the ship's log recorded that they were within site of one of the Azores islands so there is no possible way (nor is there any suspicion or indication) that it could have sailed anywhere near the Bermuda triangle. 
    A possible reason for the confusion may be that a different ship of the same name did disappear in the general area of the Bermuda triangle but it was a much smaller vessel and under far less mysterious circumstances. There is a woman who researched the ghost-ship Mary Celeste named Anne McGregor who discovered the most plausible explanation to date that is well supported by historical data. I believe there is a documentary about it. 
    Dennis Slade (August 2014) 
    Just wanted to point out that the Mary Celeste has nothing to do with the Bermuda Triangle... the boat was no where near the area when it was found, it was actually found on 4 December 1872 in the Atlantic Ocean slowly drifting towards the Straits of Gibraltar, thousand of miles away.