On November 7, 1872, the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste set sail from New York Harbor on its way to Genoa, Italy. On board were the ship’s captain, Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, along with eight crewmembers. Less than a month later, on December 5, a passing British ship called Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste at full sail and adrift about 400 miles east of the Azores, with no sign of the captain, his family or any of the crew. Aside from several feet of water in the hold and a missing lifeboat, the ship was undamaged and loaded with six months’ worth of food and water.
Mary Celeste had a shadowy past. Originally christened Amazon, it was given a new name after a series of mishaps (including the sudden illness and death of its first captain and a collision with another ship in the English Channel). An investigation into whether to grant payment by its insurers to the Dei Gratia’s crew for salvaging the “ghost ship” found no evidence of foul play. Mary Celeste would sail under different owners for 12 years before its last captain deliberately ran it aground in Haiti as part of an attempted insurance fraud.
In 2001, best-selling novelist and adventurer Clive Cussler claimed to have found the wreck of Mary Celeste, but later analysis of the timbers retrieved from the ship he found showed the wood was still living at least a decade after Mary Celeste sank.
Meanwhile, one of the most famous maritime mysteries in history endures: Why would an experienced captain such as Briggs, or his sailors, abandon a perfectly sound ship? Theories over the years have ranged from mutiny and pirate attack to assault by giant octopus or sea monster, while the more scientifically minded proposed an explosion caused by fumes from the 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol in the ship’s hold.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even weighed in with a short story published in 1884, in which the inhabitants of the ghost ship fell victim to an ex-slave seeking vengeance. On the less-sensationalized end, an investigation chronicled in the 2007 documentary “The True Story of the Mary Celeste” was able to offer no definite conclusion, but did suggest a scenario in which a faulty chronometer, rough seas and a clogged onboard pump could have led Briggs to order the ship abandoned shortly after sighting land on November 25, 1872.
According to the last entry in the ship’s log book, made that morning, Mary Celeste was within sight of the Azores island of Santa Maria, some 500 miles from where the Dei Gratia would find it nine days later.