The Mysterious True Story of the
Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew
The ship drifted restlessly through the whitecaps, like a lost soul wandering among tombstones. There was no hurry or purpose in its movement, no discernible momentum urging it along. Its circuitous path through the North Atlantic suggested nothing beyond mindless, random motion.
It had appeared out of nowhere, very much like the ghost ship sighted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wayward sailor in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the epic poem, the skeletal vessel that haunted the mariner first emerged from the mist as “a little speck” on the horizon, a ship that “plunged and tacked and veered” with only a hint of sail hanging from its masts. Coleridge hardly could have described the scene better had he been there on that colorless December day when the men of the Nova Scotia freighter Dei Gratia first spotted the ship destined to haunt them forever. The only difference was that, unlike the mariner, the sailors who discovered this wayfaring vessel detected no hint of malevolence – at least not initially.
The men had watched this curious sight from a distance all afternoon, hypnotized by its awkward, almost primitive, rhythm. At first glance, they thought little of the anonymous ship, but later changed course to intercept it when they finally decided it must be in some sort of distress. Something about its gait seemed, well, unnatural.
At the wheel of the Dei Gratia, seaman John Johnson most likely did not know the similarities between the approaching vessel and the ship of doom described in Coleridge’s verse, which by 1872 was already a classic. But then Johnson, a Russian Lutheran, could barely speak the King’s English, much less read it. His knowledge of seafaring lore was limited to whatever his fellow sailors related to him on long, cold deck watches. That afternoon, however, Johnson would join that mythology as he played a small role in an incident destined to become one of the ultimate stories of the sea; for on that day, December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia sailed into maritime history after a chance encounter with a small merchant ship called the Mary Celeste.
For nearly an hour after first spying her, the men watched the ship yawing erratically as it lumbered along with only a few sails flying. The Dei Gratia’s captain attempted to signal her crew several times, but received no reply. A cautious man, he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong, and he knew he must lend whatever assistance he could – that was the unwritten law of the sea. So, when the two ships passed within a quarter mile of one another, the captain sent three of his men, including Johnson, to investigate.
The sailors rowed over in a small lifeboat and climbed aboard the vessel, where they stumbled onto a chilling scene: an empty deck, a tattered sail hanging from the foremast, the ship’s wheel spinning untended. More than 400 miles from the coast of Portugal, the Mary Celeste was sailing without a soul on board.
Perhaps the oddest thing was that, for the most part, she appeared to be in fine shape – almost eerily so. The Dei Gratia crew found no serious weather damage, no trace of a struggle, or any other sign of trouble that would have made veteran sailors abandon ship in the middle of the ocean. Stranger still, the crew had left behind foul-weather gear, personal belongings, even their pipes – things they almost certainly would have taken, or would have been wearing during a storm.
There were other things that seemed more than a little peculiar: The form of a sleeping child was imprinted in the wet mattress of one bunk, a few barrels of alcohol had broken open or leaked in the hold, and there was a decorative sword in the captain’s cabin, its blade peppered with a reddish stain. The last entry in the Mary Celeste’s logbook was an innocuous notation made ten days earlier that suggested nothing but a routine passage – and placed the ship 300 miles west of its current position. The men of the Dei Gratia could not imagine how the ship had traveled so far under so little canvas, nor could they explain where its crew had gone or, just as confounding, why. The brigantine’s captain and crew had simply vanished into the cold salt air.
More than a century later, many sailors and historians still consider the story of the Mary Celeste the greatest maritime mystery of all time. It is a tale that evokes man’s most primordial fears of the sea, of simply vanishing without a trace beneath the waves. It has become one of the most appropriated stories in nautical history, but its legend also resonates with elements of literature written decades before it sailed – not only Coleridge’s “Mariner,” but also Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But in the case of the Mary Celeste, the truth is undeniably stranger than fiction.
The Mary Celeste shares a certain kinship with the Flying Dutchman as well; both vessels are routinely called “ghost ships.” When the Mary Celeste sailed in the mid-nineteenth century, fantastic tales of the Dutchman – an apparition said to appear in the stormy waters off Africa’s Cape of Good Hope – were already more than 200 years old. It is said that the Dutchman, hopelessly searching for safe harbor, is doomed to forever haunt the cape, where it was lost during a storm in the fifteenth century.
For the Mary Celeste, the label of ghost ship has a somewhat less supernatural, but arguably as suspenseful, definition. “Ghost ship” is an old mariner’s term for any vessel found sailing without her crew. Abandoning a ship in the middle of the ocean was not an uncommon occurrence in the nineteenth century; every year dozens of vessels were found unoccupied just in the Atlantic. There was almost always a reasonable explanation. Men prematurely left ships they thought were sinking, either taking to lifeboats are flagging down a passing vessel to rescue them. Often an entire crew could be swept overboard in a storm, but the ship they left behind sported enough damage to make their fate obvious. Sometimes, sailors who came upon an abandoned vessel might even find a note or logbook telling why the crew was gone.
On occasion, the disappearance of a ship’s crew could be attributed to violence, not from the sea, but brought on by other men. Mutiny and piracy were still of some concern in the nineteenth century. In those days, entire crews could be shanghaied – abducted and forced to work on other ships. But by the latter years of the century those were, mercifully, relatively rare events. More than 130 years after the Mary Celeste sailed, no one can say for certain what happened to the ten people who sailed on her. There were a half dozen theories offered in the month after the ship was discovered derelict, and there have been a dozen more advanced since, but there has never been a clear consensus on any one scenario. It is a mystery that has tormented countless people, including the families of the lost sailors and hundreds of others who have tried in vain to solve the riddle. The Ghost Ship may be the best example of the old proverb that the sea never gives up its secrets.
An undated photo of the Mary Celeste in an unidentified harbor in the days after Benjamin Briggs, his family and crew disappeared. Courtesy Cumberland County Museum, Amherst Nova Scotia
A 1965 magazine advertisement from Atlantic Mutual depicts the moment the crew of the Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste abandoned at sea. Permission and license to use the photo is granted by the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company