A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

Mary Celeste

All aboard that’s coming aboard for this week’s episode of mysteriyes! Weigh the anchor and set a course for intrigue! Oh no we’ve been waylaid by the strong winds of pointless non-sense. Quickly bring her about and loose the cannons. Yar me buried treasure is in me booty and I’ll not be giving it up lest you be looking for davey jone’s locker. This week Zach weeeeeeeee’rrrrrrreeeeeee TAKING IT BACK IN TIME!


We’re going back to the year 1872 November 7th to be exact. Only 2 days after Ulysses S. Grant easily defeated Horace Greeley to earn a second term as president of the United States. We’re going to New York harbour where we’ll find a fairly inconspicuous vessel. The Mary Celeste had been build 10 years earlier in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia under the name, “The Amazon”. It sailed normally for 6 years before running aground during a storm and being abandoned. It was sold and salvage by an American businessman who registered it in American as The Mary Celeste. The ship was then repossessed by the businessman’s creditors and sold again to a New York group who kept no real record of the ship until they spend over $10,000 to enlarge it and appointed Benjamin Spooner Briggs as her captain.


Benjamin Spooner Briggs (yes I will say his middle name every time) was the son of a sea captain named Nathan Briggs from Wareham, Massachusetts (a place I once desperately tried to live). He was a devout christian who regularly read his bible and shared his faith often. Briggs became a partial owner of the Mary Celeste and on October 20, 1872 oversaw the loading of the ship’s first cargo since being rebuilt. The Mary Celeste was sailing to Genoa with 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol onboard, a type of ethanol with additive to make it poisonous, bad tasting, foul smelling or nauseating to keep people from drinking it.


A week later Briggs brought his wife and baby daughter aboard for the journey. The ship was carefully chosen by Briggs. The first mate was the niece of majority owner James H. Winchester, the second mate was hand picked, the steward was given a personal recommendation by Winchester and the general seamen were described later as, “peaceable and first-class sailors”. On November 3rd Briggs wrote a letter to his mother saying he was very satisfied with the ship and his crew. His wife also wrote that the crew seemed very capable.


On November 5th the Mary Celeste left pier 50 but the weather wasn’t clear and Briggs decided to anchor the ship before they had even left New York Harbour. Two days later on November 7th the weather cleared and Mary Celeste entered the Atlantic.


A little under a month later Dei Gratia a brigantine that had left New York harbor 8 days after Mary Celeste spotted a vessel about 6 miles away. The ship’s erratic movements and the odd set of her sails led the captain to suspect that something had gone wrong. When the two ships got closer he could tell there was nobody on deck and there were no replies to his signals. That ship was Mary Celeste.


A crew was sent to investigate the mysterious ship. When climbed aboard they found that the ship was completely deserted. The were partly set and in poor condition with a few of them missing completely and much of the ship’s rigging was damaged. The main hatch to the to the lower deck was secure but the hatches at the bow and the stern were open. The ship’s single lifeboat was missing and the ship’s compass had shifted and its glass cover was broken. In the lower deck there was 3 ½ feet of water and the captain’s quarters were wet and untidy from being unattended at sea. There were personal items scattered around including a sheathed sword but most of the ship’s papers were missing along with the instruments to navigate the ship. Provisions had been left in the Galley and there was no obvious signs of fire or violence. The cargo was intact but 9 of the ship’s 1,701 barrels of alcohol were empty. The initial investigation suggested that there had been an orderly departure from the ship.


The last entry on the ship’s log was from 8:00 AM on November 25th, nine days earlier. It stated that ship was on course, approximately 400 miles away from where it was found. Dei Gratia split her crew and sailed Mary Celeste to Gibraltar where an official investigation was launch.


The hearing was conducted by Frederick Solly Flood who was described as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ”. After testimony of Dei Gratia’s crew Flood concluded that a crime must have been committed by someone under the influence of the ship’s cargo of alcohol.


On December 23rd there was a full examination of Mary Celeste. There were cuts on each side of the bow possibly caused by a sharp instrument along with possible traces of blood on the captain’s sword. The reports following the examination emphasized that the ship did not appear to have been struck by heavy weather (because of the sewing machine oil). There were also stains on one of the ship’s rails that might have been blood with a deep mark that could have potentially been caused by an axe.


These finding cemented Flood’s opinion that a crime had been committed. He wrote to the Board of Trade in London concluding that the crew must have gotten drunk on the ship’s alcohol (even though you couldn’t drink it)  and murdered the Briggs family and the officers before cutting the bows to fake a collision and finally jumping into the lifeboat to probably die at sea.


The ship’s owner James Winchester sailed to Gibralter to claim his ship on January 15. Flood demanded $15,000 for it to be released and immediately began to suspect that Winchest had intentionally hired a crew who would kill Briggs and the ship’s officers, but this theory was undermined when scientific analysis concluded that the stains were not blood and the marks on the ship were not man made.


So, what happened to the Mary Celeste? What could have caused a perfectly fine ship to be abandoned by it’s crew for no clear reason?


The first theory is there was some kind of foul play. Perhaps it really was all a conspiracy by Winchester to collect an insurance payment from a ship that was reported massively over insured. This theory was very popular at the time until Winchester produced documents that showed the ship was insured at an appropriate level. Perhaps Mary Celeste had Dei Gratia in the Atlantic after which the crew was set upon and murdered so that Dei Gratia could collect a sizable reward for the ship’s return. This theory makes less sense when you remember that Dei Gratia left 8 days after Mary Celeste, took the same route, and was a slower ship so it is unlikely that Dei Gratia could have caught up. Perhaps Mary Celeste was attacked by pirates but pirates would have looted the ship but the personal possessions of the captain and the crew were left untouched. The final foul play theory is that Briggs and the captain of Dei Gratia created a scheme to collect the sizable reward money that would have accompanied the discovery and return of Mary Celeste. The two quite possible could have encountered each other and it would explain several things but Briggs also had another child who was left in America and never saw their father again. It seems unlikely that Briggs would abandon his child for a couple thousand dollars.


If we rule out foul play the next theories center around Mary Celeste being abandoned. It was suggested the missing lifeboat and unusual position of the rigging suggests that the crew had climbed into the lifeboat and attached the boat to the ship after which the line broke and the Mary Celeste sailed away.


But this theory has it’s own problems. First why would anyone in any situation think it would be a good idea to leave a seaworthy ship, with ample provisions for a lifeboat. Even if Mary Celeste had blown her timbers (which she didn’t) it still would have been a better option than a lifeboat in pretty much any situation. There’s also the testimony of anyone who knew the captain or his crew. The ship’s majority owner Winchester testified that Briggs wouldn’t have abandoned ship unless in an extreme circumstance and by all accounts the mates and crew were very experienced.


So if Briggs would have only ordered an evacuation in an extreme circumstance what could have caused it?


The first theory is a waterspout which is essentially a sea tornado. Perhaps the ship had been hit by one and the crew misunderstood how much water the ship was taking on. This makes a certain amount of sense. There was an impromptu device for measuring water depth on the ship’s deck and it’s possible for water spouts to appear without a storm.


Another proposed theory is that an iceberg had drifted unexpectedly into the path of the Mary Celeste. This could cause a fear that the ship would run aground and could explain an evacuation order but it’s unlikely for an iceberg to drift that far south and other ships, most likely, would have reported it as well.


The final theory, and my personal favorite, is that there was an explosion on Mary Celeste. Whether it was caused by choppy seas, an earthquake or the fact that the 9 empty barrels were made of a more porous wood, it’s possible that noxious fumes from the cargo leaked into the ship’s hull. This could have caused a small explosion on the ship or even simply caused an imminent enough threat through the smell for Briggs to order a temporary evacuation until the fumes dissipated.

Also aliens could have done it and then also stole the lifeboat.