On this date in 1872, the ghost ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned and abandoned, in the Atlantic. She was an American brigantine merchant ship, and she’d been at sea for about a month. When she was found, she was fully stocked with six months’ worth of food and supplies, she was completely seaworthy, and the weather was calm. She was flying no distress signal, and there were no signs of violence or mutiny, but all of her passengers and crew had vanished without a trace. The ship’s lifeboat was gone, which seemed to indicate that they had abandoned ship, but their personal possessions and valuables were untouched, so they must have left in a hurry. Also missing were the ship’s papers (with the exception of the logbook), her navigation equipment, and two pumps.
There are several theories about why the ship was abandoned. They run the gamut of plausibility and include sea monsters, alien abduction, tsunami, piracy, and mutiny. The most plausible scenario involves the Mary Celeste’s cargo. She was carrying 1,700 barrels of raw alcohol, intended for sale in Italy. When she was eventually brought to port, it was discovered that nine of the barrels were empty. Many experts believe that the barrels leaked, causing a build-up of alcohol fumes that would have been easily ignited. Because alcohol burns at such a low temperature, even a large explosion could have left the ship and even the surrounding barrels undamaged; such an explosion would have spooked the captain and crew into abandoning ship. The lifeboat passengers probably drowned in bad weather, or died of starvation and thirst.
James Winchester considered selling the Mary Celeste after the mysterious events for which she was now notable. His mind was made up when the vessel claimed the life of his father, Henry Winchester-Vinters, who drowned in an accident in Boston, Massachusetts when she was brought back to America. Winchester sold the Mary Celeste at an enormous loss. Over the next 13 years, the ship changed hands 17 times. By then, the Mary Celeste was in very poor condition.
Her last captain and owner, identified as G. C. Parker, made no profit whatsoever and deliberately wrecked the Mary Celeste in an insurance fraud in the Caribbean Sea on January 3, 1885. She was loaded with an over-insured cargo of scrap, including boots and cat food. The plan did not work, as the ship failed to sink after having been run on Rochelais reef off the western coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti and south of Gonâve Island. Parker then tried to burn the wreck, but even after the fire the vessel remained intact, although the ship’s log was destroyed along with Benjamin Briggs‘s prior entries in it.
Parker then filed an exorbitant insurance claim for a cargo that never existed; a subsequent insurance investigation revealed the fraud. Captain Parker was arrested, but died under unknown circumstances before his trial. The partially burnt hulk of the Mary Celeste was deemed beyond repair and she was left to eventually slip off the shoal and sink.
Stephen King in his novella “The Langoliers” (In the anthology Four Past Midnight, 1990) makes reference to the Mary Celeste, comparing the “feeling of terror and superstitious dread” in the guts of his character Brian Engle, in discovering the state of an airplane (a 767, Flight 29) in which a large proportion of the passengers and all crew have apparently disappeared (“The plane was… a little over half full,” of which ten people apparently remain.) “For just a moment he thought that this was what the first boarders of the Mary Celeste must have felt like, coming upon a totally abandoned ship where all the sail was neatly laid on, where the captain’s table had been set for dinner, where all ropes were neatly coiled and some sailor’s pipe was still smoldering away the last of its tobacco on the foredeck…” The exactness of his character’s understanding of the status of the Mary Celeste may be an example of author’s license, especially as concerns the pipe tobacco.
- Ghost Ship (waldina.com)
- Skeptic History: Bermuda Triangle (randi.org)
- Video Thursday: Ghost Ships (patriotspoint.org)
- Top 10 Ghost Ships (presurfer.blogspot.com)
- Fiction’s unsolved mysteries (guardian.co.uk)