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The Mary Celeste Mystery

One of the great maritime mysteries is that of the Mary Celeste.

(some debate over the name as Marie Celeste)

Over 125 years ago, the ship was found floating, crew less, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in apparent pristine condition. The fate of the crew and passengers has never been adequately explained.The Mary Celeste was launched in 1861, from the shipyard at Spencer’s Island near the head of the Bay of Fundy, under the name Amazon. Following an accidental grounding at Cow Bay in Cape Breton in 1868, she was repaired and renamed the Mary Celeste. She operated under an American flag out of New York.

On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste sailed under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs bound for Europe with a cargo of wines and liquors. He was accompanied by his wife, his young daughter and a crew of seven.

Marie Celeste

Shipwreck of The Mary Celeste

On December 4, 1872, the Mary Celeste was found floating 600 miles off Gibraltar. The official reports stated that everything to be in good order, except that the ship’s paper and its chronometer were missing. The last entry into the captain’s logs, on November 24, gave no indication of anything untoward happening or about to happen.

This is where the story gets a little murky and the mystery deepens.

The condition of the Mary Celeste, at the time of her discovery at sea, vary according to the reporter. One report suggested that there were bloodied weapons on board and blood on some of the sail. If this is true it suggests a pirate attack, something that was common in that area around that period.  But if it was a pirating, why was the money box and the ship’s cargo of wine and liquor not taken?  Pirates were known to take things from ships to better their personal finance.

Another area of conflicting observation is whether or not the only lifeboat was still strapped to the ship.

Some other theories put forward over the years concerning the Mary Celeste have included:

  • the entire crew may have been swept overboard (assuming that one of them must have been carrying the chronometer and ship’s papers at the time) by a large wave while watching their delirious (or drunken), fully-dressed, captain swimming around the vessel in mid-ocean with his daughter on his back (You can be sure that Mrs. Captain had something to say about that!).
  • the Mary Celeste came to the aid of a burning cargo ship filled with coal and explosives. The Mary Celeste got a little too close to the burning ship and the crew abandoned ship into a small lifeboat which also picked up the crew of the cargo ship. The lifeboat then capsized and all hands were lost. Unfortunately there isn’t any record of a cargo ship being lost during that period and some have reported that the single lifeboat was still on board the Mary Celeste.
  • the captain of the Dei Gratia, the ship which found and applied for salvage rights to the Mary Celeste, hatched a plot to takeover the ship by placing three of his cut throats on the Mary Celeste as crewmen. Once at sea, the crewmen overtook the vessel and killed the captain and crew. The Dei Gratia then “discovered” the “abandoned” vessel and claimed salvage rights to the ship and the cargo.

What is the real story of the Mary Celeste? What was the fate of Captain Briggs and his family, and the crew of the Mary Celeste?


The final resting place of the Mary Celeste has been found by one of Bruce’s heros, Clive Cussler.  The ship kicked around for many years after its “ghostly” episode.  It was scuttled on the Rochelois Reef in Haiti in about 1884. 


Mary Celeste

Mary Celeste

A recent communication with the webmaster of the Arthur Conan Doyle site at: reminded us that there has always been a confusion over the spelling of the Mary Celeste.  Some say that she was called the Marie Celeste.  In 1883, Doyle’s first literary success was “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”  In this book he told the story of a black passenger.  The passenger and his fellow conspirators commandeered the ship, sailed it to Africa and murdered the passengers and crew.  The remarkable thing about this story to Doyle was that anyone believed it.  Apparently many persons thought that the detailed description of the action was too got be just made up.  Even U.S. consul Horatio J. Sprague demanded that the publishers, Cornhill Magazine, investigate the origin of the article.

From, “Conan Doyle was pleased that his short story was so well done that it could be mistaken as a true accounting of events. He was also delighted that hundreds of readers, who did understand the work was fictional, thought it was written by a man known for his tales of adventure. They suspected that the anonymous author was none other than Robert Louis Stevenson.”

By Anna Derks

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Author of Mysteries of Canada

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