Mary Celeste: What Actually Happened Aboard The Notorious Ghost Ship

Published August 19, 2018
Updated October 10, 2018

Learn the likely fate of the American merchant brigantine Mary Celeste, the ghost ship found deserted in the Atlantic near the Azores Islands in 1872.

Mary Celeste Engraving

Wikimedia Commons

On December 5, 1872 while sailing through rough weather, the British brig Dei Gratia sighted a seemingly abandoned ship drifting through the Atlantic near the Azores Islands about 1,000 miles west of Portugal.

When the crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste, they found everything in perfect order with even the crew’s clothes neatly packed away, yet no people anywhere to be found.

The only clues about the lack of people were a disassembled pump in the hold and a missing lifeboat. So began one of the most enduring mysteries of the sea.

Theories from the wildly implausible involving sea monsters to the reasonable fear of fire from the alcohol cargo abounded. By now, there has been more than a century and a half of theories, but finally, we may have found an answer.

The Discovery Of The Mary Celeste

On Nov. 7, 1872, Captain Benjamin Briggs and the crew of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship with a cargo of denatured alcohol, had left New York Harbor for Genoa, Italy. He brought seven handpicked crew along with his wife and daughter.

They would never reach their destination.

After leaving New York, the Mary Celeste battled its way through treacherous seas and howling winds for two weeks. Then, on Nov. 25, the captain entered what would be the last entry in the log. At the time, nothing was amiss.

But when the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste on Dec. 5, there was not a person in sight. When the captain of the Dei Gratia boarded the ghost ship, he found three and a half feet of water in the bilge, the lowest point of the ship that sits below the waterline. The cargo was intact, though some of the barrels were empty.

Whats’ more, the ghost ship was still seaworthy, so the crew of the Dei Gratia split up and together the two ships sailed to Gibraltar where they could claim salvage rights under maritime law.

The Theories

Ship With Sea Serpent

Wikimedia Commons

Why was the ship abandoned? It was perfectly seaworthy. There were six months of food and water aboard. The crew’s belongings were stowed away. A captain would only abandon ship in the direst circumstances, and the circumstances certainly didn’t seem dire. This would remain a mystery for nearly a century and a half.

Some believed that the crew had drunk the alcohol and mutinied. But there was no sign of violence. Some said the ship must have been raided by pirates, but no valuables were missing. Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story on the subject detailed an ex-slave capturing the ship. But where did he, and everyone else, go? Sea monsters and waterspouts were also proposed.

Yet for all of these theories, none of the evidence ever matched. Perhaps the most plausible theory was that the vapors from the alcohol had blown the hatch cover off. Then, fearing fire, the crew abandoned ship. But the hatch cover was securely fastened.

Not even foul play appeared to be at the root of the matter. When the two ships arrived in Gibraltar, the Dei Gratia submitted its salvage claim. The admiralty court at first suspected foul play. But after a three-month investigation, they were unable to find any evidence.

The crew of the Dei Gratia eventually received payment. It was, however, only one-sixth of the total $46,000 value of the Mary Celeste. Apparently, the authorities weren’t totally convinced of their innocence.

The Truth?

Mary Celeste Painting

Wikimedia Commons

In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his short story, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, based on the tale of the Mary Celeste. The publicity from the short story led to a new investigation into the ship, but no new revelations were found.

Finally, in 2002, documentarian Anne MacGregor began to investigate. Using various modern methods, she reconstructed the drift of the ghost ship and deduced that the captain had a faulty chronometer and was hopelessly off course. The Mary Celeste was 120 miles west of where it should have been.

The captain thus expected to sight land three days earlier than he did. He then changed course towards Santa Maria Island in the Azores and was probably looking for shelter from the relentless weather. But even all of this wouldn’t make a captain abandon ship.

But MacGregor also learned that the ship had been recently refitted and that coal dust and debris from the refitting had likely clogged the pumps that remove the water that can make into even a seaworthy ship’s bilge.

With the pumps not working and there being no way to pump out any water that might naturally make its way into the ship’s bilge, Captain Briggs may have decided that, with the ship off course yet at least near some kind of land (Santa Maria), the crew ought to cut their losses and simply try to save themselves by abandoning ship and heading for land.

MacGregor’s theory is by no means universally accepted or definitively provable, but it at least lines up with the evidence (the disassembled pump, for example) in a way that other theories do not. Finally, some 130 years after the crew’s eerie vanishing, the mystery of the Mary Celeste may have finally been solved.


After this look at the Mary Celeste, read about the creepiest ghost ships ever found, or find out the truth about the Flying Dutchman, possibly the most famous ghost ship of them all.

Taig Spearman
Taig Spearman is a writer who lives in Connecticut.
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