What Happened to the Ghost Ship Mary Celeste?

What do you imagine when you think of a ghost ship? Is it a ship for ghosts, or a ship that is a ghost? Whatever your answer, there's a real, non-paranormal definition: They're any ship that's found drifting without a crew. Paranormal or not, some of them have some downright creepy backstories. The worst ones are those that don't have an explanation at all. Meet the Mary Celeste.

A Mystery's Afloat

1872 wasn't a good year for sailors on the Atlantic Ocean. Battered by some of the worst weather in recorded history, hundreds of ships were lost or abandoned at sea. But the Mary Celeste stands out as the only one that eventually found its way back to port without her crew. On December 5 (about a month after she left New York), she was discovered by the crew of a different ship, the Dei Gratia, in nearly perfect condition. Her rations were fully stocked, and her cargo was secure in the hold. The only thing missing was a lifeboat — oh, and every living soul on board.

So it seems like the crew jumped ship on the lifeboat in a hurry — too fast to gather any of their supplies, at least. But there was no sign of any disaster that would have caused that kind of panic. After all, the ship was packed to the brim with 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol. That's a lot of moolah to leave behind on a perfectly seaworthy vessel. The story of the Mary Celeste began to spread when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a story to explain what happened (he blamed a vengeful former slave) in 1884, and in 1935, Bela Lugosi starred as a murderous sailor in Hollywood's telling of the tale. Neither of these is a particularly compelling explanation, but there are some theories that are worth considering.

There's Something About Mary

Documentarian Anne MacGregor put forth a pretty convincing explanation for why the experienced captain would do the unthinkable and abandon a seaworthy vessel. It couldn't have been pirates; they would have stolen the cargo. It wasn't a fire; there was no sign of any damage. And as to Bela Lugosi's (fictional) mutinying crewman, all of the records of the time suggested it just wasn't likely. Having ruled out the impossible and unlikely, MacGregor turned to what she could verify: the ship's logs.

According to the last entry, the ship was in sight of Santa Maria in the Azores on November 25. 10 days later, it was found 400 miles east of that point. In MacGregor's estimation, the likeliest scenario is that the crew jumped ship on the last recorded day and the ship sailed itself the rest of the way. But why? After carefully examining the available records, MacGregor and oceanographer Phil Richardson came to the conclusion that the captain had a faulty chronometer that suggested the ship was about 120 miles west of where it actually was. So, lost on a turbulent ocean, the captain likely ordered the crew to abandon ship and head for the nearby island. If only he'd trusted his vessel.

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We can't learn enough about this historical mystery, so we're buying Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew" right away. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 27, 2017

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