The Marie Celeste

The Big Short is a great film about the drama leading up to the housing bubble and the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It also contains a reference to our myth du jour. In one scene, two financial analysts visit a real estate development where over-extended home-owners have stopped playing their mortgages. Touring a house abandoned by its owners, they find everything intact, as if the owners had just stepped out for a minute. One analyst says to the other, “It looks like the Marie Celeste.”

The tragic story of the ship Marie Celeste has been told for over a hundred years. And the tales get wilder and wilder every time. Here’s the most well-known version:

On December 5, 1872, a vessel was found drifting in the Atlantic Ocean about 1,400 miles west of Portugal. The crew and passengers were gone, but the ship was in nearly perfect condition, with all her lifeboats in place, and all the supplies, clothing, and provisions for her occupants intact.It was as if the people had just evaporated.

What happened? Were they killed by pirates? Did a giant squid attack the ship and eat them? Was there mutiny and murder? I’m going to tell you. But I’m also going to use the Marie Celeste story to analyze how historical myths and misconceptions start and spread.

Let’s start with the name of the ship. It was the Mary Celeste. She was built in Canada in 1861 and originally named the Amazon. She worked as a cargo ship, running between North American ports, London, and the West Indies. Damaged in a storm in 1867, the Amazon was abandoned and eventually sold to a shipping company in New York. Re-christened as Mary Celeste, it was repaired and rebuilt.

The Mary Celeste was given a new captain, Benjamin Briggs, and a new crew in late October 1872, as well as a commission to take a cargo of denatured alcohol to Genoa, Italy. The specific nature of the cargo is important for later theories and stories that tried to explain the Mary Celeste mystery. Denatured alcohol (also called methylated spirits) is ethanol that’s used as a solvent and as fuel for alcohol burners and camp stoves. It’s not for human consumption. In fact, it is treated with additives to discourage consumption, and is poisonous if swallowed.

With this cargo, the Mary Celeste left New York harbor and set sail for Genoa on November 7th, 1872. Captain Briggs’s wife, Sarah, and their infant daughter were the only passengers. There were seven crew members.

Eight days later, another cargo ship, the Dei Gratia, left New York for Gibraltar, and more or less followed the same route. Two weeks later, 1,400 miles off the coast of Portugal, the Dei Gratia spotted a ship adrift and seemingly unmanned. Drawing alongside, they saw that it was the Mary Celeste, and that no one was on deck. Despite extensive attempts to hail the crew, no one answered, so Dei Gratia’s captain sent two men over to investigate.

They found the ship deserted. It was not, as later legends would claim, in perfect condition. The rigging was in bad shape. Lots of it was strewn over the deck, and some was hanging over the side. The sails were also in poor condition, although some of them were set. Some of the hatches were open, and three-and-a-half feet of sea-water was in her hold. A temporary sounding rod (which was probably used to measure the water in the hold) was found on the main deck.

Although the ship’s galley was still well-stocked and seemed to be in good condition, the captain’s cabin, as well as the crew’s quarters, were disheveled. The ship’s papers (except for the log) were missing. And the captain’s navigational instruments were gone.

Also gone was the ship’s only life boat, which was a small, two-masted yawl. So it appeared to the Dei Gratia crew that the Mary Celeste’s crew and passengers got into the life boat and abandoned ship for some unknown reason. The Dei Gratia proceeded to tow the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar for salvage.

We’ll get to the salvage hearing in Gibraltar in a few moments, but while we’re still here in the middle of the Atlantic, I’d like to give you an early glimpse of some of the myth-making that has made the Mary Celeste story so famous.

In 1884, a young British writer named Arthur Conan Doyle anonymously published a fictional story in The Cornhill Magazine. Doyle had been a ship’s doctor in the early 1880s and drew on his experience in making a dramatic story from the bare bones of the Mary Celeste tale. The story was titled J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, and was built around a fictional character, Dr. Jephson, who was a passenger on the so-called Marie Celeste. Its opening paragraphs describe the discovery of an abandoned ship, read here by the British voice actor, and our new Buzzkill Bestie, Leonard Payne:

In the month of December in the year 1873, the British ship Dei Gratia steered into Gibraltar, having in tow the derelict brigantine Marie Celeste, which had been picked up in latitude 38° 40′, longitude 17° 15′ W. There were several circumstances in connection with the condition and appearance of this abandoned vessel which excited considerable comment at the time, and aroused a curiosity which has never been satisfied.

She is perfectly watertight. No signs of a struggle or of violence are to be detected, and there is absolutely nothing to account for the disappearance of the crew. There are several indications that a lady was present on board, a sewing-machine being found in the cabin and some articles of female attire. These probably belonged to the captain’s wife, who is mentioned in the log as having accompanied her husband. As an instance of the mildness of the weather, it may be remarked that a bobbin of silk was found standing upon the sewing-machine, though the least roll of the vessel would have precipitated it to the floor. The boats were intact and slung upon the davits; and the cargo, consisting of tallow and American clocks, was untouched.

Notice the differences here? Arthur Conan Doyle obviously wrote this as fiction (and we’ll explain his version of the solution to the Mary Celeste mystery later). The ship’s name has been subtly changed; the date is off by a year; the cargo is different; the ship’s life boat is still on board; and everything else in the ship seems untouched. As I said before, it’s as if the people on board just vanished. And since Doyle––who would gain fame as the creator of Sherlock Holmes a few years later–– wrote the opening pages of his story so convincingly, the myth of the Marie Celeste was off and running.

Now let’s go back to Gibraltar in December 1872, where the salvage court was looking into what actually happened to the Mary Celeste.

The Gibraltar court tried to establish two things: the salvage value of the ship, and what had happened to its crew and passengers. The two issues were somewhat intertwined. If the Mary Celeste’s cargo had been extremely valuable, it’s possible that another ship could have attacked her, killed the people on board, and brought the ship in to try to claim a salvage award. They could also have damaged the ship to make it look as if her crew and passengers escaped a sinking ship and were lost at sea.

The hearings in Gibraltar didn’t go well. In addition to the testimony from the Dei Gratia captain and crew, the court took evidence from the surveyor of shipping in Gibraltar. Initially, these reports seem to indicate that damage done to the ship’s bow was manmade, and appeared to have been deliberately created to give the impression of sea damage. Further, traces of what looked like blood were found on the captain’s sword, and stains found on the ship’s rail also looked like blood. The attorney general in Gibraltar, who was in charge of the case, reported that a crime had been committed.

He strongly implied that a crew member, or members, got into the alcohol, got drunk, killed the captain and his family in a rage, and then escaped on the ship’s yawl. The fact that the denatured alcohol in the hold could not be consumed seems to have eluded him. But within a couple of weeks, the alleged blood on the sword and the ship’s rail were put under microscopes and shown not to be blood. A more senior and expert naval inspector also showed that the damage to the Mary Celeste’s bow was caused by normal action of the ocean in a long Atlantic crossing.

The Gibraltar salvage court then had to rule that foul play could not be proved. So they paid a small salvage award to the captain of the Dei Gratia, released the Mary Celeste, and she was taken to Genoa, where her cargo was unloaded.

That would have been the end of the story, except that enough loose ends and weird unknowns were left by the Gibraltar court and recorded in its reports to the British Admiralty to cause people to continue to wonder what happened. Here are a few of the most popular theories:

1. Fumes rising from the alcohol in the hold drove everyone crazy and they all jumped overboard and drowned (or got into the lifeboat to escape the fumes and they were lost at sea).

2. The captain went into a crazy religious frenzy and killed everyone.

3. The Mary Celeste captain and the Dei Gratia’s captain had a secret agreement to split the salvage award after the ship was abandoned, and the Mary Celeste folks were waiting on an island in the Azores for the Dei Gratia’s captain to come back and give them their share of the loot.

4. Pirates from Morocco raided the Mary Celeste.

5. A waterspout swamped the ship, and the crew and passengers escaped via the lifeboat.

6. An undersea earthquake did the same thing.

7. A giant squid attacked the ship. While this is possible, it’s unlikely that the squid would have picked off just the people without leaving evident damage.

We don’t have enough time to debunk these in detail. But all of them suffer from the same problem — no evidence, Buzzkillers

What we want to do here is to show how invented stories about the ship’s disappearance have built on the unexplained aspects of the mystery and the open-ended conclusions of the salvage court. They use these conclusions as if they were a rock-solid base on which to start their detective work. The Mary Celeste mystery mania follows the pattern of what researchers here at the Institute call myth by expansion.

Last year we showed you how history myths and misconceptions start and spread in the manner of rumors and urban legends. Sociologists, anthropologists, and other experts in this field refer to this process as the “abandonment of qualifiers.” It’s like that elementary school game “Telephone”: I might happen to mention to Lady Buzzkill that I’m working on the story of the Mary Celeste and say, “One of the theories is that a giant squid attacked the ship and killed everyone. Although giant squids have attacked ships, it’s very rare. But it could have happened.”

The servants overhear us talking. One of them relates this story to a girlfriend who works at another great house later that night––but she drops the part about squid attacks being very rare. “The Professor,” she says, “thinks that the Mary Celeste could have been attacked by a giant squid.” The lady of that house overhears her servants talking about this. She then relates the story at a bridge party, but leaves out the “…could have been…” part. “The Professor has found out that the Mary Celeste was attacked by a giant squid,” she says. And so on and so on, until it appears in the Society Pages that Professor Buzzkill (with all his massive credibility) has solved the Mary Celeste mystery. It was a giant squid.

That’s the “reduction of qualifiers” process of history myth-making. And many Mary Celeste stories have worked that way. History myths, however, are also made through the opposite process — expansion. This is especially true here because so many elements of the story of the Mary Celeste legend come from journalism and fiction, including stage plays and movies. Both of those get a lot more attention than historical analysis done by people like yours truly and the researchers here at the Institute.

Here’s a quick rundown of the spread of the Mary Celeste story through the popular media:

By 1883, the Los Angeles Times published a Mary Celeste story.[AS FACT OR FICTION?] As far as we can tell, they were the first to come up with “the ship was in perfect condition” myth. “Every sail was set, the tiller was lashed fast, not a rope was out of place,” they wrote. “The fire was burning in the galley. The dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold … the log [was] written up to the hour of her discovery.” (June 9, 1883, p. 5)The next year, Doyle published his story, also mentioning the ship’s perfect condition.

The giant squid first appeared in Chambers’s Journal in September 1904. A fictional story from “a survivor” of the Mary Celeste was published in The Strand magazine, telling of shark attacks and other drownings after the people left the ship for an unknown reason. Another “survivor story” was printed in theBritish newspaper, The Daily Express in 1924, in which the theory of a criminal collusion between the two captains was fleshed out. The other explanations I briefly mentioned showed up in newspapers, histories, novels, plays, and radio programs throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1935, the major British film company, Hammer Film Productions, released a dramatic version of the story, titled The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (called Phantom Ship in the US). It tells the story of a mad crewman who murders the people on the ship one by one, and then jumps overboard and drowns. The crazy crewman was played by none other than Bela Lugosi, a major star. It’s a terrible movie, Buzzkillers, but it was very popular. And a popular movie with a major star involved only fuels the engine of the historical myth-making machine.

By the end of the 1930s, therefore, the Mary Celeste story didn’t just have a life of its own, it had many lives of its own because of all the different theories. And they expanded and expanded. Well into the 21st century, even reputable folks like those at The Smithsonian Channel were releasing documentaries that rummaged through the various theories as if they all were based on equally valid evidence. The same supernatural phenomena that were used to explain the Bermuda Triangle were applied the Mary Celeste.

And we even have something called “Mary Celeste Syndrome” in nature. It’s slang for what scientists call Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It’s when worker bees desert a hive completely but leave the queen behind, as well as plenty of food and a couple of “nurse bees” to care for the queen. Otherwise, the hive is untouched. Blows your mind, doesn’t it, Buzzkillers.

I want to finish by going back to the piece most responsible for the popularity of the Mary Celeste mystery, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1884 fictional, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. It’s a pretty good story, and in it we can recognize the seeds of Doyle’s later work with Sherlock Holmes. Jephson, a doctor with the Union army during the American Civil War, had received a strange but precious black stone from a slave who had helped to nurse him back to health after he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam. He later books passage on the Marie Celeste to Lisbon. As the ship nears Europe, one of the passengers kills the captain, and convinces the crew to take the ship to west Africa. There they meet up with a band of pirates who murder the rest of the crew. Jephson is spared because the African pirates find the precious stone in his pocket. It turns out that the strange black stone was the missing part of a venerated religious statue in West Africa, and the pirates are distracted by it. Jephson is able to escape and, eventually, get back to the United States.

Doyle’s story was so popular that the US consul in Gibraltar actually made inquires into whether parts of the story were based in fact, and whether there were crimes involved that needed to be investigated. Is it any wonder that, if a US government official was sufficiently taken in by Doyle’s skill as a storyteller to believe as least part of his tale, so many other people believed it too? Doyle himself tried to put a lid on the speculation, ending his story with this statement:

In the utter absence of a clue or grain of evidence, it is to be feared that the fate of the crew of the Marie Celeste will be added to those numerous mysteries of the deep which will never be solved until the great day when the sea shall give up its dead. If crime has been committed, as is much to be suspected, there is little hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The real explanation at the root of the whole story is that no one knows what happened to the ship. But I guess that’s not good enough for our highly active cultural imaginations.

Buzzkill Bookshelf


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  1. PTC on February 7, 2017 at 6:52 am

    Well put together and well told

  2. Max on April 12, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    It is most likely they were murdered considering the fact that the ship was being salvaged by the crew of the other ship and that there was a small crew on the Celeste made them vulnerable to any threats of piracy also considering the history of piracy and looting itself that was common place only a century before it wouldn’t be unrealistic to assume on a rare ocassion something like that would still hwplen in the 19th century when piracy and looting of other ships has happened in more recent times

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