The British brig Dei Gratia was about 400 miles east of the Azores on December 5, 1872, when crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas. Capt. David Morehouse was taken aback to discover that the unguided vessel was the Mary Celeste, which had left New York City eight days before him and should have already arrived in Genoa, Italy. He changed course to offer help.
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Morehouse sent a boarding party to the ship. Belowdecks, the ship's charts had been tossed about, and the crewmen's belongings were still in their quarters. The ship's only lifeboat was missing, and one of its two pumps had been disassembled. Three and a half feet of water was sloshing in the ship's bottom, though the cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was largely intact. There was a six-month supply of food and water—but not a soul to consume it.
Thus was born one of the most durable mysteries in nautical history: What happened to the ten people who had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste? Through the decades, a lack of hard facts has only spurred speculation as to what might have taken place. Theories have ranged from mutiny to pirates to sea monsters to killer waterspouts. Arthur Conan Doyle's 1884 short story based on the case posited a capture by a vengeful ex-slave, a 1935 movie featured Bela Lugosi as a homicidal sailor. Now, a new investigation, drawing on modern maritime technology and newly discovered documents, has pieced together the most likely scenario.
"I love the idea of mysteries, but you should always revisit these things using knowledge that has since come to light," says Anne MacGregor, the documentarian who launched the investigation and wrote, directed and produced The True Story of the 'Mary Celeste,' partly with funding from Smithsonian Networks.
The ship began its fateful voyage on November 7, 1872, sailing with seven crewmen and Capt. Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Sophia. The 282-ton brigantine battled heavy weather for two weeks to reach the Azores, where the ship log's last entry was recorded at 5 a.m. on November 25.
After spotting the Mary Celeste ten days later, the Dei Gratia crewmen sailed the ship some 800 miles to Gibraltar, where a British vice admiralty court convened a salvage hearing, which was usually limited to determining whether the salvagers—in this case, the Dei Gratia crewmen—were entitled to payment from the ship's insurers. But the attorney general in charge of the inquiry, Frederick Solly-Flood, suspected mischief and investigated accordingly. After more than three months, the court found no evidence of foul play. Eventually, the salvagers received a payment, but only one-sixth of the $46,000 for which the ship and its cargo had been insured, suggesting that the authorities were not entirely convinced of the Dei Gratia crew's innocence.
The story of the Mary Celeste might have drifted into history if Conan Doyle hadn't published "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" in 1884; his sensationalistic account, printed in Cornhill Magazine, set off waves of theorizing about the ship's fate. Even Attorney General Solly-Flood revisited the case, writing summaries of his interviews and notes. But the mystery remained unsolved. MacGregor picked up the trail in 2002. "There's so much nonsense written about this legend," she said. "I felt compelled to find the truth."
MacGregor's four previous investigative documentaries, including The Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause (2001), applied modern forensic techniques to historical questions. "There are obvious limitations for historic cases," she says. "But using the latest technology, you can come to a different conclusion."
For her Mary Celeste film, MacGregor began by asking what didn't happen. Speculation concerning sea monsters was easy to dismiss. The ship's condition—intact and with full cargo—seemed to rule out pirates. One theory bandied about in the 19th century held that crew members drank the alcohol onboard and mutinied; after interviewing crewmen's descendants, MacGregor deemed that scenario unlikely. Another theory assumed that alcohol vapors expanded in the Azores heat and blew off the main hatch, prompting those aboard to fear an imminent explosion. But MacGregor notes that the boarding party found the main hatch secured and did not report smelling any fumes. True, she says, nine of the 1,701 barrels in the hold were empty, but the empty nine had been recorded as being made of red oak, not white oak like the others. Red oak is known to be a more porous wood and therefore more likely to leak.
As for that homicidal sailor played by Lugosi in The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, he may have been drawn from two German crewmen, brothers Volkert and Boye Lorenzen, who fell under suspicion because none of their personal possessions were found on the abandoned ship. But a Lorenzen descendant told MacGregor that the pair had lost their gear in a shipwreck earlier in 1872. "They had no motive," MacGregor says.