What Really Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?

What Really Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?

Patrick Lynch - January 20, 2017

The disappearance of the Mary Celeste’s crew is one of the most enduring maritime mysteries of all time. When the crew of the Dei Gratia discovered the wandering ship on December 5, 1872, it was in rough shape but still seaworthy. The exploring team was astonished to find the Mary Celeste deserted and couldn’t come up with a suitable explanation for the disappearance of the passengers and crew. There was no evidence of foul play as the personal belongings of everyone on board remained intact.

The Great Mystery

The Mary Celeste was launched in 1861 and changed hands several times before a consortium that included James H. Winchester, Benjamin Spooner Briggs and a couple of minor investors gained ownership in 1872. The ship set sail from New York on November 7, 1872; Genoa was its destination. Briggs captained the ship and brought along his wife, daughter, and seven crew members. The cargo was 1,701 barrels of poisonous denatured alcohol.

The Dei Gratia departed from New Jersey on the way to Gibraltar on November 15 along the same route as the ill-fated Mary Celeste. On 4 December, a member of the Dei Gratia crew spotted a vessel a few miles away that was heading towards them in an unsteady manner. David Morehouse was the captain and he immediately suspected that something was wrong. When the ship drew closer, he was surprised to find no one on deck and was extremely concerned as the other vessel was not replying to signals.

The crew found the Mary Celeste deserted when they climbed on board. The sails were in poor condition, and some of the riggings were damaged. The ship’s lifeboat was missing, and a makeshift-sounding rod (to measure the depth of water) was found abandoned on the deck. The Mary Celeste had taken on about one meter of water, but that wasn’t unusual for a ship of its size.

Further inspection revealed that nine of the barrels were empty. The last entry on the Mary Celeste’s log was dated 25 November which means the ship was adrift for nine days and had traveled 500 miles in that time. The cabin interiors were in decent order, but the vessel’s paperwork and navigational instruments were missing. With no signs of violence or struggle, the most logical conclusion was that Captain Briggs had ordered a departure from the ship.

Also Read: First Reports Of the Mystery Of The Mary Celeste.

What Really Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?
Ok, this DID NOT happen! Runtime DNA


Morehouse brought the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar for salvage, and a man named Frederick Solly Flood conducted the court hearing. He jumped to the conclusion that a crime had been committed and blamed the intake of alcohol for it. Flood ordered an inspection of the ship which revealed a few interesting findings. Some sources suggest a sword was found on the deck and stains on the railing appeared to be blood. A deep mark was also discovered and was likely made by an ax.

Morehouse and his crew came under suspicion but were eventually cleared of all wrongdoing. Alas, the men received only a fraction of the salvage money they were entitled to and also remained under a cloud of controversy. Flood was convinced Morehouse and his men had something to do with the disappearance of the Mary Celeste’s crew despite having no proof.

The Vanishing Crew: 5 Theories

What Really Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?
The Mary Celeste. Yesterday UKTV

There are several popular theories; some are sensible while others are completely crazy!

1 – Mutiny

The unusual markings and discovery of blood made it seem as if mutiny was the source of the Mary Celeste’s problems. However, it was later found that the stains weren’t blood and the marks were down to normal wear and tear. Flood believed a drunken crew was to blame, but the alcohol on board wasn’t fit for human consumption. The nine barrels were made from red oak while the rest were made from white oak; red oak is more likely to leak. It also makes no sense for the mutineers to leave the ship on a tiny lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.

2 – Piracy

Riffian pirates were active off the North African coast in the 1870s so it was believed that they could have been responsible. However, they would have ransacked the ship and taken the crew’s personal possessions. Another theory suggests the crew of the Dei Gratia murdered the ten people on board for salvage money but once again, there is no proof. Finally, the theory that Briggs and Winchester launched an insurance scam makes little sense as they wouldn’t have created a scenario that drew so much attention.

3 – Alien Abduction

You knew this one would appear, didn’t you? Older tales about the Mary Celeste claim there was half-eaten food on the table and that the last log entry was made just before the vessel got discovered. In reality, the story about the breakfast on the table is a myth, and the last entry was made nine days before the ship was found.

4 – Fear of Alcohol Explosion

The most likely explanation is that Captain Briggs ordered the abandonment of the ship. But why? Briggs was experienced and well respected in sailing circles so it is unlikely that he would do something irrational. There are a couple of rational reasons why he would leave the Mary Celeste with his family and crew.

The cargo was highly volatile alcohol, and it is possible that Briggs saw the leaking cargo catch light and ordered an evacuation in the belief the ship was about the explode. This theory was initially discounted as there was no sign of an explosion or fire on board.

Dr. Andrea Sella of UCL built a replica of the ship’s hold and simulated a possible explosion. He used cubes of paper instead of barrels and lit butane gas. The result was a huge blast of flame, but amazingly, the cubes were not burned or even blackened. Such an explosion would have blown open the hatches and terrified the crew. 300 gallons of alcohol leaked on the Mary Celeste and the spark could have been caused by a careless crewman with a pipe or if two barrels rubbed together. Naturally, Briggs would have feared an explosion and abandoned ship.

5 – Faulty Instruments

Research conducted by documentarian Anne McGregor revealed that Briggs thought the Mary Celeste was around 120 miles west of where it was because of a faulty chronometer. The day before reaching the Azores, Briggs changed direction; probably in a bid to reach Santa Maria.

The ship’s pump was inactive so the captain wouldn’t have been able to measure the level of seawater in the hull; this explains the abandoned sounding rod found on deck. The captain’s log reported inclement weather so perhaps Briggs, believing the ship could sink at any time and seemingly in sight of land, gave the order to abandon the Mary Celeste. Of course, this doesn’t explain what happened to the crew after they left the ship!

What Really Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?
A plaque memorializing the crew of The Mary Celeste. Lostatseamemorials.com

Although we can come up with reasonable explanations for the crew’s disappearance, there is no hard evidence, and since the mystery happened over 140 years ago, it is likely that we will never know the real answer. Additionally, there are no clues as to the fate of the ten people on board. The most likely scenario is that they drowned at sea. The Mary Celeste changed hands several more times before being deliberately run aground off the coast of Haiti in 1885 as part of an insurance scam.

Sources For Further Reading:

Museum Center – History’s Mysteries Revealed: The Mary Celeste, the Spheres of Costa Rica, and the Loch Ness Monster

Medium – The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

History of Yesterday – What Really Happened to the Mary Celeste?

News Australia – The Mary Celeste: Enduring Mystery Of The World’s Most Famous Ghost Ship