The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, aka the Ghost Ship

On December 5th, 1872, a Canadian Brigantine—a two-masted sailing ship—called the Del Gratia was sailing 400 miles east of the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic. Crew members noticed another ship drifting in the distance. Attempts were made to contact the ship, all of which failed. So the captain of the Del Graita decided to go for a closer inspection of the scene. 

Members of Del Graita’s crew recognized the ship as the Mary Celeste. It had departed from New York Harbor weeks prior and was already supposed to have reached its destination: Genoa, Italy. Exploration of the boat left the Del Graita’s crew with more questions than answers. 

The ship was in perfectly usable condition. Its crew’s belongings, barrels of cargo, and a six month supply of food were all still on board. But not a single member of the 10-person crew was. Where had they gone? Let’s take a closer look at the mystery of the Mary Celeste.

The History of the Mary Celeste

a painting of the mary celeste
Source: Wikipedia

It seems that since its creation, the Mary Celeste was plagued with bad luck. In May of 1861, the ship was called the Amazon and was used as a trading vessel. During its first voyage, its captain contracted pneumonia and died. 

In 1867, the Amazon crashed ashore on Cape Breton Island, and the ship’s investors weren’t able to salvage it. It was eventually sold to Richard W. Haines, who made various expensive repairs to the ship and renamed it the Mary Celeste. However, the repairs put him into debt, and the Mary Celesteas confiscated by his creditors in 1869. After this, it was sold to a New York shipping company and placed under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. It was under his command that the crew vanished.

On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste left New York Harbor. It was loaded with 1,700 barrels of denatured alcohol for delivery to Genoa, Italy. Members of the ship consisted of Briggs, his wife and daughter, and a crew of seven men.

What Was Found by the Del Graita’s Crew

a ship resembling the mary celeste
Source: Wikipedia

When the Del Graita’s crew searched the Mary Celeste, they were surprised to find that the ship had no notable damage, seemingly no reason for the crew to have abandoned ship. The ship’s entry log gave no clue as to what could have happened to the crew members either. It was last dated for November 25 at 8am, 10 days before the Mary Celeste was found by the Del Gratia’s crew. 

According to the final entry, the MC was about six miles off the coast of Santa Maria, one of the islands in the Azores. Reports were logged on an hourly basis, so whatever happened aboard the MC must’ve happened shortly thereafter. This meant that the ship was simply drifting unattended in the ocean for about 10 days.

The DG’s crew took the MC to Gibraitar, a British Overseas Territory located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and explained to authorities what had happened. The MC was then sold to new owners.

Theories on What Happened to the Mary Celeste

The first theory is that the crew committed mutiny against Captain Briggs. This is supported by the fact that nine of the alcohol-containing barrels were found empty. The court in charge of the case suggested that the crew got drunk, murdered Briggs and his family, then jumped ship. However, there isn’t much real evidence to support this. And even if the crew had been drunk, it seems quite the stretch to insist that this caused them to murder their captain.

The next theory is that pirates killed the crew members. Considering that the area in which the ship was abandoned was a hotspot for pirates, this is a plausible theory. However, if pirates truly had come aboard the ship, why would they have left the entirety of the ship’s cargo, as well as the crew’s belongings?

Perhaps the Del Gratia’s Crew Wasn’t as Innocent as They Were Letting On

a painting of the mary celeste
Source: Wikipedia

A more elaborate theory is that the Del Gratia crew themselves were behind the disappearance, that they were faking their surprise at finding the MC. According to the Law of Salvage, “Any person who helps recover another person’s ship or cargo in peril at sea is entitled to a reward commensurate with the value of the property salved.” 

Did the crew of the DG murder that of the MC to collect a reward? There may be some plausibility to this theory. Coincidentally, the captain of the DC—Captain Morehouse—was friends with Briggs. The two even had dinner together the night before the  MC began its final voyage. However, after a multi-month investigation, the court found no proof of this theory.

It should be noted that the insurers disagreed with the court, only paying one-sixth of the payment the crew would normally receive for recovering the boat.


The story of the Mary Celeste is one of the earliest examples of a worldwide mystery, its legend becoming something of a fixture in popular culture, with the story being told and retold with so many different versions that it’s hard to know what version of the story is the truth. We may never know what really happened to the ship’s crew, but the mystery alone keeps us intrigued.

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