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An Unsolved Atlantic Ocean Mystery

Captain David Reed Morehouse of the barque Dei Gratia was on deck when he first spotted the Mary Celeste; she was just at the horizon. Sailing out of New York with a load of petroleum, the Dei Gratia was bound for Gibraltar. On arrival at the port, the ship owners of the Canadian-built barque were to telegraph the cargo’s final destination.
It was hardly uncommon to encounter other ships sailing off the Azores, but even at a distance of some 5 to 6 miles, the captain detected something odd about the distant vessel’s movements. Taking out his long glass, he watched the Mary Celeste as she yawed from port to starboard, seemingly at the mercy of a light wind and passing waves. Summoning Oliver Deveau from below deck, Morehouse passed his long glass to the mate. There seemed to be no one on deck aboard the mysterious brigantine and despite fairly calm seas, she was showing very little cloth. Both men soon agreed that the vessel might be in trouble.

The Dei Gratia closed the distance between the two and hailed the ship; there was no response. Captain Morehouse then ordered the launch of their small rowboat. Mate Deveau and two other crewmen approached the derelict vessel. The mate and another seaman climbed aboard while the other remained alongside.
It quickly became obvious that the ship was deserted. A boat which had been positioned over the main hatch had been taken away. Two fenders remained where it had been lashed. The ship’s foresail and upper top foresail were missing; other sails were either furled up or in complete tatters. Both fore and main hatches were open. Going below, Deveau found that everything was wet. There was at least 3 1/2 feet of water in the hold, but the pumps were still in working order. The ship’s binnacle had toppled over, breaking the glass, but the compass was missing. The ship’s wheel moved slowly back and forth, as if a specter might be at the helm.
The captain’s berth was in good order, with all of his clothing left behind. There was room for mother and child, with some toys scattered about. The wife’s sewing machine had a child’s pinafore with a sleeve half-finished. But, likely due to an open skylight, many of the items were damp.
The mate’s cabin was also in good shape. A chart that lay on his desk marked the ship’s progress up to November 25, 1872. A log slate indicated that the Mary Celeste had made the Azores’ Island of Saint Mary on that same day. An open sliding roof cover over the galley caused everything to be wet, yet all of the pots, pans and kettles were stored in their correct place. There were at least 6 months provisions left behind with more than adequate supply of drinking water.
The crew had left behind their personal chests, oilskins, boots and pipes, making it obvious that the ship had been deserted in haste. However, the captain’s chronometer, sextant and navigation were not found even after a thorough search of the ship.
Built at Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia in 1861, the Mary Celeste was first named Amazon. Tragedy struck the brigantine-rigged vessel on her maiden voyage. Her captain, Robert McLellan, died shortly after their departure. About two years later the Amazon was driven ashore during a gale. In 1868 she was sold and renamed Mary Celeste, under American registry.
In the early fall of 1872, thirty-eight year old Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs took command of the Mary Celeste. He had purchased eight shares of the ship, of a total of twenty-four. Earlier, while in command of the schooner Forest King, Briggs and his wife Sarah had honeymooned aboard that vessel in the Mediterranean. On the ill-fated voyage, his wife, two-year old daughter and eight crewmen left New York’s East River Pier 50 on November 5, 1872. The ship’s cargo consisted of 1,700 barrels of alcohol bound for Genoa, Italy. Having barely made it out of the harbor, a huge storm blew up. It forced the captain to take refuge, at anchor, just off Staten Island. They remained there for about a day and then resumed their voyage.
Having completed their inspection of the Mary Celeste, Deveau and the other two crewmen made their way back to the Dei Gratia, where the mate reported his findings to his captain. After some discussion Morehouse decided to take possession of the derelict for the purpose of salvage. The mate, who had previously skippered a ship, returned to the Mary Celeste with two crewmen. The ship was pumped out and the two vessels then headed for Gibraltar, within sight of each other. As they neared the Straits of Gibraltar, a storm came up, separating the two.
When the Mary Celeste made port at Gibraltar on the morning of December 13, they found that the Dei Gratia had arrived there the night before. The derelict ship was immediately taken into custody by the Marshall of the Vice-Admiralty Court, T. J Vecchio. On receiving news regarding the ocean tragedy, the press immediately made its own assumptions. On February 26, 1873, the New York Times reported, “The fine brig Mary Celeste … was seized by pirates in the latter part of November, and after murdering the Captain, his wife, child, and officers, the vessels was abandoned.” Some conjured up an attack by a sea monster or a killer waterspout. Mutiny was also suggested while others speculated that members of the crew had broken into the cargo of alcohol and in drunken stupor killed off the captain, his family and the first mate. No signs, however, of a mortal struggle were ever found on the ship.
Following an exhaustive official investigation, the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia were awarded £1,700 for salvage services, but the story did not end there. Gilman Parker purchased the Mary Celeste in 1884. Loading the vessel with near-worthless merchandise, he insured the ship and its cargo for $30,000. On January 8, 1885, with Captain Parker on deck, the ship was purposely run aground and sunk on Haiti’s Rochelois Reef. In May of that year, a Boston Grand Jury returned an indictment against Gilman. He and three associates, however, were later acquitted on a technicality. A few years later the disgraced captain died in poverty.
In August of 2001 London’s Daily Mail reported “Found, the Mary Celeste. Will the sunken ship give up her secrets?” Diver/archeologist inspection of the wreck, however, ultimately proved that beams and other materials recovered from the wreck were far different than what had been used in the construction of the barque at a Nova Scotia shipyard. The Mary Celeste remains an unsolved Atlantic Ocean mystery.