Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.
The story's been told so many times that some don't even believe it's real anymore. Believe it or not, it actually happened. Found adrift on December 5, 1872, without a soul on board, the Mary Celeste became the defining example of a ghost ship. After she was adrift and abandoned, speculation about what happened to her crew has lingered for over a century. Theories range from mutiny to alien abduction. Folks have invented or exaggerated many details. As early as 1883, newspapers took creative license to make the story more interesting, inventing people and events that simply didn't exist.
Fact From Fiction
Ok, so what exactly happened? On December 5, 1872, the British vessel Dei Gratia spotted a vessel drifting. Moving close they identified it as the Mary Celeste, a missing vessel that did not arrive at its destination, Genoa, Italy. A boarding party was sent over and they discovered that the crew was missing. Navigational charts were tossed about, belongings were still in crew quarters, one of the ships pumps was disassembled, and nearly three feet of water sloshed about at the keel. Plenty of supplies and cargo on board: food, water, alcohol, etc., yet the crew was gone and so was the ship's only lifeboat.
The ship's final log entry, Nov. 25, 1872 stated that nine days before the ship was found adrift, it was over 400 nautical miles away. The evidence on board suggested an orderly abandonment, no violence or fire. Its crew of seven, captain, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter were all missing but their personal items were still onboard.
The Dei Gratia crew sailed the Mary Celeste some 800 miles to the British port of Gibraltar where a salvage hearing commenced. Three months later, the Dei Gratia crew was awarded payment for bringing the Mary Celeste in. It was small, barely 1/6th the total insured value of the ship and its cargo. There the Mary Celeste may have slipped into the cracks of history. Enter Sir Conan Doyle.
In 1884, the young author anonymously published a short story called "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement." Written as a first-hand account of a survivor of the Mary Celeste. Highly sensationalized, this work of fiction took creative liberties in the telling of the fate of the ship. It even went so far as renaming its captain, several crewmen, and the Mary Celeste herself. It describes a ship found in pristine condition, lifeboats still aboard in heavy weather. The story became a hit and quickly out-circulated the real account, thus dropping the first ripples of fable into the story.
Subsequent theories and accounts of the mystery continued to pull the story further and further away from the truth. Piracy, mutiny, and aliens have been blamed for the Mary Celeste's abandonment.
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Fate of the Ship
The ship itself would endure for another twelve years. The succession of stories ultimately made her very unpopular to own and operate. Salvagers sailed the ship to New York, where she spent the rest of 1873 tied to the dock. In 1874, she was sold at a loss to a partnership. The new owners operated the ship on the Indian Ocean, yet the ship's infamous reputation prevented her from ever making a profit. She lost money on nearly every voyage. In 1879 her captain fell ill and died, further fueling the myth that the ship was cursed. Her owners sold her a year later to a firm in Boston.
The next four years would see her port of registry change multiple times and her commanding officer change twice. Records indicate that she made no major voyages during this time, despite efforts to turn the ship's luck around.
In November 1884, her commanding officer, Gilman C. Parker, along with several crooked shippers tried to scam the insurance company that insured the Mary Celeste. Filling the ship with worthless cargo, they forged the manifest, claiming a value of $30,000 ($800,000 in 2017 dollars). A month later, Parker set sail for Haiti. As the Mary Celeste approached the port, Parker deliberately steered the ship into a well-known reef. The collision ripped the keel apart, wrecking the ship. The crew abandoned ship and Parker proceeded to file a claim for the doctored value of the cargo.
In 1885, the insurance company investigated and discovered the over-insured cargo. Later that year, Parker and his co-conspirators were charged with fraud and Parker faced an additional charge of barratry (fraud by a ship's captain), a capital offense at the time. Parker's trial ended in a mistrial but the damage to his reputation was total. He died a broken man three months later.
As for the Mary Celeste herself, her wreck was never recovered. Over the next century, the wood timbers were overgrown by the very reef where she ran aground. In 2001, an expedition claimed to have discovered partial remains, but that has never been definitive.
© 2017 Jason Ponic
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 14, 2017:
Thank you for sharing the history of the Mary Celeste. Though I had heard of the ship before I read your article, I didn't know much about it. I appreciate the education.