Mary Celeste: The mystery of the abandoned ship-2

Mary Celeste: The mystery of the abandoned ship-1


Deveau returned to report his findings to Morehouse, who decided to take the derelict to Gibraltar, 600 nautical miles/1100 km away. Under maritime law, a salvor (a person or company involved in saving ships that have been sunk or damaged, and the goods inside them) could expect a considerable portion of the combined value of the rescued vessel and cargo. The exact award depended on the degree of danger inherent in the salvaging.

The approximate courses of the two ships. The dotted line represents the course of the Mary Celeste. (Image Source: The Mary Celeste – fact not fiction)

There were eight crew members on the Dei Gratia, including Morehouse and Deveau. Morehouse divided the crew of eight between the two ships, sending Deveau and two experienced seamen to Mary Celeste, keeping the remaining five seamen with him on Dei Gratia. 

The weather was calm for most of the way to Gibraltar, but progress was slow due to each ship being seriously undermanned. Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar a week later on December 12, 1872, and Mary Celeste, having encountered fog, arrived the next morning.

Gibraltar in the 19th century

She was immediately impounded by the vice admiralty court, preparatory to salvage hearings. Vice admiralty courts were juryless courts located in British colonies that were granted jurisdiction over local legal matters related to maritime activities, such as disputes between merchants and seamen.

I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe. I shall be well paid for the Mary Celeste.

-Deveau writing to his wife about the ordeal of bringing the ship in

Image Source: The Mary Celeste – fact not fiction

Under the chief justice of Gibraltar, Sir James Cochrane, the salvage hearings began four days after the Mary Celeste had arrived. The hearing was conducted by Frederick Solly Flood, Attorney General of Gibraltar who was also Advocate-General and Proctor for the Queen in Her Office of Admiralty.

Flood was described as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ”. He was the kind of guy who couldn’t be shifted once he had made up his mind about something. The testimonies of Deveau and Wright convinced Flood that a crime had been committed, and that alcohol could have been responsible.

On December 23, John Austin, Surveyor of shipping carried out an investigation of the Mary Celeste, with the assistance of a diver, Ricardo Portunato. Austin noted cuts on each side of the bow, likely caused by a sharp axe, and even found possible traces of blood on the captain’s sword. Portunato’s report on the hull concluded that the ship had not been involved in a collision or run aground.

A further inspection by a group of Royal Naval captains endorse Austin’s opinions that the cuts on the bow were caused deliberately. This strengthened Flood’s suspicions that human wrongdoing lay behind the mystery, and not any natural disaster. He also suspected that Morehouse and his crew were hiding something, specifically  that Mary Celeste had been abandoned in a more easterly location, and that the log had been doctored. He could not accept that Mary Celeste could have traveled so far with absolutely no one on board.

Image Source: The Mary Celeste – fact not fiction

The investigation also concluded that ten people had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste-Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, seven crewmen and the captain’s wife and young daughter. None of them were seen or heard of ever again.

Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs; (Wikipedia)

In 1869, three years before the Mary Celeste was found adrift, she had been sold to a New York consortium headed by James H. Winchester, who retained at least a half-share throughout the following years when the composition of the consortium was altered several times. There was no record of Mary Celeste’s trading activities during this three-year period.

On January 15, 1873, Winchester arrived in Gibraltar to inquire when Mary Celeste might be released to deliver its cargo. Flood demanded a surety of $15,000. Winchester didn’t have the money and became aware that Flood was suspecting him to have deliberately engaged a crew that would kill Captain Briggs, as part of some conspiracy.

On January 29, Winchester testified to Briggs’s high character, and insisted that he would not have abandoned his ship except in extremity.

Furthermore, Flood’s theory of mutiny and murder received considerable setbacks when scientific analysis of the stains found on the sword and the ship proved that they were not blood. A second blow to Flood was when a report was commissioned by an American consul in Gibraltar, Horation Sprague, where it was stated that the marks on the bow were not caused by human activity but came from the actions of the sea on the ship’s timber.


Even though Flood was suspecting murder and conspiracy, the evidence gathered failed to support his views. However, the suspicion of foul play lingered.

There had been several newspaper reports that the Mary Celeste had been heavily over-insured, which led to many believing that Winchester had committed insurance fraud. Winchester managed to refute these allegations and none of the insurance companies that issued the policies were interrogated.


In 1931, an article in the Quarterly Review suggested that Morehouse could have lain in wait for Mary Celeste, then lured Briggs and his crew aboard the Dei Gratia and killed all of them there.

Paul Begg, in his account of the mystery, comments that this theory ignores undisputed facts: Dei Gratia left New York eight days after Mary Celeste, was a slower ship, and would not have caught Mary Celeste before the latter reached Gibraltar.

Could this have been a set-up by Morehouse and Briggs? (Image Source: iakobidzee)

Another theory postulates that Briggs and Morehouse conspired to share the salvage proceedings. The unsubstantiated friendship between the two captains has been cited by commentators as making such a plan a plausible explanation.

Questions were raised that if Morehouse and Briggs had been planning such a scam, then they would not have devised such an attention-drawing mystery. And if Briggs intended to disappear permanently, why would he leave his 8-year old son Arthur behind?

A Brig’s Officers Believed to Have Been Murdered at Sea (Wikipedia)

Riffian pirates were known to be very active off the coast of Morocco in the 1870s. Charles Edey Fay, in his 1942 account, observes that pirates would have looted the ship, yet the personal possessions of the captain and the crew, some of significant value, were left untouched.

In 1925, the historian John Gilbert Lockhart speculated that Briggs could have slaughtered all those on board and then killed himself. In a later edition of his book, Lockhart apologized and withdrew his theory after having spoken to Briggs’s descendants.


The Mary Celeste was an apparently sound and seaworthy ship. So abandonment of the ship could have been provoked by an extraordinary and alarming circumstance. Some investigators suggested that a waterspout might have been responsible. A waterspout is a natural phenomena where a vertical columnar vortex is formed in the sea. A severe waterspout strike prior to abandonment of the ship could explain the ragged state of the ship’s rigging and sails, and also the amount of water in the ship. Furthermore, the low barometric pressure that could have been generated by the spout, in case it had actually happened, could have driven the water from the bilges (the area on the outer surface of a ship’s hull where the bottom curves to meet the vertical sides) up into the pumps, leading the crew to falsely assume that the ship had taken in extra water.

Other explanations put forward include the possible appearance of a displaced iceberg, the fear of running aground while becalmed, and even a sudden seaquake


An earthquake on the sea bed – a “seaquake’ -could have caused sufficient turbulence on the surface to damage parts of the ship’s cargo, thus releasing noxious fumes. Briggs could have ordered the ship’s abandonment due to rising fears of an imminent explosion, the dispatched hatches suggest that an inspection or an attempted airing had taken place.

The New York World of January 24, 1886, drew attention to a case where a vessel carrying alcohol had exploded.The same journal’s issue of February 9, 1913, cited a seepage of alcohol through a few porous barrels as the source of gases that may have threatened an explosion in Mary Celestes hold.

Briggs’s cousin Oliver Cobb was a strong proponent of this theory as providing an alarming scenario-rumblings from the hold, the smell of escaping fumes and possibly the threat of an explosion-for Briggs to have ordered an evacuation. But the lack of damage one would expect would accompany an explosion and the sound state of the cargo upon discovery weakened this case.

In the decades that followed, facts and fiction became intertwined.

Mary Celeste: The mystery of the abandoned ship-3


2 thoughts on “Mary Celeste: The mystery of the abandoned ship-2

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