The “ghost ship” Mary Celeste is undoubtedly the most indelible and famous maritime mystery of all time. A few tales of ghost ships from the 20th century, most notably the Joyita, have permeated into popular consciousness, but the baffling last voyage of the Mary Celeste stands alone in the annals of spooky nautical lore. Since the ship’s passengers and crew, ten people in all, vanished in late November 1872, enough proposed solutions to the mystery have been proposed to fill several linear feet of bookshelf space. Nothing can ever be proven.

Whatever happened aboard the Mary Celeste happened (most likely) on November 25, 1872, 141 years ago today. The Mary Celeste was a 107-foot brigantine owned by four New York partners, including her captain, veteran mariner Benjamin Briggs. On November 5 she left the port of New York carrying 1700 barrels of raw alcohol, bound for Genoa, Italy. The alcohol was to be used to “fortify” Italian wines. This somewhat unusual cargo was worth about $600,000 in today’s money. The ship had a crew of seven, not counting Briggs, and two passengers: Briggs’s wife and two-year-old daughter.

A month later, on December 5, the Mary Celeste was spotted 600 miles off the coast of Portugal by a ship called the Dei Gratia, commanded by an old boyhood friend of Briggs. The ship’s sails were tattered and she was heading the wrong direction, back toward Gibraltar. It soon became clear that she was a derelict–an abandoned ship without a crew. A crewman from the Dei Gratia boarded Mary Celeste and confirmed she was deserted. The cargo was intact, the logbook was left behind and the passengers’ and crew’s personal belongings were untouched, but they were gone, as well as one of the ship’s lifeboats. The last entry in the log was dated November 24 and noted nothing unusual.

mary celeste location

The yellow thumb tack on this Google Earth screenshot marks the position where the Mary Celeste was found abandoned. Click for a larger version; the mark is pretty small.

The clues as to what had happened–what few existed–were strange and incomplete. The main cargo hatch was sealed, but a forward hatch had been left open. Water had accumulated in the hold and between decks though the ship was not sinking and the hull wasn’t breached. A rope was found trailing into the sea from the ship’s stern, tied very tightly. The other end of the rope was frayed. Navigational implements, including a sextant, were missing from the bridge.

The most telling clue was not even discovered until after the captain of the Dei Gratia sailed the ship back to Gibraltar. There the Mary Celeste‘s cargo was unloaded. Although all of the 1700 alcohol barrels were there, nine were found to be empty. Had someone been drinking it?

No other reliable evidence was ever discovered regarding the crew or what happened to them. At an inquest in early 1873, a theory was floated that the crew mutinied and killed Briggs and his family, then escaped in the lifeboat, supposedly supported by “blood” found below decks; this theory deflated when the “blood” turned out to be rust. Despite the 1870s equivalent of a global all-points bulletin for the crew and passengers, none were ever seen alive again.

briggs family

The entire Briggs family–husband Benjamin, wife Sarah, and daughter Sophia, age 2–vanished with the rest of the Mary Celeste’s complement.

The Mary Celeste herself went on to an interesting fate. Believed unlucky because of what had happened, no one owner held on to the ship for long. Eventually in 1885 she was wrecked off Haiti in a failed insurance scam. The remnants of a sailing ship were located in the general area in 2001, but whether or not it’s really the Mary Celeste has been a subject of dispute.

So what happened on that fateful voyage? Most people who have studied the case believe the ship’s cargo–the casks of alcohol–were the indirect cause. We know that 9 barrels were empty. If they leaked into the hold during the voyage, fumes might have built up below decks. Something obviously happened to cause Captain Briggs to give the order to abandon ship. Whatever it was, it must have been shocking enough to spook a very experienced mariner into what might have been a rash reaction.

Is this a plausible explanation? Yes, it is. The event that frightened Captain Briggs into abandoning ship may have been a sudden flash fire–the alcohol vapors suddenly igniting in the hold. Originally this theory was discounted because there was no evidence of a fire. The casks weren’t scorched, nor was anything else, and the sailors from the Dei Gratia did not report the smell of alcohol fumes in the hold when they entered it. But in 2006 researchers at the University College of London conducted an experiment where they built a replica of the Mary Celeste‘s hold and ignited built-up fumes from alcohol. The fire that resulted was very fast and burned very clean, and interestingly left no scorches or other traces. It also burned away the fumes in the air, leaving no telltale smell of alcohol. While it’s premature to conclude, as the UCL webpage does, that this definitively “solves” the mystery of the Mary Celeste, it certainly puts a very probable theory on the table.

Here’s what I think happened. Nine of the 1700 alcohol casks were leaking. By November 25, fumes built up in the hold. A spark, probably from two of the casks rubbing together, ignited the fumes in the air. A sudden flash fire raked the ship from stem to stern and blew open the forward hatch cover. Alarmed at the wave of fire and possibly believing the ship might blow up, Captain Briggs hurriedly ordered his family and the crew into the lifeboat, which they tied on to the stern. Perhaps thinking that the danger might abate once the hold emptied of fumes, Briggs and the crew trailed along behind the ship in the lifeboat. Then the wind picked up, the rope snapped and the ten people in the boat couldn’t catch up to the ship that was now sailing along without them. Separated from their ship, they couldn’t have lasted very long on the North Atlantic in late November.

We’ll never know for sure, but this seems to me like the most likely explanation.