Two days ago I ran an article about the well-known nautical mystery of the Mary Celeste, the sailing ship whose passengers and crew vanished mysteriously in November 1872, 141 years ago this week. Although the incident sealed the Mary Celeste‘s fate as a “ghost ship,” that was not the end of her career. What happened to her in the following years is, in many ways, even more interesting.
The short version is that the Mary Celeste ran aground and burned (both deliberate acts) near Gonave Island, off the coast of Haiti, on January 3, 1885, a bit more than twelve years after the mystery that made her famous. The long version is that Mary Celeste became an innocent victim of an elaborate con run by her final captain, Gilman Parker. The whole thing was an insurance scam, with Parker at the center of a web of deceit roping in Haitian salvors and a Boston insurance company.
It worked like this. Parker, who realized the ship was worthless–it had gone through no fewer than 17 owners since 1872 and was deteriorating fast–loaded her hold with worthless crap, including crates of rotten fish, spoiled butter, worn-out galoshes and beer bottles filled with swill with fake labels pasted on. Only he told the insurance company the cargo was worth $34,000 (about $850,000 in today’s money). The crates of fish were supposed to be “New Fortune Herring,” the galoshes a cargo of expensive ladies’ button-top shoes, and the swill beer was supposed to be Bass, a bestselling brand in England. Parker rammed the Mary Celeste on the reef deliberately, hoping it would sink and destroy the evidence.
Only it didn’t. The ship split apart but did not sink. Next, Parker tried to burn the evidence, setting fire to the ship; the logbook, which contained the mysterious last entry by Captain Benjamin Briggs from November 1872, burned too. Eventually he gave up and left the remnants of the ship on the reef.
You can see the reefs off Gonave Island, Haiti in this satellite photo. I’m not sure this is the exact spot where the Mary Celeste met her fate, but it’s close.
Parker might have gotten away with the scam, except that he made one mistake. Seeing one more dime he could swindle, he sold the rights to salvage the wreck to a local Haitian firm for $500. He figured it was unlikely that it would come back to haunt him. He was wrong.
The salvor did try to recover the goods on the Mary Celeste’s last cargo manifest–the “New Fortune Herring,” button-top shoes and casks of Bass beer. They discovered the stuff was literally garbage. By now Parker had high-tailed it back to Boston with his insurer’s money. Guess what happened? The police came knocking.
Parker went on trial in Boston in July 1885. The charge was barratry, an antiquated name for the crime, under admiralty law, of deliberately destroying a ship. The problem was that barratry carried the death penalty. Although the jury was convinced of Parker’s guilt, they blanched at sending him to the gallows. Technically he was acquitted. Not long after, the law was changed so the penalty was no longer death.
Parker might as well have been hanged. He died only a few months after the trial was over, and all of his other co-conspirators were utterly ruined. The insurance scam backfired badly.
The Mary Celeste herself remained, submerged on the Haitian reef, undisturbed for over 100 years. In 2001 a diving expedition funded by the company founded by thriller author Clive Cussler claimed to have located and photographed the wreck. The identification has been called into question, but as there don’t seem to be any other known shipwrecks in that area, chances are good that the bones of the brigantine on the reef are what’s left of the most famous ghost ship in history–and the victim of Gilman Parker’s greed.