A 150 Year Old “Ghost Ship” Mystery

One hundred and fifty years ago on this date (December 5, 1872) a derelict ship was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, launching one of the most enduring – and still unsolved – maritime mysteries.


A painting of the brigantine vessel Amazon entering the port of Marseilles in November 1861. In 1868 she was renamed Mary Celeste. She was found drifting in the Atlantic with nobody aboard in December 1872, and is the source of many maritime “ghost ship” legends.

Public Domain

On December 5, 1872 the crew aboard the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia, bound for Genoa, Italy and sailing at a position about halfway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, spotted another vessel at a range of about six miles, heading somewhat unsteadily towards Dei Gratia. The captain’s spyglass revealed that it was a ship of the same type as his own (a brigantine, or two-masted sailing ship), but things appeared to be amiss: her movements were erratic, and her sails were oddly set with some showing signs of damage. As the ship drew closer, there was no one to be seen on deck and no response was received to signals that were made. Two men from Dei Gratia were sent in the ship’s boat in order to board the derelict, now determined to be the Mary Celeste from the name displayed across her bow, in order to investigate.

It was discovered that there was indeed no one aboard. The last entry in the ship’s daily log was from nine days prior, her position being then 400 nautical miles from where Dei Gratia had encountered her, with no mention of any distress or unusual circumstances. The ship had suffered moderate damage from water and winds, presumably the result of being abandoned at sea for all or most of those nine days, but remained seaworthy. The ship’s only lifeboat was missing.

Since maritime laws of the day provided for a substantial financial reward for the salvaging of derelict vessels and cargo, the captain of Dei Gratia decided to split his eight man crew in two in order to sail Mary Celeste 600 nautical miles to Gibraltar to claim the salvage rights. Thanks to calm weather, both ships made the journey successfully despite being critically under-manned.

There had been a total of ten persons aboard Mary Celeste, including the captain’s wife and two year old daughter. No trace of any of them was ever found, and it was never determined why they had abandoned the ship in an apparently hasty, though orderly, manner. Various hypotheses have been proposed over the years, ranging from the sensationalist and even paranormal to the plausible-though-rather-unlikely, yet none have proven entirely satisfactory. Scenarios involving some sort of foul play have been proposed: a pompous judge in Gibraltar even brought the captain and crew of both vessels along with Mary Celeste’s owner all under a cloud of suspicion for a time by furthering a motley collection of accusations involving murder, conspiracy, and attempted insurance fraud, but these were ultimately dismissed for lack of evidence. Other hypotheses focused on natural occurrences, perhaps in some unlikely combination – a waterspout, a submarine earthquake, and the fear of imminent explosion due to escaping fumes from the ship’s cargo of alcohol – have been proposed and explored, but all remain inconclusive. And, yes, alien abduction has also been put forward as an explanation, though not one taken very seriously by most. The reality is that we will probably never know with certainty what happened to those aboard Mary Celeste on that fateful voyage.

As for the Mary Celeste herself, she was eventually resold and continued in service for more than a decade, though she was unpopular with crews, who considered her cursed. (If the 1872 incident were not enough, her prior history further reinforced her ill reputation. When first commissioned, she had sailed under the name Amazon. On her maiden voyage from Nova Scotia to London, her captain fell ill and died and she suffered other mishaps soon thereafter, including a collision with and sinking of another ship in the English Channel. Amazon was rebuilt and renamed Mary Celeste after running aground in a storm in 1867. Sailors, ever a superstitious lot, regard the renaming of a vessel as a preeminently unlucky omen.) The Mary Celeste’s latter career involved participation in mostly unprofitable trade to both the West and East Indies, enduring more unfortunate incidents along the way, including the premature death of yet another captain. She suffered the final ignominy of being intentionally wrecked in 1885 on the approach to Port-au-Prince, Haiti as part of an attempted insurance fraud scheme (demonstrably so, this time).

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