Mary Celeste: Atlantic Mystery in the Azores between November 24 and 25, and December 4 and 5, 1872

by DerdriuMarriner

Ten people had things to say about the Mary Celeste on November 24 – 25, 1872. Only two left notes. But written records made the ship’s abandonment more, not less, mysterious.

Stories abound for all sailing vessels. They are embedded in and transmitted through the sights, smells, and sounds of:
• Boats;
• Canoes;
• Houseboats;
• Kayaks;
• Rafts;
• Ships.

They become official through the captain’s logbook, the crew’s log slate, and the first mate’s books and charts. They do not end with the sailing craft’s destruction or retirement. They endure by conferring memorable reputations upon their associated craft. Reputations follow one of two lines:
• The beauty of blessed, fortunate, lucky, manageable survivals;
• The bedevilment of cursed, doomed, misfortunate, unlucky tragedies.

The Mary Celeste gets cited as the world’s mysterious vector of doom and gloom. That reputation may be contradicted or supported by the brigantine’s paperwork. But all paper trails remain cold.

The Mary Celeste's destination was Genoa (Genova), largest seaport in Italy:

Genoa is sited on the Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea.
NASA satellite image of Genoa, Liguria region, northwestern Italy
NASA satellite image of Genoa, Liguria region, northwestern Italy

 

The Mary Celeste’s paper trail theoretically accesses fact-accumulating and fact-sharing sources. The in-house paperwork of captain, crew, first mate, insurance, maintenance, port, purchase, and sale records accommodate commercial and legal requirements regarding data storage. The first mate’s maps chart the Mary Celeste’s course through November 24, 1872. His receipt book describes as cargo Meissner, Ackersman, and Company’s 1,701 barrels of alcohol for transport to Genoa, Italy. It details all contracted bills, expenses, and receipts. The captain’s log divulges little else through November 24. The crew’s slate documents:

  • Cruising at 8 and 9 knots;
  • Observing Santa Maria island at 5:00 a.m.;
  • Passing the southernmost Azores at 8:00 a.m.

It ends with “Francis my own dear wife Francis N.R.”  

 

The crew's slate on the Mary Celeste documents Azores' southernmost island of Santa Maria as sighted at 5:00 a.m. and passed at 8:00 a.m. ~

"Hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal, the 9 islands of the Azores chains are stretched out over the Atlantic Ocean." L to R: Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Miguel, and Santa Maria.
Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC
Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

 

Francis must be:

  • Niece-in-law of James Henry Winchester, holder of 18 Mary Celeste shares and owner of New York’s major shipping business, J.H. Winchester & Co.;
  • Wife of Albert G. Richardson (1844? – 1872?), Stockton, Maine-born first mate and War Between the States (1861 – 1865) three-year veteran.

The reference to her pulsates with:

  • Absence of contact;
  • Fear of loss.

Passing ships nevertheless relay each other’s correspondence back and forth to loved ones. Richardson and Winchester family archives remain silent. Briggs family archives contrastingly reveal pre-departure letters from:

  • Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs (1835 – 1872?), holder of 8 Mary Celeste shares, to his mother;
  • His wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cobb Briggs (1841 – 1872?), to mother-in-law Sophia and son Arthur (1865 – 1931).  

 

Albert Richardson: Mary Celeste's First Mate

Albert Richardson

 

Sailing lists acknowledge the on-board presences of:

  • Captain and Mrs. Briggs, with daughter Sophia Matilda (October 31, 1870 – 1872?);
  • First mate Richardson;
  • New York-born second mate Andrew Gilling (1847? – 1872?);
  • Newlywed cook and steward Edward William Head (1849? – 1872?), Brooklynite Emma J. Head’s husband;
  • Seamen Gottlieb Goodschaad, Boz and Volkert Lorenzen, and Arian Martens of Germany.

No evidence emerges of any letter-writing by or for the seamen, second mate, or steward. The written exchanges between Horatio Jones Sprague (1823 – 1901), American consul at Gibraltar, and Fohr parish chiefs R.I. Lorenzen and T.A. Nickelsen indeed make clear the lack of communication ever again with:

  • Arian’s wife and children;
  • Boz’s fiancée;
  • Boz’s and Volkert’s mother;
  • Volkert’s wife and daughter.

 

Sarah Briggs with her son Arthur Stanley Briggs (September 10, 1865 - October 31, 1931), who, remaining onshore to attend school, did not accompany his parents and young sister on their fatal voyage.

Sarah Briggs with her son Arthur

 

Like on-board record-keeping, the costs of competitiveness and upkeep articulate fact-storing roles. But like letter-writing, their investigation discovers nothing from November 5 to December 5, 1872. Insurance coverage and loan approvals exemplify competition-related costs. Information exists somewhere regarding the non-payment or re-payment of New Bedford, Massachusetts businessman Simpson Hart’s loan to cover Captain Briggs’s purchasing one-third ownership in the Mary Celeste. Its disposition is less forthcoming than information about insurance covering the ship’s $16,000-valued refit and $36,000-valued freight by policies with:

  • Atlantic ($3,400), Mercantile ($2,500), New England ($1,500), Orient ($4,000) Mutual Insurance Companies;
  • Maine Lloyds ($6,000).

Such clarity reflects:

  • The cargo’s delivery to purchasers before month-end, March 1873;
  • The companies’ payments for salvage, December 1872 – March 1873.

 

"Amazon of Parrsboro - J.N. Parker Commander - entering Marseille November 1861":

painting commissioned by Captain John "Jack" Nutting Parker, Amazon's second commander
Mary Celeste as Amazon
Mary Celeste as Amazon

 

The costliness and frequency of upkeep depend upon:

  • Cargo, crew, and travel wear-and-tear;
  • Government surveyor inspections;
  • Owner resourcefulness.

Historians uniformly describe the brigantine’s racing hard and heavy with coal, corn, fruit, and lumber loads throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, as:

  • The Amazon for Joshua Dewis, 1861 – 1867;
  • The Mary Celeste for Richard W. Haines, 1868 – 1869, J.H. Winchester, 1869 – 1874, David Cartwright and Harrison, 1874 – 1880, and Wesley Gove, 1880 – 1885.

They detail refits of:

  • 1869, in the amount of $9,000+ on the brigantine’s bottom, keel, rigging, sails, and spars;
  • 1872, to the tune of $11,500 to the ship’s boom, cabins, deckhouse, hold, hull, lazaret, masts, windows, and yardarms.

They question the seaworthiness of:

  • Halyards;
  • Lifeboats.

 

Mary Celeste's abandonment issues: 2 sails were set; 1 was hanging; 1 was lowered; 2 were ripped away; the remainder were furled.

black-and-white closeup of tricolor engraving by Rudolph Ruzicka (June 29, 1883 - July 20, 1978)
black-and-white closeup of tricolor engraving by Rudolph Ruzicka (June 29, 1883 - July 20, 1978)

 

The trail quickly grows cold since off-board letters and on-board logs do not discuss upkeep-related issues. And yet the Mary Celeste’s suspected abandonment possibly ensues from:  

  • Aged, frazzled towing halyards;
  • Damaged or non-existent lifeboats;
  • Debilitating, explosive, industrial alcohol.

All of the above-mentioned maintenance-related factors theoretically incline the Mary Celeste’s fact-accumulating crew and fact-sharing passengers toward interactions with:

  • Passing vessels;
  • Proximitous lands.

The known information sources of the time -- consular reports, local newspapers, and ship’s logs -- indicate no such interfaces. There indeed is no known, verifiable admission by anyone on land or sea with regard to knowledge of or witness to:

  • The unexplained vanishing of ten people;
  • The unmanned sailing of the Mary Celeste for nine days thereafter.

 

Unraveling the mystery of the Mary Celeste includes consulting the testimony of Dei Gratia's crew concerning the dates of December 4/5 - 13, 1872.

The crew discovered the Mary Celeste on the afternoon of December 4. In nautical time, the start time for a day is noon. So the ship log records the discovery as taking place on December 5.
Dei Gratia from painting by Giuseppe Coli at Messina, Sicily, in April 1873

Conclusion

 

Mystery-loving amateurs and professionals in the twenty-first century benefit from:

  • Comfortable travel arrangements;
  • Digitized information sources.

Elucidation of the mysteriously abandoned, drifting Mary Celeste demands both. The modern world’s greatest maritime mystery indeed does not defy the problem-solving skills of modern-day science- and technology-savvy sleuths. Its illumination inheres in:

  • Accessing the Gibraltar court records regarding the Mary Celeste’s salvage;
  • Consulting the testimony of the Dei Gratia’s crew regarding the Mary Celeste’s boarding and sailing, December 4/5 – 13, 1872;
  • Retracing the Mary Celeste’s course, November 5 – December 4/5, 1872;
  • Visiting the Azores.

Less adventurous but equally enjoyable is armchair-sleuthing with:

  • Clive Cussler’s and Craig Dirgo’s The Sea Hunters II;
  • Brian Hicks’s Ghost Ship;
  • Jane Yolen’s The Mary Celeste.

 

Archaeologist James Delgado, comparing the remains of the wreck with historical accounts and carefully studying the fragments, was confidently able to identify the wreck as MARY CELESTE. Detailed research shows no other ship is known to have wrecked on Rochelais Reef, and a systematic survey of the reef revealed only one shipwreck. Other evidence cited by Delgado identifying the wreck as MARY CELESTE were:

* A survey of the wreck revealed its dimensions to be 100 by 25 feet: MARY CELESTE’s recorded dimensions at the keel were 99.3 by 25.3 feet.

* The wreck was fastened together with iron “drifts” and bronze spikes commonly used in ships built in the mid-19th century: MARY CELESTE was constructed in 1861.

* The wreck was sheathed with “Muntz metal,” also known as “naval brass,” which began to replace copper sheathing on ship’s hulls after 1850. By the 1860’s it had nearly completely replaced copper sheathing.

* Detailed analysis of twelve samples of wood by Dr. David Etheridge, a wood scientist from Victoria, British Columbia, showed the ship was built either in Northern New England or the Maritime Provinces of Canada. MARY CELESTE was built at Spencer’s island, Nova Scotia.

- See more at: http://www.numa.net/expeditions/mary-celeste/#sthash.taOztzOp.dpuf

from left to right: marine archaeologist and adventure novelist Clive Cussler, Lee Wilcox, Warren Lasch and Clive's second wife Janet Horvath

Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, Rice, south central Virginia
Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, Rice, south central Virginia

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Benjamin Spooner Briggs, Mary Celeste's Captain, was descended from seafaring family committed to the vast and wide sea, "wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great creatures." (Psalm 104:25)

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

Sources Consulted

 

Ambler, Eric; and Innes, Hammond. 1959. The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Blaustein-Baroda Production Company.

Blumberg, Jess. November 2007. “Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste.” Smithsonian Magazine.com: History. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/?no-ist

Brookesmith, Peter. 1989. Appearances and Disappearances: Strange Comings and Goings from the Bermuda Triangle to the Mary Celeste. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books.

Collins, Paul. “Ghost Ship.” Slate.com: Articles > Culturebox > 2011/12. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2011/12/the_mary_celeste_the_unluckiest_ship_to_ever_sail_the_seven_seas_.html

Cussler, Clive; and Dirgo, Craig. 2004. The Sea Hunters II. New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Fay, Charles Edey. 1942. Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship. Salem MA: Peabody Museum.

  • Available via HathiTrust at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b557001

Ganeri, Anita. 2012. Lost in the Bermuda Triangle and Other Mysteries. New York, NY: Rosen Central.

Hicks, Brian. 2004. Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew. New York, NY: Ballantine Book, Random House Publishing Company.

Hitchcock, Jayne A. "The Mary Celeste (1872)." Hitchcock Models. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.jahitchcock.com/hitchcockmodels/celeste.html

Innes, Hammond. 1956. The Wreck of the Mary Deare: A Story of the Sea. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf.

Jack, Albert. 2009. Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs: The World’s Most Puzzling Mysteries Solved. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Land, Jon. 2013. The Tenth Circle: A Blaine McCracken Novel. New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media.

Lee, Adrian. 20 May 2006. “Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste.” ucl.ac.uk: UCL News. London, England: University College London. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/inthenews/itn060522

Margollé (Élie) et (Frédéric) Zurcher. 1869. Les météores. Ouvrage illustré de 23 vignettes sur bois par Lebreton. Troisième édition. Paris: Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/lesmtores00zurcgoog

Martin, Valerie. 2014. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. New York, NY: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, Random House LLC.

“Mary Celeste.” NUMA.net: Expeditions. Scottsdale, AZ: National Underwater & Marine Agency. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.numa.net/expeditions/mary-celeste/

Matthews, Rupert. 2010. Unexplained. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Parker, William Frederick. 1910. Daniel McNeill Parker, M.D.: His Ancestry and A Memoir of His Life: Daniel McNeill and His descendants. Toronto: William Briggs.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/danielmcneillpar00parkuoft

“The True Story of the Mary Celeste.” Smithsonian Channel.com: Web > Show. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/sc/web/show/130102/the-true-story-of-the-mary-celeste

Watt, Jim. 1995. “Mary Celeste – Fact Not Fiction.” Mary Celeste.net. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.maryceleste.net/

Williams, Capt. David. “Mary Celeste Was Abandoned During a Seaquake!” DeafWhale.com. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.deafwhale.com/maryceleste/

Woody. "Mary Celeste." Mysteries Blog. Retrieved December 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://mysteries-blog.blogspot.com/2010/07/mary-celeste.html

Yolen, Jane. 1999. The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

 

Sophia Matilda (born October 31, 1870) is believed to have perished with her parents, Benjamin Spooner Briggs (born Apr 24, 1835), Mary Celeste's Captain, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cobb Briggs (born April 20 1841):

undated image of Sophia
Sophia Matilda Briggs
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

On December 4th, 1872, a 100-foot brigantine was discovered drifting through the North Atlantic without a soul on board. Not a sign of struggle, not a shred of damage, no ransacked cargo—and not a trace of the captain, his wife and daughter, or the crew.
Mary Celeste themed books

The Sea Hunters II by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo

From the author of the #1 bestselling The Sea Hunters comes more unforgettable true adventures with famous shipwrecks, including the Mary Celeste.
Mary Celeste themed books

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History by Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemper

The Mary Celeste was discovered adrift on the open sea by another ship in 1872 -- with no sign of captain or crew. What happened?
Mary Celeste themed books

Don't Give Up the Ship: black t-shirt ~ Available via AllPosters

Don't Give Up The Ship
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Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/13/2015, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 12/05/2014

Mira, There is indeed much that is strange and unsettling about the Mary Celeste and her vanished crew. My hypothesis will be revealed in the next installment.

Mira on 12/05/2014

How strange! One doesn't know what to think about something like that. Do you have any hypotheses? I look forward to your next installment.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/05/2014

MBC, The Mary Celeste is viewed by many as one of the most puzzling of mysteries. I'm happy that you found this installment interesting. I'll be releasing at least one more installment in this series.

MBC on 12/05/2014

Interesting article. I'm not much of a history fan, but you did make it interesting and mystery is always fun.

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