Mary Celeste: Atlantic Mystery Unresolved by Court Hearings of December 18, 1872 to March 14, 1873

by DerdriuMarriner

There is a procedure for abandoning ship. There is a protocol for salvage. Their compliance still leaves unsolved the nineteenth century’s “Ghost Ship” mystery of the Mary Celeste.

Nobody admitted to seeing anything between the Mary Celeste’s departure from Staten Island on November 7, 1872 and discovery in the Atlantic on December 4/5, 1872.
• The crew of the Dei Gratia found the uninhabited, yawing brigantine en route to both ships’ mutual destinations of Genoa, Italy.
• First mate Oliver Deveau and seamen Augustus Anderson and John Johnson got the weather-worn ship to Gibraltar on Friday the 13th.

The docking date in the British Overseas Territory’s port portended trouble yet to come.
• Salvage proceedings started on December 18, 1872.
• They straightened out nothing, excluding the determination of the atypically puny amount to be awarded for salvage, when they terminated almost three months later on March 14, 1874.

Gibraltar's busy maritime traffic acquainted Benjamin Briggs and other American captains with feluccas, traditional sailing vessels of Mediterranean Sea. ~

"Felucca off Gibraltar": 1866 oil on canvas by Thomas Chambers (1808 - 1869)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Salvage proceedings began with Mary Celeste’s custody passing from Dei Gratia to British Vice Admiralty Court Marshal Thomas J. Vecchio. Oliver Deveau expected to:

  • Leave with contracted petroleum shipments in 1,735 barrels;
  • Pick up Captain David Reed Morehouse on the return;
  • Receive his share of a calculated total award of $40,000.

But atypical beginnings under Sir James Cochrane, Vice Admiralty Court Judge and Commissary, foreshadowed unusual endings to inputs from:

  • John Austin, court-hired inspector;
  • George F. Cornwell, Mary Celeste advocate;
  • Frederick Solly Flood, attorney general, queen’s maritime law advocate and proctor;
  • Dr. J. Patron, court-hired bloodstain analyst;
  • Henry Peter Pisani, Dei Gratia advocate;
  • Ricardo Portunato, court-hired diver;
  • Captain R.W. Shufeldt, consul-hired inspector;
  • Horatio Jones Sprague, American consul.


The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1900), Volume X, page 348
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1900), Volume X, page 348


Barratry emerged as the first issue for the hearing to determine. It had to be considered whenever crews and masters could have damaged cargoes and vessels. It included such manifestations as:

  • Dereliction;
  • Desertion;
  • Scuttling;
  • Theft.

Excepting unanimous decisions by owners to wreck ships without harming crews, it involved the law if abandoning, grounding, or scuttling indicated agenda approved by some shareholders without the consent and knowledge of all. The apparent setting of the rigging at full sail and of the wheel to rudder-driven courses -- presumably by the Mary Celeste’s captain, mates, and sailors --  initially looked questionable. But those who knew Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs as one of Gibraltar’s Masonic lodge members rejected such a conclusion.


Captain Benjamin Briggs was a member of Gibraltar's Lodge of St. John, which was granted a warrant in 1728. ~

Assembly Rooms, built at north end of Alameda Gardens in 1884 by Gibraltar's Freemasons, included ballroom, movable concert/theatre stage, and, in east wing, lodge rooms: vintage post card by V.B. Cumbo, seller of curiosities and souvenirs
Assembly Rooms, Church Street, Gibraltar
Assembly Rooms, Church Street, Gibraltar


Captain Briggs only claimed one-third ownership in the Mary Celeste. James Henry Winchester had two-thirds control as J.H. Winchester & Company, majority shareholder and New York’s super-shipper. He held $14,000 in insurance policies on a ship -- owner-valued at $16,000 -- whose back-story included:

  • Repairs from colliding with and sinking another vessel in England’s Strait of Dover, 1861;
  • Repairs from grounding on Cape Breton Island’s Big Glace Bay, 1867;
  • Seizure for non-payment of repair-related debts, 1869;
  • Seizure for questionable re-registry from Canada’s Amazon to the United States of America’s Mary Celeste, 1872;
  • Updates, 1872.

Meissner, Ackersman, and Company additionally held policies totaling $36,000 on alcohol cargoes in 1,701 barrels. Not one insurance company questioned their policyholders’ integrity.


Among indignities in brief life of "Mary Celeste," originally named "Amazon," suffered seizure for her questionable re-registry with new name in 1872.

"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


Mutiny appeared on the list of the more violent manifestations of barratry. Its success nevertheless depended upon pre-voyage complicity. But Captain Briggs did not have known interactions with anyone connected with the Mary Celeste other than slight acquaintances with:

  • Albert G. Richardson, first mate and husband of J.H. Winchester’s niece Fannie;
  • J.H. Winchester, previous employer of his father -- Captain Nathan H. Briggs -- and his sibling, Oliver Everson Briggs.

No mutinous proclivities or pre-trip socializing ever emerged concerning:

  • Andrew Gilling, second mate;
  • Edward William Head, cook and steward.

Meissner, Ackersman, and Company never expressed doubts regarding loyalty to captain and cargo by the ship’s German-born, German-speaking crew of:

  • Gottlieb Goodschaad;
  • Boz and Volkert Lorenzen;
  • Arian Martens.


Captain Briggs' only surviving child, Arthur, favors volatile cargo as ultimate cause of Mary Celeste's abandonment:

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


Violence against cargoes, crafts, and crews nevertheless assumed three other forms which warranted scrutiny. One threat other than mutiny came from inside the Mary Celeste while two menaces lurked from outside. The internal, non-mutinous threat found favor with such relatives of Captain Briggs as:

  • Cousin Dr. Oliver Cobb of Easthampton, Massachusetts;
  • Son Arthur Briggs of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

It linked the disappearance of all 10 inhabitants -- including the captain’s two-year-old daughter Sophia Matilda and wife Sarah Elizabeth -- to:

  • Explosions and fumes from the volatile cargo;
  • Subsequent sinking of an overcrowded, under-provisioned lifeboat during November’s super-strong storms.

It served as a convincing explanation for the emptiness of nine barrels upon the shipment’s unloading in March 1873.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle changes the surname of Benjamin and Sarah Briggs to Tibbs in "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," his short-story solution of the Mary Celeste enigma. ~

Mrs. Tibbs with her husband, Captain Tibbs, and captain's cabin: illustration by William Small
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," Cornhill Magazine (1884), p. 11
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," Cornhill Magazine (1884), p. 11


Two external dangers arose from human and natural sources. Piracy constituted the most frightening of human-provoked perils. It did not receive serious attention even though it was a possibility as:

  • The sporadic practice of North and West African mercenaries;
  • The subsequent solution of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s (May 22, 1859 – July 7, 1930) 1884-released short story J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

It drew upon such evocative evidence as:

  • Apparently blood-stained sword;
  • Strangely marred hull.

It got the court’s attention to the extent that the queen’s advocate pondered expanding the hearing’s scope to criminal proceedings. It was not joined by any awareness of the second of the two external dangers, the threatening waters and weathers from:

  • Seaquakes;
  • Waterspouts.


Seaquakes and waterspouts are offered as cataclysmic sources of Mary Celeste's abandonment:

"Trombes" A sailing vessel in peril from multiple waterspouts: illustration by Louis Le Breton (1818 - 1866), French artist specializing in marine paintings
Margollé et Zurcher, Les météores (1869), p. 126
Margollé et Zurcher, Les météores (1869), p. 126



On March 14, 1873, Judge Cochrane announced the salvage award -- 1,700 pounds sterling (8,300 U.S.A. dollars) -- at not even half the warranted amount. Charging court costs, he attributed misconduct to both ships’ crews. He considered irrelevant indicators of temporary exits -- from external felons, internal floods and fumes -- turned permanent on a capsized, 10-membered lifeboat:

  • The captain’s wife abandoning child-wear, melodeon, sewing machine;
  • The crew’s leaving behind foul-weather gear, luggage, smoking-pipes.

He contributed to Mary Celeste’s progression:

  • Through David Cartwright’s (1874 – 1880) and Wesley Gove’s (1880 – 1885) ownerships;
  • To Captain Gilman C. Parker’s grounding on Haiti’s Rochelais Reef on January 3/4, 1885;
  • Until Clive Cussler’s and Mike Fletcher’s retrieving remains on April 5, 2001.


Marine archaeologist and adventure novelist Clive Cussler and deep-sea diver Mike Fletcher may have located Mary Celeste's underwater remains:

from left to right ~ 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



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fascinated by the Mary Celeste enigma, spinning the mystery into a short story which evaded the attention of Sir Arthur's mastermind team of problem-solvers, Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Baker Street Irregulars:

Nevertheless, despite Sir Arthur's efforts, Mary Celeste remains as one of the world's great unsolved mysteries.
ca. 1890 portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Edward Paget (October 4, 1860 – January 28, 1908)
ca. 1890 portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Edward Paget (October 4, 1860 – January 28, 1908)

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 History. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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.” Articles > Culturebox > 2011/12. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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

Doyle, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan. 1884. "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement." The Cornhill Magazine, New Series Vol. II (January to June 1884): 1-32.

  • Available via Internet Archive at:

Doyle, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan. 1884. “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” Page By Page Arthur Conan Doyle > The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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

  • Available via HathiTrust at:$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 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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 News. London, England: University College London. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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:

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

“Mary Celeste.” Expeditions. Scottsdale, AZ: National Underwater & Marine Agency. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. 1900. Volume X. New York: James T. White and Company.

  • Available via Internet Archive at:

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:

“The True Story of the Mary Celeste.” Smithsonian Web > Show. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

Watt, Jim. 1995. “Mary Celeste – Fact Not Fiction.” Mary Retrieved November 2014.

  • Available at:

Williams, Capt. David. “Mary Celeste Was Abandoned During a Seaquake!” Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

Woody. "Mary Celeste." Mysteries Blog. Retrieved December 18, 2014.

  • Available at:

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


Mary Celeste's presumed resting place: Rochelais Reef, appearing (lower right) as irregular rectangle in Gulf of Gonâve between Gonâve Island and Tiburon Peninsula. ~

Mary Celeste is the only ship recorded to have sunk at Rochelais Reef, south of Gonâve Island, west northwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), February 1994
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), February 1994
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

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

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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: 08/02/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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