On November 7, 1872, the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste set sail from New York Harbor on its way to Genoa, Italy. On board were the ship’s captain, Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, along with eight crewmembers.
The ship was built in 1861 at Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, and named the Amazon. After being launched on May 18, 1861, it encountered a number of mishaps. During the maiden voyage, its captain caught pneumonia and later died, and the ship was damaged on several occasions, most notably in October 1867, when it ran aground in Cow Bay, Cape Breton Island. The following year the Amazon was sold to American Richard W. Haines, who renamed it the Mary Celeste. The ship underwent significant structural changes over the next several years, and it was eventually sold to a group that came to include Capt. Benjamin Spooner Briggs.
Early in the afternoon of December 4, 1872, at a point about midway between the Azores and Portugal, the Nova Scotian brigantine Dei Gratia was proceeding on a southeasterly course when her master, David Reed Morehouse, sighted a sailing ship on his port bow, to windward. Through a glass he perceived that she was another brigantine, beating northwest under very short canvas. As the gap between the ships narrowed, he was unable to make out any people on the stranger. He ordered a boat lowered and sent first mate Oliver Deveau, with second mate John Wright and a seaman, to investigate.
Rowing up to the silent ship, the men read the name Mary Celeste on her bow, and on reaching her, Deveau and Wright clambered onto her deck. The investigators soon confirmed that there was not a soul on board. The brigantine’s one boat was gone. Both her fore and lazaretto hatches were uncovered, and her hold, containing hundreds of wooden barrels marked “alcohol,” held water to the depth of three and a half feet. The ship’s jib and foretop staysail were set, but the foresail and upper fore-topsail had been blown away, the lower fore-topsail was flapping loose, and the main staysail lay sprawled atop the forward house; all the other sails were furled.
More interesting to Deveau and Wright than the disorder wrought by the elements were the many evidences of human order to be seen. The captain’s chronometer and sextant, the navigation book, and the ship’s register were missing, but the log book lay on the desk in the mate’s cabin and the log slate, or running log, on the cabin table; the final entry on the latter gave the Celeste ’s position at 8 A.M. , November 25, as six miles northeast of Santa Maria, easternmost of the Azores. The ship’s stores contained provisions for six months and ample drinking water. In the seamen’s quarters forward, and by the berths amidships, occupied until recently by the Celeste ’s cook and two mates, were sea chests packed with clothes. The captain’s cabin likewise contained clothing, stowed in boxes and hanging from hooks, including, besides masculine attire, dresses, a pair of woman’s overshoes, and “articles of child’s wearing apparel; also child’s toys.” A melodeon stood opposite the captain’s bed, which had been slept in—by a child, Deveau guessed. Under the bed Deveau found a sheathed sword with faint discolorations on its blade.
It is a riddle that has fascinated us for more than 100 years – what really happened to the crew of the legendary ghost ship? Now one scientist claims to know.
It seemed highly possible that the leaking alcohol caught light, sending Captain Briggs into a panic and prompting the dreaded cry: ‘Abandon ship!’ It was a plausible explanation but has always been discounted because there was no sign of fire, or explosion. A blast of sufficient magnitude to persuade an experienced captain to take the last resort of abandoning ship would surely have left at least a few scorch marks on the wooden barrels, or in the hold.
Now, however, 21st century scientific techniques have been used to finally solve the 19th century mystery. An experiment, conducted by a scientist at UCL for a Channel 5 documentary which will be screened next week, shows that an explosion may indeed be the key to the fate of Captain Briggs, his family and crew.
Dr Andrea Sella [UCL Chemistry] built a replica of the hold of the Mary Celeste.
Using butane gas, he simulated an explosion caused by alcohol leaking from the ship’s cargo.
Instead of wooden barrels, he used cubes of paper. Setting light to the gas caused a huge blast, which sent a ball of flame upwards. Surely the paper cubes would be burned or blackened or the replica hold damaged.
Remarkably, neither happened.
“What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion,” says Dr Sella. “There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching.
“Given all the facts we have, this replicates conditions on board the Mary Celeste. The explosion would have been enough to blow open the hatches and would have been completely terrifying for everyone on board.
Such a massive explosion could have been triggered by a spark caused when two loose barrels rubbed together, or when a careless crew man, pipe in mouth, opened a hatch to ventilate the hold during the long crossing from New York to Italy. Records show that 300 gallons of alcohol had leaked – more than enough to create a terrifying explosion.
“It is the most compelling explanation,” says Dr Sella. “Of all those suggested, it fits the facts best and explains why they were so keen to get off the ship.” …
I’m not sure If I’m buying it.