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The Mystery of the Mary Celeste Ghost Ship

The 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste set sail from New York Harbor on November 7, 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy. Benjamin S. Briggs, the ship's captain, was on board with his wife, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, as well as eight crew members. A passing British ship called Dei Gratia saw the Mary Celeste at full sail and adrift around 400 miles east of the Azores less than a month later, on December 5, with no sign of the captain, his family, or any of the crew. The ship was unharmed and loaded with six months' worth of food and water, save from several feet of water in the hold and a missing lifeboat.

Mary Celeste had a tumultuous history. It was originally named Amazon, but after a series of disasters, it was renamed (including the sudden illness and death of its first captain and a collision with another ship in the English Channel). There was no evidence of foul play during an investigation into whether the Dei Gratia's crew should be paid by its insurers for recovering the "ghost ship." Mary Celeste would sail for another 12 years under several owners before its last captain ran it aground in Haiti as part of an insurance scam.

Clive Cussler, a best-selling novelist and explorer, claimed to have discovered the wreck of the Mary Celeste in 2001, however further investigation of the ship's timbers revealed that the wood was still alive at least a decade after the ship sank. 

Meanwhile, one of history's most famous maritime riddles persists: why would a seasoned captain like Briggs, or his crew, abandon a perfectly sound ship? Over the years, theories have varied from rebellion and pirate attack to an attack by a giant octopus or sea monster, while the more scientifically inclined proposed an explosion produced by gases from the ship's hold's 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chimed in with a short fiction published in 1884 in which the ghost ship's occupants were victimized by a vengeful ex-slave. On the less sensationalized end of the spectrum, an investigation documented in the 2007 documentary “The True Story of the Mary Celeste” was unable to reach a definitive conclusion, but did suggest that a faulty chronometer, rough seas, and a clogged onboard pump may have led Briggs to order the ship abandoned shortly after sighting land on November 25, 1872.

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Benjamin S. Briggs Genoa Italy Mary Celeste Sarah


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