“Ship of ghouls” (Mary Celeste)


In 1872, Capt. David Morehouse of the ship Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, in excellent shape but with nobody aboard. The Mary Celeste came with a rowboat capable of being rigged for sailing and it was gone.

Mary Celeste’s part-owner, Capt. Benjamin Briggs, was joined by his wife, infant daughter, and seven sailors when the group left from New York City for Genoa. With them were a liquid cargo of 1,701 wooden barrels of pure grain alcohol whose future mission was to fortify Italian wines.

The voyage was relatively uneventful according to Briggs’ log entries, and the group enjoyed ideal weather. There was a significant amount of water in the bilge and cabins of the ship when it was discovered, but this was consistent with a ship that had been sailing for at least 10 days with open hatches and an opened skylight.

Even in the 19th Century, unfounded conspiracy theories could arise around a bizarre event. There were reasonable suspicions about insurance fraud or pirates, as well as more macabre ideas centering on a mass murder-suicide, then there were notions such as ghost ships, a slithering sea serpent, or a mini-rapture.

Investigators quickly dismissed the idea of a violent end on the Mary Celeste because of the ship’s pristine nature and because many valuables remained. Insurance fraud on the part of the owner was likewise ruled out due to lack of evidence.

Another idea was that the captain, family, and crew abandoned the Mary Celeste because of pump congestion and instrument malfunction. Since investigators found the pump disassembled on deck, they surmised the crew may have been attempting to decongest it.

Natural disasters proffered as explanations included a displaced iceberg or a seaquake. However, hydrographical evidence suggests that an iceberg drifting so far south was improbable, besides no other ships had reported seeing one. A seaquake was an unlikely culprit because of the lack of damage to t the ship and its cargo’s sound condition.

Some speculate that a becalmed Mary Celeste began drifting toward reefs of Santa Maria Island. This idea largely falls flat since, if the ship had been becalmed, all sails would have been set to catch any available breeze and the ship was found with many of its sails furled.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning makes a case for empty alcohol barrels being the key clue. Nine of the barrels were undamaged but empty. Those nine were encased in red oak, while the others made of white oak. Dunning wrote, “Of the species of wood sold as white oak, the majority have occluded pores. This makes the wood watertight, which is why white oak is used for wine barrels and other barrels intended to hold liquid. The pores in the wood of the 20 or so species of red oak, on the other hand, are open, allowing liquids to seep through the wood. Consequently, red oak barrels should only be used for dry goods. But for some reason the owner of the alcohol used nine of the wrong type of barrel.”

Eventually, these barrels would have become soaked through. Alcohol evaporates fairly rapidly, so the smell would have permeated the ship’s cargo hold. With just .005 percent of the barrels experiencing this seepage, they in all likelihood were buried beneath the white oak barrels and it would have been impossible to determine the cause of the odor.

In this hypothesis, the captain feared an explosion and put himself, his family, and his crew in the rowboat, where they met a watery demise. Probably not involving a slithering sea serpent.


2 thoughts on ““Ship of ghouls” (Mary Celeste)

  1. I haven’t previously heard the white versus red oak barrel thing before. Interesting that you deduce the majority reason for leaving as a fear of explosion. Another thing I haven’t heard of before, even after reading several accounts. Makes sense. Fire on a ship is far greater fear than most non-sailors would assume.

    One aspect that I haven’t seen is that with the weather being warm and the alcohol evaporating some portion of the crew might have been inhaling considerable amounts of alcohol vapor and might have been drunk.


    Operating from memory over a decade back but I seem to remember investigators noting considerable amounts of unaccountable damage and odd material conditions. I remember that a portion of handrail was crudely chopped away and many things were out of place for a well-run sailing vessel. Was this the result of the crew being disorganized and unfocused because they were drunk?

    Is it possible that the alcohol vapor slowly intoxicated the crew before anyone knew about it? If the main motivation to leave was to avoid an explosion does the crew’s possible intoxication explain why they were never seen again? A drunken sailor piloting an overloaded small boat on the ocean could easily make any number fatal errors that might doom the craft. An unanticipated sudden squall or shift in wind could easily capsize the boat and dash all hopes.

    I used to drink and immediately linked the accounts of the confused state of the ship to the cargo of alcohol. I have seen many cases of people who slowly got drunk and were completely oblivious to their own drunkenness. People unable to tell you their own name or walk who paradoxically claimed to be able to drive or operate machinery. I could clearly picture the mindless, staggering crew attempting to organize the abandonment of the vessel.

    Just a thought. I suppose we will never know for sure.

    • All those are valid points. This may be the first blog post I’ve written where I don’t take much of a position myself. I thought Dunning made the best case but I’m biased towards him. The scenarios you raised are all plausible. Sometimes a good mystery is best. Now that we know who Deep Throat was, who cares who Deep Throat was? Things like the Mary Celeste and Lost Colony of Roanoke would be a lot less interesting to me if I knew what happened to them.

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