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.