5 Theories On What Happened To The Mary Celeste

What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste? There have been many theories on this mystery of the high seas, some more convincing than others…

The True Story of the Mary Celeste

In 1872, Captain Benjamin Briggs, his family, and a small, trusted crew set sail on a voyage from New York to Genoa on a merchant ship called the Mary Celeste. One month later, the ship was found adrift off the coast of Portugal, with not a soul on board. The riddle of the Mary Celeste has intrigued and mystified ever since, with numerous competing theories on just what happened to Briggs and the other people on board. Which sounds likeliest to you?

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Initial checks of the ship found strange marks that may have been caused by an axe, along with traces of what seemed to be blood. The attorney-general leading the inquiry fixated on the idea that members of the crew had got violently drunk on the ship's cargo of alcohol, and then massacred everyone else on board before departing on the ship's sole lifeboat. Except it was later revealed the blood stains weren't blood stains, the marks were due to natural wear and tear, and the alcohol was industrial-grade stuff that wasn't fit for drinking. Plus, why on earth would the homicidal sailors then depart the ship to face certain doom on a small lifeboat?


A rogues' gallery of "suspects" have been implicated in the case of the Mary Celeste over the years. Could North African pirates have attacked the ship and killed the crew? Perhaps, but the ship hadn't been looted. How about the crew of the Dei Gratia, the ship which had actually discovered the empty Mary Celeste - perhaps THEY had in reality attacked the Mary Celeste and then pretended to have found her adrift so they could gain money from the salvage? Even more outlandish is the idea that it was an inside job, with Captain Briggs and his family faking their deaths to claim the salvage money through a co-conspirator.


There's no getting away from it: many people still have a sneaking suspicion that aliens suddenly turned up and whisked away the crew. This is probably partly down to the idea many people have of the Mary Celeste being in an eerily pristine condition, with the last log entry written shortly before it was discovered, and half-eaten food still laid out on the table. This is actually a myth - the last log had been made several days before discovery, there was no food laid out, and the ship itself was dishevelled, waterlogged and (in the words of the court report) "a thoroughly wet mess". There's also the small matter of the missing lifeboat, which is a sign the crew deliberately abandoned ship.


Could the sea itself have been behind the mystery? One possibility is that the Mary Celeste fell foul of a waterspout, which is basically a tornado at sea, or perhaps a sudden violent seaquake. Either of which may have caused superficial damage and some waterlogging, perhaps making the crew think the ship was about to sink, leading them to make the fatal mistake of clambering onto the lifeboat.


Perhaps the most convincing theory relates to the ship's cargo of industrial alcohol. Whether due to turbulence or porous barrels, noxious alcoholic fumes may have escaped, either causing a small explosion or making the crew think an explosion was imminent. Briggs may have then given the order to temporarily abandon ship, with everyone piling into the lifeboat to sail behind the Mary Celeste until the danger had passed. The rope attaching the boat to the ship may have then come undone, leaving them to bob uselessly as the empty Mary Celeste sailed away, abandoning them to the awful immensity of the sea.