Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste: Part One

The 'disappearance' of the Mary Celeste, a 103 foot long brigantine weighing 282 tons, is considered by many to be one of the most interesting mysteries of the sea.  All derelict ships are compared to it no matter where they are found.  In fact, any real mystery is called the 'Mary Celeste' of its field; Flight 19, for example, is known as the 'Mary Celeste of aviation'.  However, Mary Celeste never actually disappeared.  When looking at this particular mystery, it was in fact the crew that disappeared and were never heard from again.  The crew's disappearance is the central element of the long and unfortunate history of the Mary Celeste, which was considered by many seamen to be jinxed.

Mary Celeste's Crew List
The Captain of the Mary Celeste was Benjamin Spooner Briggs.  Born in Wareham, Massachusetts on 24th April 1835, Briggs was the second of five sons and the third of six children born to Captain Nathan and his wife Sophia.  This was a seafaring family, with two of the five sons becoming master mariners at an early age, one of which was Benjamin, and all but one of the sons going to sea.  Benjamin's sister, Maria, also went to sea when she married a sea captain named Joseph D. Gibbs.  Briggs had already commanded the schooner Forest King, the barque Arthur, and the brigantine Sea Foam.  Some later authors portrayed Briggs as a man whose religious beliefs, along with his insistence that all his crew abstain from alcohol, made him fanatical, causing him to be weak and ineffectual as a captain.  However, he was actually believed to be a man of strict beliefs and religious conviction.  Those who knew him described Briggs as having 'the highest character as a Christian and as an intelligent and active shipmaster.'  Briggs was also a new shareholder in the Mary Celeste, ready to take her on her first voyage after a meticulous refit.

Benjamin, Sarah and Sophia Briggs
Briggs also brought two family members along for the voyage.  Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, the daughter of a preacher of the Congregational Church in Marion, Massachusetts and Captain Briggs wife, and Sophia Matilda Briggs, their 2 year old daughter, also made the voyage, while their eldest child, Arthur Stanley, remained at home with his grandmother.

Albert G. Richardson, first mate of the Mary Celeste
The first mate of Mary Celeste was 28 year old Albert G. Richardson, who was considered to be trustworthy and competent.  Richardson was a soldier in the American Civil War and was married to a niece of James H. Winchester, part-owner of the Mary Celeste.  Both Richardson and Briggs had worked together previously and Richardson was held in high esteem.

Andrew Gilling, whose birthplace was given as New York, served as second mate.  It is believed that he was actually of Danish extraction, due to the pastor of the parish of Kathy, Samso, Denmark having written to the Royal Danish Consul at Gibraltar on July 8th, 1873 on behalf of 'the bereaved and sorrowful mother' of Andrew Gilling.  The pastor sought any information pertaining to his fate and asked how he should proceed in having Gilling's possessions returned to his mother.  Gilling is also believed to have been honest and respectable.

The cook and steward, 23 year old Edward William Head, came from Brooklyn, New York, where he was respected by those that knew him.  He was described by Captain Winchester in the New York Sunday World as coming from Williamsburg 'where he was respected by all who knew him.'

Four other sailors, all of German birth, concludes the crew list of the Mary Celeste.  Very little is known about these four men.  Two of the seamen, Volkert and Boz Lorenzen, were believed to be brothers who lost all of their possessions when shipwrecked prior to their joining the crew of the Mary Celeste.  There is some mystery surrounding the oldest member of the crew, 35 year old Arian Martens who, while a qualified and experienced mate, had only signed on with Briggs as an ordinary seaman.  The final member of the crew was 23 year old Gottlieb Goodschaad or Goodschaal.  While we have very little information about these four seamen, they appear to have been of god character.

On 24th March 1873, a T. A. Nickelsen wrote to the US Consul in Gibraltar from Utersum on the Isle of Fohr, which was then a part of Prussia:

DEAR SIR - Please excuse me for writing these few lines of information regarding two sailors (brothers) belonging to the American Brig Mary Celeste, their mother and their wives wish to know in which condition the ship has been found, whether the boats were gone or not, whether the log-book has been found on board or not, so as to find out what day they have left the ship, and further do they like to know whether any sign of disturbance have been found on board.  I know three of the sailors personally and know them to be peaceable and first-class sailors.  Please favour us with an answer and let us know your opinion why they left said brig - I remain, Yours truly, T. A, Nickelsen

Nickelson was referring to the brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen and Arian Martens.  Both Volkert and Boz had a wife, and Volkert also had a daughter, Ida.  Martens was also married and, when he disappeared, his wife was pregnant with their second daughter, Clara.

Prior to the voyage, Mary Celeste was loaded with 1701, or, according to some, 1709, barrels of denatured grain alcohol, valued at $37,000, which was shipped by Meissnet Ackerman and Co., merchant of New York.  The destination was Genoa, Italy, and it was to be delivered to Mascerenhas and Co.  Briggs explained to his mother in a letter dated November 3rd 1872 that the preparations for the voyage were 'tedious, perplexing and very tiresome.'  Loading of the cargo was completed before dark on Sunday 2nd November with Briggs planning to sail on the Tuesday.  He visited the New York office of the United States Shipping Commissioner on Monday to sign the 'Articles of Agreement' with the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company, accepting liability for $3,400 on the vessel's freight.  Some accounts of the tale claim that Briggs and his wife met with Captain Morehouse of Dei Gratia for dinner the evening before the voyage began at Astor House, which, for many years, was considered the finest hotel in the United States.  There is, however, no evidence that the two men knew each other.

Mary Celeste as Amazon in 1861
Then, early on 5th November 1872, Mary Celeste was towed from Pier 44 to a bay of Staten Island, New York by the Sandy Hook pilot ship.  The Mary Celeste, however, didn't begin her voyage until November 7th due to storms which forced Briggs to drop anchor for an extra two days before he was willing to risk venturing out to sea.  Sarah wrote to her mother-in-law telling her, 'it was strong head wind, and B sail it looked so thick and nasty ahead we shouldn't gain much if we were beating and banging about.'  They sought shelter, waiting for the weather to calm before finally setting sail.  This was the last time anyone would see the crew of Mary Celeste.
Some believers in jinxes and predetermined misfortune may blame the Mary Celeste for her bad luck.  Others might blame the Briggs family, who seem to have been equally doomed.  The Mary Celeste suffered misfortune from the day she was launched, but the Briggs family also seem to attracted disaster.  Benjamin, as we know, vanished at sea.  His brother, Oliver, was lost at sea when his ship sank.  Nathan and Zenas, two other brothers, died at sea of yellow fever.  His sister Maria drowned when her husband's ship was struck by a steamer and his father was killed when he was struck by lightning as he stood in the doorway of his home.

Eight days after Mary Celeste departed from New York, Dei Gratia left with a cargo of petroleum bound for Gibraltar on November 15th 1872 with David Reed Morehouse, a Nova  Scotian, as her captain.  Oliver Deveau served as first mate.  Both the captain and the rest of the crew of the Dei Gratia were experienced seamen and are believed by most to have been of good character.

Chart of approximate course taken by Mary Celeste and Dei Gratia
Twenty days later, on December 5th, John Johnson of the British brigantine Dei Gratia sighted a vessel around 5 miles off the port bow shortly after 1pm, between the Azores and Portugal.  To be exact, Mary Celeste was discovered drifting at 38° 20' north, 17° 15' west, 599 miles west of Gibraltar.  It is interesting to note the location at which Mary Celeste was found when taking into consideration the fact that they mystery of the Mary Celeste and her missing crew are so often included in tales of the Bermuda Triangle.  In actual fact, she was no where near the Triangle at any point from November 25th, when Briggs wrote in the temporary log, to when she was first sighted by the Dei Gratia on December 5th.

Having noticed the poor condition of the ship's sails along with her slight 'yawing' and the lack of people on the deck of the mystery vessel, Johnson called the second mate, John Wright, and together they spoke with Captain Morehouse.  Morehouse studied the ship through his telescope and then gave the order to offer assistance.  At around 3pm, having closed the distance to about 400 yards of the mystery ship, Morehouse hailed her several times.  No reply was received, leading to Morehouse's decision to send some of his crew aboard to investigate.

An engraving of Mary Celeste as she was found, abandoned
Deveau, Wright and Johnson rowed over to the ship, noticing the name Mary Celeste as they neared it.  Johnson stayed in the boat while Deveau and Wright climbed aboard.  Over the next hour they searched Mary Celeste from stem to stern.  The main staysail was discovered on the foreward house both the foresail and upper foresail had been lost.  The fore-topmost staysail (the jib) and the fore-lower-topsail were set with the remaining sails furled.  Some of the running rigging was in poor condition, parts having blown away and other parts hanging over the side of the ship.  The main peak halyard - a stiff 90 metre long rope used to hoist the outed end of the gaff sail - was broken and mostly missing.  The binnacle had been knocked over and was broken.  The ship's wheel was spinning.  Some of the hatch covers were well secured but others had been removed and were found discarded near the hatchways.  There was less than 30cm of water in the galley and most of the six months' provisions were unspoilt.  There was also an ample supply of fresh water.  The cargo of denatured alcohol was intact and in good conditions.  While the condition of the ship was better than most vessels that then regularly sailed the Atlantic, she was completely deserted.  Her condition showed signs of having recently been caught in a storm but there was no evidence to provide clues as to why she had been abandoned by her crew.

Deveau found the temporary log on the table in Captain Briggs' cabin.  The most recent recording read: Monday 25th.  At five o'clock made island of St Mary's bearing ESE.  At eight o'clock Eastern point bore SSW six miles distant.  Deveau also found a chart showing Mary Celeste's progress up to November 24th.

Some accounts tells us that a meal had been prepared, or that the meal was cooking on the stove.  Others have the dishes washed and properly stored away.  Others still detail how the table had been laid with still warm cups of coffee, tea, eggs, bacon, bread and butter.  A vial of oil was supposedly found sitting upright on a sewing machine, which would indicate calm seas.  It is impossible to know which accounts are fact and which are fiction, although most are likely fictional.

The True Story of the Mary Celeste
The captain's personal items were all on board and there were apparently toys on his bed, as if a child had been playing there.  Some versions tell us a sword was found hanging on the wall or under the captain's bed, sometimes with blood stains, sometimes with rust stains, sometimes with nothing.  Some versions of the tale tell us that blood or wine stains were seen on the woodwork and on the sails, although wine stains would indicate the drinking of alcohol when the captain was strictly against any being consumed aboard the ship.  Others make no mention of alcohol at all.

A number of items were missing: the chronometer, sextant, bill of landing, navigation book, and a small yawl which had been lashed to the main hatch, although some accounts have the yawl still of the ship when it was searched by Deveau.  The railing which had run along beside the yawl had been removed.  This at least answered the question of where the ship's crew had gone; the abandoned ship.  It didn't, however, offer an explanation of why Briggs would abandon a perfectly seaworthy ship in favour of a small and comparatively unstable boat, especially when one considers that he had his family with him.  Sailors have always considered abandoning ship as a desperate act which is only taken when there is no other alternative.  Descriptions of the ship's condition vary considerably, but overall Mary Celeste was in good condition.  As one of Dei Gratia's crew later said, Mary Celeste was 'in a fit enough state to sail around the world.'

A painting the Dei Gra­tia
Deveau along with two other seamen, Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund, had the Mary Celeste ready to sail within two days.  Together the Mary Celeste and Dei Gratia set sail for Gibraltar.  On December 12th the two ships arrived and, within two hours of dropping anchor, the crew were placed under arrest by Thomas J. Vecchio, of the Vice-Admiralty Court.  Frederick Solly Flood, the Attorney General for Gibraltar and Advocate General for the Queen in her Office of Admiralty, believed the abandonment of Mary Celeste could only be a result of murder and piracy.  Without Flood the mystery of Mary Celeste would probably have faded into obscurity.  However, his accusations voiced at the hearings in the Vice-Admiralty Court attracted worldwide publicity, with Flood asking one question above all others.

Why was Mary Celeste abandoned?

That's all of today.  Next time we will look at the theories which have been suggestion to account for the abandonment of Mary Celeste.  As with Flight 19, I will include all sources at the end of the final post on Mary Celeste.