Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste: Part Two

So, what theories have been suggested to explain why the Mary Celeste was abandoned by her crew?  While no answer can be put forward with absolute certainty, a number of theories have since been voiced with some being more plausible than others.


Flood's first theory was that the original crew may have gained access to the cargo of denatured alcohol, leading to the consequent murder of Captain Briggs, his wife, their child, and first mate Richardson.  This theory has been proposed on several occasions since - once by the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, William A. Richard, in an open letter printed on the front page of the New York Times in 1873, which stated:

The circumstances of the case tend to arouse grave suspicion that the master, his wife, and child, and perhaps the chief mate , were murdered in the fury of drunkenness by the crew, who had evidently obtained access to the alcohol with which the vessel was in part laden.
It is thought that the vessel was abandoned by the crew between the 25th day of November and the 5th day of December and that they either perished at sea, or, more likely, escaped on some vessel bound for some North or South American port or the West India Islands.

However, in reality denatured alcohol is liable to give the drinker acute pains long before he could become truly intoxicated.  There is also the fact that Briggs strictly forbid his crew to drink alcohol aboard the ship.  Flood was forced to desert this theory.

The Ghost Ship Mary Celeste by Bill Hubbard
His next suggestion was that both Briggs and Morehouse were working together.  Flood believed their plan could have gone as follows.  Briggs would kill his crew and dispose of their bodies before launching the lifeboat and sailing to a prearranged destination.  In the meantime, Morehouse would 'discover' the Mary Celeste abandoned and would sail her to Gibraltar where he would claim the salvage money.  The two men would then meet at a later date to split the money.  While this theory is at least plausible, there is no evidence that either Briggs or Morehouse were criminals.  The fact that Briggs was also part-owner of the Mary Celeste makes this even less likely as the salvage money wouldn't even cover his original investment.  Knowing this gives the suggestion very little credibility.  Flood abandoned this theory too.

Flood's third theory was that Morehouse, along with his crew, had boarded the Mary Celeste, slaughtering everyone in order to claim the salvage money.  However, Morehouse was not greedy, although many a writer had implied that he was, and he was reluctant to claim the Mary Celeste.  He couldn't really spare the men who would form a skeleton crew which would leave both vessels undermanned and at risk in the event of an emergency.  He was, however, eventually persuaded by Deveau to do just that.  While Flood tried very hard to make this theory stick he succeeded only in generating an atmosphere of suspicion, leading Morehouse and his crew being considered guilty until proven innocent.  This claim was denounced, clearing Morehouse and the crew of Dei Gratia of any wrongdoing.  After a lengthy and controversial hearing, they were granted a salvage reward of £1,700.  Many believe they should have received two or three times this amount.

The court itself was unable to offer a satisfactory explanation for what had happened to the crew.  The accusations voiced by Flood caused many a rumour to fly, including that Morehouse and his crew were pirates who had either seized the ship for its salvage value and disposed of the original captain and crew, much like Flood's accusations.  Another rumour tells us that Morehouse had planted some of his crew aboard the Mary Celeste in New York, with them taking over the ship, killing the occupants and throwing them overboard before awaiting the arrival of Morehouse and the Dei Gratia.

The majority of theories following Flood's own suggestions generally vary on the theme of murder committed by either the Mary Celeste's crew or the Dei Gratia's crew.  One such theory suggests that the owner of the Mary Celeste, J. H. Winchester, arranged for the crew to murder Captain Briggs and his family before sinking the ship for insurance, but that they somehow bungled the job, losing their lives in the process.  Perhaps the plan called for the crew to abandon ship as she ploughed into the rocks near the Azores but an unexpected wind blew the ship to safety, leaving the crew to drown.

The Mary Celeste is attacked by a sea serpent
Other theories, however, are not uncommon and are often eccentric.  In the 1900s, people favoured the 'monster from the depths' stories in which the Mary Celeste was attacked by a giant octopus which plucked the entire crew from the deck.  While this theory may attact illustrators, there are, quite obviously, a number of flaws.  If, for example, such a large and savage creature were to exist, it still seems highly improbable that the crew would hang around waiting to be picked off one by one.  It also seems unlikely that said creature would crave the yawl, chronometer, sextant, and ship's papers.

Morris K. Jessup suggested that the crew of the Mary Celeste were abducted by a UFO, which cannot be proven true or false either way, but is, regardless, unlikely.  Bermuda Triangle authors list the crew as unfortunate victims of the unexplained forces that they believe exist within the area.  However, this would make the supposed force selective and the 'Bermuda Triangle' would need to be greatly enlarged to the point that it reaches the Azores.  Another theory put forward by a group of more rational people was that the food and drinking water were contaminated, causing the crew to hallucinate at which point they were driven made and threw themselves overhoard.  This particular theory is plausible if you know very little about the case, but Deveau and other members of Dei Gratia's crew who sailed the Mary Celeste back to port used both the food and water and suffered no such effects.  It has also been suggested that, somewhere near the Azores, Mary Celeste became stranded on a 'ghost island', a shifting sandbar which comes and goes, and constantly changes position.  Believing that they were stranded indefinitely, the crew perhaps took to the yawl and were lost at sea while Mary Celeste was freed when the sandbar drifted, sailing back out to sea without a soul on board.

Many years after the actual event too place, one man claimed to be the only surviving member of the crew, alleging that the captain challenged the mate to a swimming race around the ship with both being killed by a shark.  As the remaining crew watched, Mary Celeste was struck by a rogue wave, dumping them all overboard.  The ship, however, remained upright and sailed on minus all but one of her crew.

One claimant's story appeared in the Nautical Magazine of Glasgow with Captain Dmitri Lukhmanov, identified as an 'agent of the Russian Volunteer fleet at Hong Kong,' writing about a man he had met in 1884.  Lukhmanov claims that a Greek sailor named Demetrius Specioti spoke of how he had sailed aboard the 'Ghost Ship' under another name.  Apparently, after a routine trip across the Atlantic, the crew of the 'Marie Celeste', as this account refers to her, were lost not far from Gibraltar when they were attacked by pirates.  The pirate ship had been flying the British flag when Briggs spotted it.  Speciati said that someone on this mystery vessel had signalled that they were short of provisions and were starving.

Abandoning Mary Celeste by Ken Petts
Briggs apparently invited them aboard so they could refresh their supplies.  It was only when the vessel drew alongside them that the crew of Marie Celeste noticed that something wasn't quite right, with only one man at the oars and a huge tarp covering the remainder of the boar.  By this point it was already too late; pirates jumped from beneath the tarp and overpowered Briggs and his crew, explaining that they had lost too many of their crew to disease and were in need of extra hands to man their ship.  Specioti said that the pirates left the Marie Celeste deserted for the Dei Gratia to find.
 It was not until later that the crew perished, according to Specioti.  While they were treated reasonably well by the pirates, a fever which had killed many of the original pirate crew eventually claimed Briggs anf his family.  The remaining crew apparently hatched a plan to overrun their captors, but waited too long.  Unfortunatelyan Italian mailer steamer collided with the pirate ship, sinking it and killing everyone aboard except, conveniently, Demetrius Specioti.  He claimed that, in the resulting confusion, he managed to get aboard the Italian ship, securing passage to the next port.  While there are documented cases of pirates taking ships near the African coast as recently as the 1890s, no one really seemed interested in Specioti's story.

Another claimant, one of many 'survivors' who have cropped up in the fifty years following the incident whose names are mysteriously absent from the crew list, had his 'true account' printed in an article called The Truth about the Marie Celeste: A Survivor's Tale, written by Lee Kaye, in Chamber's Journal in 1925.  The claimant, John Pemberton, claimed to have joined the crew of the Mary Celeste as ship's cook in 1870.  Pemberton went on to say that, in 1872, the crew were short-handed and this probably explained why Briggs would hire a 'sad bully' named Hullock for his mate.  Apparently Hullock and Briggs did not get along because Hullock had previously proposed to Sarah Briggs.  She had refused and Hullock blamed Briggs from keeping himaway from the woman he loved.  Pemberton also claimed that Briggs and Morehouse were partners in crime, planning to exchange a piece of the charter for some of Morehouse's crew.  They would meet off the Azores to transfer the sailors for cargo, but apparently there was a more sinister plan in the pipeline and trouble started soon before the ships would meet.

Pemberton claimed that early in the voyage Sarah Briggs was playing the pianoforte in the cabin during a storm when the securing lines snapped, crushing her to death.  Briggs was driven insane, accusing Hullock of sabotage and, shortly after, he went as far as accusing the entire crew of murder and ordered the steersman be thrown overboard.  The crew ignored the order but threw the pianoforte into the sea, hoping to calm their captain.  Later the same night, Briggs disappeared and Hullock is said to have told a crewmember that the captain 'went after the piano.'  By the end of November another sailor had been lost at sea during a brawl and two others deserted in the yawl.  When the Mary Celeste finally met with the Dei Gratia near the Azores, Morehouse discovered that only three sailors and Pemberton had survived the trip, so he took the ship for salvage money, claiming to have found it deserted.

A Brig's Officers Believed to Have Been Murdered at Sea
Pemberton's tale, while containing more that its fair share of factual errors, was expanded to book length by Lawrence J. Keating in 1929 and found a massive audience by offering a tale rich in detail.  The elements of unrequited love, jealousy, and murder made other stories about the ship pale in comparison and, with Pemberton still living, the story appeared credible.  The book, The Great Mary Celeste Hoax, was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and Pemberton rapidly rose to fame.  Keating, in his introduction, claimed the noble intention of putting 'on record an exact and accurate account of what really did happen on board the vessel during her famous and magical voyage, to explain why and how she was abandoned, and to reveal what became of the crew.'  He also claimed to have interviewed 'survivors', referencing a number of official papers to expose the mystery, while offering no clue of where the answers had hidden for fifty years.  He stated: It would not be possible nor appropriate, in a book of the present dimensions, to include in extenso all the reports and documents which have been examined for the purpose of this work, or to recount in detail the complete narratives of the men who have knowledge of the separate phases of the mystery of the Mary Celeste.  While Keating corrected the mistakes he had made in the article, when stretched to full length, the tale was so full of unrealistic plot lines that it was almost meaningless.  However, the book was published by reputable publishing houses in both London and New York, making it the most successful book published on the famous ghost ship.

Many an interview was sought by journalists, but Pemberton remained elusive until a 'special correspondent' of the London Evening Standard somehow managed to track him down.  People began to question the tale, with Frederick J. Shepard, a librarian in Buffalo, commenting in the Buffalo News that the book had 'scarcely a correctly stated fact in it.'  Even the painting in the front of the book bore no resemblence to the real Mary Celeste.  While the book was slated by many, some reporters searched high and low for the survivor who had told the tale.  The coveted interview was obtained as well as a photograph of Pemberton, with both being published on May 6th, 1929 in the Evening Standard.

However, 20 years later, it came to light that the only true statement in Keating's book was in the title.  Macdonald Hastings, a British writer and one-time editor of The Strand, made some inquiries about Lawrence Keating and received a letter from another old ship captain who had met Keating.  A mutual friend of the captain and Hastings declared Keating a fake.  The story had been a hoax with Lee Kaye, Lawrence Keating and the Evening Standard's 'special correspondent' being one and the same person - an Irish Liverpudlian named Lawrence J. Keating.  Hastings noted that the Evening Standard article had already proved the tale a fake because the photograph of the man professing to be John Pemberton did not exist.  He was actually Keating's father.

That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the plausible theories for the disappearance of Mary Celeste's crew.