David Murdock Column: On the Mary Celeste, one of the great mysteries

David Murdock
David Murdock

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of one of the greatest — if not the greatest — maritime mysteries of all time. 

On Dec. 4, 1872, the small sailing ship Mary Celeste was found adrift and abandoned off the coast of the Azores, near Spain. To this day, no one knows what became of her crew. She has become likely the best-known “ghost ship” mystery of all time.

The facts are so well-known as to be common knowledge to maritime or mystery enthusiasts. Basically, the Marie Celeste was spotted adrift by another sailing ship, the Dei Gratia. The crew of the Dei Gratia boarded her when she didn’t respond to signals and no one was seen onboard. Although her sailing rig was not quite in the best order and she had taken on some water in her hold, she was otherwise seaworthy and well-stocked with provisions.

The crew and passengers — 10 people, including seven sailors, the captain and the captain’s wife and child — were missing, along with some ship’s papers and the lifeboat. Her daily log was found, and the last entry was 10 days prior. There was no sign of panic or disaster. Her cargo of industrial alcohol bound for Italy was intact.

The captain of the Dei Gratia sent part of his crew aboard the Mary Celeste and sailed her to Gibraltar. Since then, many theories — some of which are quite wild, like an attack by a giant squid — have circulated. Back then, she was a subject of fascination for many years. These days, the story of the Mary Celeste sometimes appears on television shows about lingering mysteries, and she’s always mentioned in books about maritime mysteries, but she’s otherwise forgotten.

It’s in one of those books of mysteries that I first ran across the story of the Mary Celeste when I was about 10 or so. Regular readers know my liking for mystery stories, and here was a real-life mystery — and a really mysterious one, at that — staring me right in the face. Over the years, I’ve read about the story of the Mary Celeste quite often. When I was younger, I just knew that I’d be able to solve it, all from my home in Attalla.

Two things get to me about the story of the Mary Celeste after all these years. One, the mystery is likely never to be solved. Barring finding her lifeboat washed up somewhere, with incontrovertible proof that it’s her lifeboat, nothing new is going to be discovered. What we do know is somewhat muddled. Like any mystery, the facts are either lost or obscured as people talk about it. Speculation by people not directly involved muddies a mystery — the more times something spurious is repeated, the more likely it is to be taken as fact.

The other thing that stays with me is that the solution is likely something completely mundane.  The captain was fairly experienced, and I cannot imagine that he would order the ship abandoned — which seems to have been the case — without good reason. The Mary Celeste was in good shape when found. The ship’s log doesn’t seem to reveal anything wrong.

So, if those facts are completely correct, why would the captain and crew abandon a sea-worthy ship? Having never sailed the open ocean in a sailing ship, I have no idea whatsoever.

It’s when the actual explanation of a mystery is completely mundane that we often invent the wildest fictions.

It’s not like the mystery of the Mary Celeste is the only case of a real-life ghost ship. There have been many ships found abandoned and adrift over the centuries, the crews never heard from again. Just quickly checking Wikipedia, I found dozens of cases, the most recent being that of a Taiwanese fishing ship found adrift and abandoned in the Pacific Ocean in January 2021. Even with modern safety and communications equipment, sea travel can still be dangerous.

The mystery here, to me, is why the Mary Celeste became fairly well-known in its day and other similar cases have not. Why do certain mysteries stick with us while others don’t? At the same time that I was first reading about the Mary Celeste, another maritime mystery that was entering the national consciousness was the so-called “Bermuda Triangle,” with many books and movies released about it. It even became enough of a cultural trend in the 1970s that there was a board game for kids based on it! By the way, I still have mine — it’s old and battered, but I still have it.

How many times do we see any news of the Bermuda Triangle today? Not often. Basically, that mystery was solved when it was realized that the area termed the Bermuda Triangle really doesn’t see any more complete disappearances of ships and planes than any other similarly-sized expanses of heavily traveled seas. The solution is quite mundane.

When the solution is mundane, no public fascination remains.

That’s why I was a little surprised to see internet articles about the Mary Celestestart to appear as the anniversary date drew near. I haven’t really thought of her in years, but it was a pleasant memory to try to solve that mystery one more time, even though I know I can’t.

David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at murdockcolumn@yahoo.com. The opinions reflected are his own.     

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: David Murdock recalls the 'ghost ship' Mary Celeste