One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
I think the rafts washed up on the beach at Playa del Silencio. It seems a fitting place for a mystery to end, swept by the stormy Basque Sea, along the lonely Astrurian northern coast of Spain. According to a report in a Liverpool newspaper, there were two makeshift rafts found by fishermen off that coast. One was flying the American flag. Lashed to that raft were the decomposed remains of a human being. Lashed to the second raft, were five more badly decaying bodies. It was the spring of 1873, and this may have been where the mystery of the Mary Celeste washed ashore.
She was big; a 282 ton sailing brig built for the prosaic business of the North Atlantic, and launched in Nova Scotia in 1861. But the "Marie Celeste" was always an unlucky, sad ship. Her first captain died of pneumonia on her maiden voyage. Her second captain struck a fishing boat and was dismissed. In 1867 a storm ran her ashore and her owners sold her for salvage. She was bought for $11,000. Repaired and refitted, she went back to work.
And at anchor at Staten Island, New York City, on November 3rd, 1872, her new Captain, Benjamin Biggs, wrote a letter to his mother in Marion, Massachusetts .“My Dear Mother:…It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks…For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but… It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia (his wife and 2 yr. old daughter) got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage…We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don't get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage, but I have never been in her before and can’t say how she'll sail. (You) shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of the American Consul… Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love, I am yours, affectionately, Benjamin.”
Captain Biggs sailed on November 5th with a crew of eight, (three Americans, four Germans and one Dane), and two passengers - his wife Sarah and little Sophia. His cargo was 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol bound for customers in Italy. The ship docked next to the Mary Celeste at Staten Island had been the British merchant brig Dei Gratia, captained by a friend of Briggs, David Morehouse. The Dei Gracia left New York Harbor ten days later, on November 15, bound, like the Mary Celeste before her, for the straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean beyond.
The Dei Gratia had a smooth voyage and three weeks later was approaching the coast of Portugal on December 4th, when a lookout reported a ship at five miles distance which was sailing oddly. The sails, two of which were fully rigged, appeared to be slightly torn. As Captain Morehouse moved closer he realized she was the Mary Celeste. There were no distress flags flying and everything otherwise appeared normal except in two hours of observation not a soul appeared on deck. Three men were sent to board the Mary Celeste.
The boarding crew reported “…the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess”, but fully seaworthy. She still carried a six month supply of food and fresh water. The crew’s personal possessions appeared untouched, including their valuables, and their foul weather gear. There were no signs of a struggle, although the Captain’s cabin was in considerable disarray. No flag was found.
The log book, the sextant and chronometer were all missing, as was the 20 foot life boat with sail. A thick line had been tied to the Mary Celeste’s railing. The other end was frayed and dragging in the current. And there was not a single soul on board, not even a cat. The 3 man crew sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, where an Admiralty’s court was convened and a commission was appointed to investigate the mystery.
The investigation found that nine of the barrels of alcohol aboard the Mary Celeste were empty. But the boarding party had reported smelling no fumes. The last entry in the captain’s log was dated November 24th, 1872 - when the Mary Celeste was 100 miles off Santa Maria, the southern most of the Azores islands. This seemed to imply that the ship had sailed another 370 miles in nine days with no one at the helm.
Frederick Solly-Flood, the Attorney General for Gibraltar, seems to have suspected the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia of some involvement, but all suggestion of evil was shown to be baseless after a suspected blood stain on a knife was proven to be mere rust. A diver found the hull did not “…exhibit any trace of damage or injury or…had any collision or had struck upon any rock or shoal or had met with any accident or casualty.” The commission’s final judgment was that there was no evidence of foul play, piracy, mutiny or violence.
But if that were so why would a healthy crew abandon a seaworthy ship in the middle of the ocean? The British suspicions undoubtedly influenced what the Admiralty’s court did next. The crew of the Dei Gratia was awarded $46,000 in salvage rights for the Mary Celeste (the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars today). But this was barely 20% of what the ship and cargo had been insured for.
Over the next year the owners and American authorities offered a reward and conducted a search in ports large and small around the Atlantic rim, for anyone matching the description of Captain Briggs, his wife and child, or any of the crew members from the Mary Celeste. Not a trace was found. It was as if they had simply vanished from the face of the earth.
The Mary Celeste was returned to her owners in New York and sold 17 times over the next 13 years. Finally, in 1885, she was driven onto a reef off Haiti and then set afire in an insurance scam. But she refused to sink and the owner was jailed. The sad, unlucky Mary Celeste slowly decomposed on the reef until a storm finally freed her last timbers to slide into the sea.
This leaves me to ponder the fate of the human cargo of the Mary Celeste; a woman and child and eight men - ten souls in a twenty foot single mast-ed yawl life boat. Whatever their reason for abandoning the Mary Celeste, once they did they were fully exposed to the winds of fate.
The weather service on the Azores records that on the morning of November 24th , the date of the Captain's last log entry, a gale blew up with torrential rains, a gale which finally blew itself out only on the morning of December 4th, the morning the lookout on the Dei Gratia spotted the abandoned Mary Celeste.
The Azores current travels eastward at 2 knots an hour away from the islands. Suppose, for some reason - perhaps because of a leak of explosive alcohol fumes, or crew members driven mad by drinking the pure alcohol - the crew had abandoned the Mary Celeste in good weather. And suppose that a gale had suddenly blown up, separated the life boat from the ship, and had driven the desperate little yawl northeastward for three or four days while breaking the little life boat to bits. And suppose the survivors had gathered the flotsam into a pair of rafts. Without food or water, suppose those rafts, carrying the remains of the crew, and still tied together, had drifted for five months into Biscayne Bay. And suppose the rope joining those rafts had finally separated, just before they were driven in toward The Beach of Silence, on the northern coast of Spain. Suppose all of that happened. That may have been what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste.
I think it was. And I think little Sophia would have grown into a very lovely young lady.