The Cursed Brigantine: The Mary Celeste

The brig Mary Celeste has gone down in history as one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Built in Spencer’s Island she was christened the Amazon on May 18, 1861. It was the beginning of an ill fated ship. Many said she was cursed, costing every owner she ever had quite a bit of money, as well as ‘killing’ 3 of her captains. Other times she would lose her cargo. To illustrate her bad luck, curse or whatever one will call it, you must go back to her maiden voyage. the Amazon‘s crew was forced to turn back when Captain Robert McLellan became gravely ill. Once back at Spencer’s Island, McLellan was brought ashore where he died a couple of days later. In 1867 a gale caused the Amazon to run aground. Cost of repairs were considered far too expensive than what the ship was worth. The owners sold the Amazon, and after changing numerous hands, she was finally sold to J. H. Winchester & Co.

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

If the ship was indeed cursed, the infamous voyage was doubly cursed with Benjamin S. Briggs as her master, or so it would seem. An accomplished captain, Briggs had seen his fair share of calamity, with much of his family being lost at sea. A resident of Marion, MA, Briggs was part of a seafaring family. Two out of three of his brothers, Oliver and Zenas Briggs, had made a career out of the sea. His father had also been a former master. Both brother were lost at sea, Oliver being lost not long after Benjamin Briggs.

On October 19, 1872 Briggs arrived in New York City to take command of the recently refitted Mary Celeste, which he had a 1/3 ownership in. Traveling with him on the voyage was his wife Sarah and nearly two year-old daughter, Sophia. They would be leaving behind their seven year-old son Arthur, who they wished to have a proper education. On this voyage to Genoa, Briggs would be delivering 1700 barrels of alcohol. In all there would be ten people aboard. While in New York Briggs met an acquaintance, David Reed Morehouse, master of the Dei Gratia, who would go on to play a significant role in the mystery.

Finally on November 5, 1872 it was time to head out for the open sea. But Briggs didn’t get far. A storm forced him to halt the voyage for the next two days. When at last the harsh weather conditions cleared up, the Mary Celeste sailed into a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

There seemed to be everything left behind in the cabin as if left in a great hurry but everything in its place.

With the exception of the mess in the galley, of course. Among the odd things that contribute to the mystery is that the Mary Celeste‘s four seamen left behind their foul-weather gear, which was highly unusual given the bad weather they were having that year. Deveau also stumbled upon the log. The last entry was from November 25th. On the log slate he found a note,

Francis, my own dear wide, N.R.

In the captain’s quarters there was a scene that was haunting, at the very least. On the captain’s bunk was the impression of a child’s body. Deveau returned to the Dei Gratia to report on his finding. The crew quickly voted to salvage the ship. Deveau and two other men managed to make it to the British port of Gibraltar, where Morehouse awaited them with the Dei Gratia. Deveau and his men had survived the suicidal voyage which led Deveau to comment

I don’t know that I would attempt it again.

Oliver Deveau

The Mary Celeste was taken into the custody of the British Vice Admiralty Court, by whom the crew of the Dei Gratia would be drilled relentlessly. Horatio Spargue, the US Consul in Gibraltar, had respected Briggs and made it clear that he firmly believed Briggs had not been involved in insurance fraud (which was the Court’s suspicion). On December 18th, the hearings began. Sir James Cochrane presided as judge and the Queens Proctor Frederick Solly Flood was the attorney general. The ever disagreeable Flood proved to be determined. He had the Mary Celeste inspected, including the hull. There he found ‘cuts’. Flood’s surveyor also found a cutlass that appeared to have blood on it. This was later disproved, but it did not deter Flood. Deveau managed to ruffle a few feathers when in regard to the cutlass he replied,

There was nothing remarkable on it. I do not think there is anything remarkable about it now, it seems rusty.

Sighting of the Mary Celeste

When it was found the ‘blood’ on the sword was not blood, Flood said it had been disguised by lemons that had been used to clean the sword. There had also been talk of finding blood on deck, and when it was not to be found Flood responded that the sea had washed it away. Flood had an answer for everything. When he had found the ‘blood’, Flood’s suspicions of fraud quickly changed to mutiny, the crew having murdered Briggs and abandoned ship. Furthermore, the marks on the hull were made by the mutinous crew, so it would appear that the ship had actually run aground. Flood’s stories rivaled that of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. On the 23rd amidst the investigations, Morehouse, who refused to testify, sent Deveau to take the Dei Grata to Genoa and deliver their cargo.

Sprague wasn’t going to stand by and watch without making some effort to reach the truth. He requested US Navy Captain R. W. Shufeldt to examine the Mary Celeste. When the captain finally arrived in Gibraltar and finished his inspection, Shufeldt concluded

I am of the opinion that she was abandoned by the master and crew in a moment of panic and for no sufficient reason. [In regards to the ‘cuts’ they were] splinters made in the bending of the planks which were afterward forced off by the actions of the sea, neither hurting the ship nor by any possible chance the result of an intention to do so.

Arthur Briggs

Deveau eventually returned to Gibraltar for the hearings, wisely leaving the Dei Gratia in Genoa. But in March he headed back to load up cargo and sail back to the US. That same day the Mary Celeste at last sailed out of Gibraltar, the new captain having managed to round up a crew. The Dei Gratia‘s crew received a total of £1700 for salvage  A measly sum and to add insult to injury they were forced to pay court costs. Cochrane was going to get them one way or another. Morehouse along with his wife, moved to Cambridge, MA, where he died in 1905. Arthur Briggs was for awhile the ward of his uncle, James Briggs, the only non-seafaring member of the family. Later his uncle, William Cobb, became his guardian. He died on October 31, 1931, Sophia’s 61st birthday.

Another tragedy struck the Briggs family. Benjamin’s younger brother Oliver had been planning to make his final voyage before settling down on land. On January 8, 1873 a storm sank his ship, the Julia A. Hallock, in the Bay of Biscay. He managed to survive on wreckage for four days. But two hours before help arrived, he succumbed to the elements.

Not many customers wanted to put their cargo on a cursed ship and so the Mary Celeste returned to Boston without cargo. No one would hire her, and when Winchester put her up for sale no one would have the brig. He eventually put her back in service, during this time another captain died.  Winchester eventually sold her and she continued to change hands. On January 3, 1885 Captain Gilman Parker purposefully ran the ship aground on Rochelais Reef. She was a total loss, the damage being irreparable. It was Flood’s insurance fraud scheme, that he had tried to pin on Briggs 13 years earlier. Parker also sold what cargo that could be salvaged to the US Consul agent for $500. At a later trial Kingman Putnam, surveyor, stated

I opened one case which had been shipped as cutlery and insured for $1000. It contained dog collars worth about $50. Cases insured as boots and shoes contained shoddy rubber worth about 25¢ each.

Parker was guilty. However, while waiting to go on trial for a second time, Parker died. Another man who was to stand trial killed himself. The wreck was eventually burned with part of it plunging beneath the surface. The cursed vessel’s career had come to an end, but the story lives on.

Source: Hicks, Brian. Ghost Ship : The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew

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19 thoughts on “The Cursed Brigantine: The Mary Celeste

  1. Really enjoyed this post! It’s amazing just how many derelicts like the Mary Celeste were floating around the oceans during the late nineteenth century. The US Hydrographic Office, which was charged with keeping track of them, tallied 1,628 derelicts in the North Atlantic between 1887 and 1893–that works out about 19 every month! The GPO published a fascinating summary of that seven-year period in an 1894 book titled “Wrecks and Derelicts in the North Atlantic” (it’s available on google books).

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  2. Nicely written account. While I haven’t read Ghost Ship yet, I certainly will. I always liked Rupert Furneaux’s assessment (can’t remember the book at the moment) that Briggs was completely inexperienced with his cargo- barrels of raw alcohol. When fumes from the leaky barrels led him to suspect a coming explosion he abandoned ship, not being able to return, perhaps due to a sudden squall.

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    • Ah, yes I’ve read about that cause, as well. In Ghost Ship, Hicks offers a plausible cause regarding the abandonment. (He’s almost got me convinced).
      Now let’s see if I can get this straight. It was the alcohol that drove them from the ship. The ship needed airing out, because the fumes the alcohol was giving off was taking its toll on the crew. So they opened hatches, windows, doors and everyone got in the Mary Celeste’s lifeboat. However, this boat was tied to the Mary Celeste. But then the Mary Celeste began to sail away, dragging with it the lifeboat. Then the halyard broke, leaving the lifeboat stranded. There seems to be proof to support this explanation. In any case, happy reading!

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  3. Interesting to read this – I grew up on this story in the 1950s – my father was a great story teller,and living on the north west coast of Ireland as we did, we were partial to sea mysteries and tales such as the Marie Celeste, The Inchcape Rock and the Mystery of the Flannan Isles. Riveting stuff – and who will ever know?

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    • It does appear it was cursed. I imagine the Briggs family and the crew had an unhappy ending. I highly recommend the book.

      Tough, true, but interesting no doubt! Thanks for your comment!

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    • Lucky you!

      I guess we’ll never know and perhaps for some of us its better off that way. Can you imagine if this mystery was ever solved? It would draw many readers at the start no doubt, but I think it would also deter others in the future. I mean my goodness a solved mystery! 😉 Anyhow I still feel badly for those who didn’t make it through this thing alive.

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    • Given how recent discoveries and answers seem to be fueling more questions with different things of historical significance I would go with the latter. And it tends to make the subjects even more interesting. 🙂

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