Mysterious Disappearances: Crew of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste was an infamous ship that was discovered adrift and deserted in 1872. Found by the crew of another ship – the ‘Dei Gratia’ – upon arrival they found she was in a sea-worthy condition, only to be deserted. Despite a range of theories being attributed to the fate of the ship, a consensus has never been reached. The case remains a mystery, and is one of the most well-known maritime disappearances of all time. In this article, we take a look at the history, as well as some of the theories behind the disappearance. This article is also this week’s Sunday Read.


The Mary Celeste is one of the great maritime mysteries


By the time of the doomed voyage, the Mary Celeste had a history of successful maritime transport, and had just undergone a refit. The captain was Benjamin Briggs – who was an experienced captain. He carefully chose his crew, all were experienced too. His wife and daughter accompanied them. The ship was set to leave New York on November 7, 1872, with the planned destination being Genoa, Italy. The cargo of the ship was alcohol – which was poisonous, though enclosed. The Dei Gratia meanwhile departed for Gibraltar eight days later, following the route of the Mary Celeste.



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The ship had made good progress, according to the log. By 4th December, the Dei Gratia had reached an area between Azores and Portugal, when they spotted a vessel a few miles away that was steering erratically. The crew investigated, only to see it was deserted. The boat had clearly been deserted for days, and had some minor damage. The ship had ample provisions and its cargo was intact. It looked as if a calm and orderly departure had taken place, with the belongings of the crew left behind. It appeared they left by a lifeboat. The last entry in the ship’s log was nine days before – November 25. The log entry suggested the ship was 400 miles away at the time of the log entry.


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There have been a range of theories attached to what might have happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Unlike several maritime disappearances, the ship seemed in good order, with ample provisions.


  • Disorientation: A much-publicised television documentary suggested that a faulty pump and chronometer contributed to the crew believing they were somewhere they weren’t. Perhaps with fears revolving around the cargo, or the ship taking on water – they believed the lifeboat could take them to land that was nearby. This would help explain the mystery of how the ship could’ve travelled 400 miles unmanned – simply put, it was much closer, just that the crew were unaware.
  • Dei Gratia Involvement: Some have questioned how the Marie Celeste could have travelled for 400 miles while unmanned – as the log suggests. Some propose the Dei Gratia crew were responsible – having killed those on board the Marie Celeste in order to steal their cargo, and claim a salvage reward. However, Dei Gratia was slower than the Marie Celeste, and therefore this theory seems unlikely.
  • Seaquake: A ocean-based version of an earthquake could have caused damage to the ship that led to the abandonment. This theory, which many accept, suggests that it could’ve caused a minor leak to the cargo. This could’ve led to a risk of an explosion, leading to the abandonment.
  • Insurance Fraud: Another theory put forward suggests the owner of the Mary Celeste – James H. Winchester – intentionally made the refit faulty so that a wreck would happen – leading to an insurance windfall.
  • Giant Squid: Some historians have suggested a giant squid could have picked one crew member off one by one, before taking the lifeboat. This is one of the more far-fetched theories.
  • Mutiny: One or more of the crew could have staged a mutiny against Captain Briggs. This suggestion largely proposes that some were killed, but why those that staged the mutiny wouldn’t remain on board is unknown.
  • Cabin Fever: Similar to the above theory, some suggest one of the crew members could’ve come down with a serious case of cabin fever and killed the entire crew. Then, in a state of madness, took the lifeboat out.
  • Pirates: There is some evidence to suggest pirates were active in the area. While this could be reasonable – the fact that valuables were left behind makes it difficult to believe this theory.
  • Extra-terrestrial: The eerie nature of the ship still having its belongings left have led to some to believe that the explanation revolves around some form of alien abduction.




The disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste is one of the great mysteries of the last few hundred years. The fact that there has never been a clear consensus of its fate it part of the legacy. The ship itself lasted until 1884, when it was unfortunately the victim of an insurance scam, being deliberately crashed into a reef. We will never know what happened to the most famous crew of the Mary Celeste. Sadly, in any case, taking the lifeboat surely meant that in difficult waters, the crew perished. In doing this, the secret of what happened was consigned to the ocean forever.



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