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There's something incredibly unsettling about an abandoned vehicle, a car on a highway, a plane in the woods, you know, there's a story there, but you know that whatever the story is, it certainly can't be good. And sometimes the circumstances are so terrifying and baffling that you're forced to throw all sense a rationality out the window. Such is the case with the Mary Celeste, a boat which was discovered in such bizarre condition that it was rightfully nicknamed the ghost ship.
This is Supernatural, a podcast original, and I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers, every Wednesday, I'll be taking a deep dive into a real unexplained occurrence to try and figure out the truth.
You can find all episodes of Supernatural in all other podcast originals for free on Spotify. This week, we're looking at a ship called the Mary Celeste, particularly one fateful voyage which has caused rampant speculation about what actually happened for 150 years.
We'll have more about the ghost ship coming up. Stay with us. On December 4th, 1872, De Grazia captain David Moorhouse is sailing through fog near the Azores Islands when another ship appears hazily in the distance. It's hard to make out details at this point, but Moorhouse can see that it's a brigantine. It's two masts rising over the horizon, a ship not unlike his own. So Moorhouse pulls out a long glass and takes a closer look. There's hardly any sails drawn, which is strange given how light the wind is that day.
The ship is moving, but it doesn't really seem to be going anywhere. Instead, the ship is turning in kind of a weird circular pattern, bucking against the waves like a rodeo bull in slow motion. The movement is nauseatingly rhythmic. It seems purposeful, yet entirely unnatural. For about an hour, Moorhouse and his crew watch from a distance. The ship doesn't seem threatening, but something does seem very wrong. They try to signal out, but get absolutely no response.
So the degradation changes course and heads towards it, hoping to help as they get closer. Moorhouse thinks that he sees a distress flag but soon realizes that it's only tattered remains of the main sail. It's odd with the past few weeks have given the Atlantic some terrible weather. So maybe it's just the one sail and the ship needs a tow. But as they approach, he's unable to make out a single person on deck. No crew, no passengers, no one at all.
Soon is able to read the ship's name, the Mary Celeste, and coincidentally, Morehouse recognizes the name. In fact, just over a month prior, he'd run into the captain in New York City, a man by the name of Captain Benjamin Briggs. The interaction was friendly, but nothing more than that. Briggs was an experienced captain he'd encountered many times over the years. So Morehouse is now especially curious, and he sends his first mate, Oliver Deveaux, and two other crew members by Lifeboat to investigate.
Of course, even if he doesn't see anyone on top, maybe there's people below deck that are sick or injured or something and they need assistance. The ocean is really choppy and rough, but DVO and the two others are able to arrive within a few minutes as they approach. They see that the ship is not necessarily large, but it has a brand new double deck and a smooth, clean hull. It looks pretty somewhat sporty and appears to be fairly new.
DVO and the others hop on board to investigate. First they see the tattered sail, then they notice a broken peak halyard, which is the main sails rope.
Other than that, there is almost no damage, there are no holes in the sides, the rudder is intact and the deck wood is clean and fresh, there's absolutely nothing to suggest that this ship had been through anything other than maybe a few storms.
And if it had, it weathered them well. But the deck is eerily quiet. The only sounds are the lapping of the waves against the whole or the occasional creak of wood below their feet. Duvall calls out for any signs of life, but gets only the echo of his own voice in return. Delvaux first thought is that the crew could have abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship. So he goes down to the hole and sees that water has accumulated.
He uses what's called a sounding rod in order to measure exactly how much, and he finds that there's about three and a half feet of water. Now, you might think that that sounds like a lot, but it's really not. It's pretty normal for water to accumulate on even the best made ships. And it's an easy amount to pump out. There's no way three and a half feet would have scared an experienced captain into abandoning ship. Plus, DVO notices that all the hatches are open.
And we were talking the doors, the windows, even one of the cargo holds so the water could have accumulated, not while the crew was on the ship, but in whatever amount of time the ship was presumably sailing by itself. There's no way this ship was in any danger of sinking at all. The whole thing gets even weirder when Davo goes through the cabins. The galley contains six months of food and more than enough drinking water. All the personal belongings are still by the beds.
The crew didn't take the foul weather gear, nor their personal chests. Even their smoking pipes were left behind, which is really abnormal. Usually sailors don't go anywhere at all without them.
The main captain's cabin is large, big enough for a family. The bed is neatly made, a dress hangs over a chair. There's a sewing machine, a pile of toys and children's clothing in one corner. And in one of the bunks, DVO sees the outline of a child's form almost as if someone had just been there up on deck. Neither the wheel or the rudder are secured. The wheel knocks the rudder, but when the wave comes, the rudder knocks the wheel, making it look as if the ship was being manned by a ghost.
Weirdest of all, there's no evidence a lifeboat had ever been on board. No tow line to suggest that one had been lowered and sailed off towards shore. It's as if the crew just vanished into thin air.
Later, DVO finds the first mate's quarters behind a door in the main cabin. The first thing he notices is a chart hanging on the wall marked with the Mary Celeste positions. Now the line shows the ship sailing from New York to a few hundred miles west of where the deck Rodia found it. So it's likely that the Mary Celeste might have drifted alone for more than a few days.
DVO then finds a list of receipts and expenses underneath the bed. Nothing really a mess. But underneath that, he finally finds the ship's logbook, complete with dates and details. According to the log, the crew set sail on November 5th but barely made it out of the harbour before the weather got so bad they couldn't even see across the channel for two days. They waited on Staten Island until November seven, when the weather finally cleared up. The crew then unfurled the sails and steered the ship through a shortcut east of the main channel.
And then they were off to the vast Atlantic. But the winter of 1872 brought some of the worst storms recorded in history. So Briggs had to steer the Mary Celeste through violent winds and towering waves and didn't catch a break for nearly three weeks. But by November 24th, the weather finally cleared up. On that day, Briggs noted their location due west from the Azores Islands, which matched the chart above. On November 25th, he noted nothing abnormal about the weather or the ship.
They were six miles east of the last island, and then the log just goes blank.
Now there's even this old sailor's adage, you never leave a vessel unless you have to climb upwards. But again, the Mary Celeste clearly was not sinking and the Atlantic water is so cold that they would have likely died of hypothermia. Whatever caused the whole crew to jump ship must have been so harrowing that they were willing to risk everything, including their own lives, to get away from it. DVO and his two men returned to the degradation and propose that they salvage the Mary Celeste.
This basically means that they'll lead it to shore and for their troubles be rewarded. A certain amount of money in return, double figures that the total payout could be somewhere between 40 and 50000 dollars, which even went split between eight men, is the equivalent of over 100000 dollars a piece today. Morehouse isn't opposed to the idea, but he's not completely for it either. Towing a ship to shore is not without its risks. They'd all have to work constantly with no room for error.
Plus, the constant threat of more storms looms darkly overhead. But to the underpaid crew, the money is a small fortune and worth the effort. Morehouse agrees. And Doberman's mans the Mary Celeste alongside the digerati. He steers her all the way to Gibraltar and proudly files a claim for their reward. But the big payday doesn't come as easily as he'd hoped. The city's attorney general is an Irishman named Frederick Solley. Flood and flood is baffled by the whole thing.
He just can't believe that the ship would have just turned up without a crew. And he flat out refuses to grant the claim until he understands exactly what happened. Gibraltar's judge initially thinks that Captain Benjamin Briggs and the crew might have been thrashed overboard due to weather, but the lack of damage to the ship suggests otherwise and flood quickly rules that out. I mean, there are no good natural explanations. So Floyd begins an official investigation into the matter, and what he uncovers only makes the story all the more peculiar.
We'll dive into the investigation right after this.
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And I'll see you in the park. And now back to the story. By the time the Mary Celeste salvage hearing begins on December 18th, theories of foul play by the de Grazia have already infiltrated the town and soon reach Attorney General Sally Flood. Now, Flood firmly believes that there was some sort of conspiracy formed by the men of the Decorative, basically insinuating that they had planned to dispose of the Mary Celeste crew and salvage the ship. Flood pushes the crew pretty hard.
In court, he nitpicks details like the exact time that the decorative seas, the Mary Celeste, and he tries to imply that they were carrying knives with them the whole time. He even tries to get Morehouse to admit that at some point he took a detour to destroy evidence of their wrongdoing. But as hard as Flood tries, he finds no real proof. After all, the degrading crew was just as perplexed by the disappearance as Flood was. And remember, Morehouse had actually opposed bringing the ship in for salvage in the first place.
So Flood decides he needs more evidence. He sends a court surveyor to investigate the Mary Celeste, but he finds that most of what the degradation men had already said checks out. The ship is pretty much intact. It's not actually new, but it was retrofitted by the owner, J.H. Winchester, right before the trip. A second deck was added and the main cabin expanded. So Captain Briggs was able to bring his wife and daughter with him, which explains the child's toys, the bedroom.
But he does notice a few other things that they didn't. The whole world contains over a thousand barrels of industrial alcohol, which matches the cargo list on the ship's insurance, except nine of them are actually found empty.
Then there's these sort of strange cuts on the ship's bow. And though they form a sort of a crosshatching pattern, they don't seem intentional or cosmetic. When he investigates the captain's cabin, he finds a small sword hidden in the shells. This isn't exactly a cause for alarm, except when he pulls it out of its sheath, he finds some sort of red substance caked onto the blade. And that's not all. When the surveyor finds a few stains up on deck, Flood quickly comes to the conclusion that it might be blood immediately.
Flood insist that there was a mutiny on board. Briggs knew his first mate before taking off on their journey and believed he was in good hands, but he didn't know the others. The second mate was a 25 year old from New York. The steward was a newlywed from Brooklyn and the last four men on the ship, Germans who were paid very little for their work. So Flood thinks that the crew, possibly fueled by the alcohol below deck, rebelled against Captain Briggs, killed him and his family and took off for the nearest islands, leaving the ship by itself.
But there are a few things wrong with this theory. For one, the alcohol on board was likely industrial alcohol. So if the crew had been drinking it, they would have been dead long before they could overtake the ship. And even if they did, then like my biggest question is where did their bodies go? And even if they had mutinied, why did the crew just abandon the ship and leave their valuables on board? Flood does send the sword off to an examiner to be tested for blood, but the stains are nothing but rust.
Now, Flood is really searching for answers here, but for good reason. I mean, crews don't just vanish out of nowhere. There has to be an explanation. So for some time, Flood also considers that the owner of the Mary Celeste J.A.G. Winchester and Captain Briggs maybe had planned an elaborate insurance scheme, but the ship was only insured for sixteen thousand dollars and the cargo that was on board was worth thirty six thousand dollars. So it's likely that they would have made more money completing the journey than they would have if they collected the insurance money.
Whatever happened to the crew likely wasn't planned ahead of time and hit them in an instant.
After months of investigating, flood runs out of ideas and the degrading crew is finally granted their reward. In March of 1873, it's only seventeen hundred pounds, far lower than the tens of thousands that they had hoped for. But at least it's something. Yet the mystery remains unsolved. Some suggest that maybe pirates took the crew, which is not a bad theory at the time. The cultural obsession with piracy in books and stories is pretty much at its peak.
But if you actually look at the stats, there are little to no confirmed reports of piracy by the late 1970s. So even if it's still being talked about, actual pirates have pretty much died out. Plus there was nothing missing on board. So there's no reason why a group. The pirates would have come on board, taken the men, woman and child, and left everything of value. Then there's a story published by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1884 in it.
The ship is called the Marie Celeste. The captain's wife and daughter go missing, driving him to take his own life. Then the crew is kidnapped by natives from the island of Tenerife, and the narrator survives only because he has an amulet that makes his kidnappers treat him like a God. Despite what readers might have thought at the time, this tale is entirely fiction, but it is the story that fuels an entire generation of people coming forward with theories. Sometime around 1910, a man named Jacob Hamill claims that as the first mate of the day, Rodia, he had killed the crew of the Mary Celeste, dumped the bodies and taken all the cash on board.
It sounds kind of plausible until you remember that we know the real first mate of the day, Rodia, was Oliver Darrow, not this Jacob Hamill guy.
Some people claim that the crew saw an iceberg and fled the ship, fearing that they would hit it. Maybe, but this really only becomes a widely discussed theory after the Titanic sinks in 1912. So it's probably just excitement over a new method of disaster at sea. In 1913, a magazine called Strand publishes another survivor's tale, this one asserting that the crew had jumped overboard for a joke and then they were all eaten by a shark.
This one's not bad, but many of the details from the story are taken not from historical fact, but from Arthur Conan Doyle original story. So it's pretty safe to say that this is fiction, too. Despite how hard people try, there's still no good answers as to the crew's disappearance.
I mean, it's so strange that it even forces people to consider another option that might seem a bit outlandish. And listen, I know this sounds a little bit absurd, but sightings of large sea monsters have been reported for centuries for a reason. The ocean is a scantily explored environment. I mean, we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the ocean floor. Scientists even estimate that 91 percent of species in the ocean have yet to be classified, 91 percent.
So when ancient myths and fairy tales spoke a violent man eating sea monsters, sure, there was probably some element of exaggeration, but certainly part of it could have stemmed from real encounters. And consider this. In 1838, a massive sea serpent was actually spotted off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. And in 1848, the crew of a ship called the HMS Dateless reported a similar creature in the South Atlantic. Then there's the giant squid, which actually does exist.
In fact, the largest ever recorded was over 43 feet long, longer than a full sized school bus and certainly big enough to take down a small crew. But if the ship was attacked by a vicious creature, the violence probably would have left the Mary Celeste in a greater state of ruin. So tempting as it may be, I think it's safe to rule out the possibility of a primordial CBE. Of course, there is one other Atlantic Ocean conspiracy theory that stands out, and we've actually even covered it before on this very show, and that's the Bermuda Triangle.
If you remember, airplanes and ships have a tendency to mysteriously disappear within this area. First, in 1880, a British ship called the Atalanta in 1918, the USS Cyclops. In 1921, a ship called the Carol Dering turns up. But like the Mary Celeste, the crew had disappeared. And in 1945, there was Flight 19. Now, most people say that the three points of the Bermuda Triangle are the southern tip of Florida, Puerto Rico and, of course, Bermuda.
So if that's the case, the Mary Celeste is nowhere near the triangle when her crew disappears. But the borders do tend to vary. Some extend the triangle to almost three times that size, which would include the cruise last recorded position.
We talked about UFOs and the lost city of Atlantis in the Flight nineteen episode. But there's another possible explanation for the Bermuda Triangle that we didn't talk about, and it could maybe explain what happened to the Mary Celeste. It's these things called water spouts, which are basically like these big tornado gusts of wind and water that occur throughout the ocean. And like a land tornado, they can flood ships and carry passengers off with it. I mean, seeing one of these on the horizon would be terrifying, like something out of a disaster movie.
It would be enough to convince the crew into abandoning the ship for a safer location. But I find this just a little bit hard to believe because they really wouldn't have been any safer on a lifeboat than on a bigger vessel. And they were way too far from land to swim. And remember, I mean, there's really no other signs of extensive damage or flooding on the ship. So the Mary Celeste apparently wasn't hit by one at all. So once again, we are back at square one and it is absolutely baffling and completely frustrating.
I mean, an entire crew, the captain and his family, just vanishing into thin air. And the one thing I can't get over, like if they left, there is still no good explanation for why they left all their valuables, why they left the ship's logs and the documents, even their food behind. It's like they were just snatched off the boat or saw something so terrifying that they legitimately lost their minds. But what if our answer isn't something that came from out in the ocean or from the crew themselves?
What if it was something that came from the ship itself?
Coming up, we'll explore what probably happened to the passengers aboard the Mary Celeste. And now back to the story.
The first person to turn their attention below deck for answers is actually Benjamin Briggs young cousin, a man named Oliver Cobb. Cobb first publishes his theory in 1926, then again in 1940. And when he thinks about what's below deck, he's not thinking about the three and a half feet of accumulated water found by the deck. Rodia But the cargo itself remember that at the time of her fateful voyage, the Mary Celeste was carrying over a thousand barrels of industrial alcohol.
Now, we've already talked about how the crew probably wasn't drinking it, but it is very possible that as the ship nears the Azores and the weather gets warmer, the gases in the liquor heat up, expand and cause a rumble in the hold. And if there was some sort of shaking from below and Brigg's felt it, it would have seemed as if the barrels and the ship itself were about to explode. This would explain so much why the entire crew left in such a hurry, why they didn't take any of their valuables, why there was no indication of a lowered lifeboat.
They might had just tossed the boat over and jumped. But who knows if they even would have landed in it versus falling in the open water. But there's a big problem even with this theory. Later, research shows that the temperatures recorded over the Atlantic during that period weren't hot enough to cause any changes to the alcohol at all. So in 2007, a documentary by the Smithsonian Channel takes another stab at the mystery of the Mary Celeste. When reviewing the ship's logs, the research team noticed discrepancies between the recorded locations in the logs and the amount of time it actually would have taken to sail from place to place.
Even with storms.
See, sailors use these things called chronometers to navigate their routes, something kind of like a sea compass that also helps them track time and distance. Any normal ship in the 19th century is probably carrying anywhere from three to 20 of them at any given time.
But no chronometer was found onboard the Mary Celeste and the owner, George Winchester, stated that she'd only ever had one so that one chronometer could have broken. And towards the end of November, there might have been a few days where Briggs thought that he was closer to the Azores than he actually was.
And if Briggs realized he was lost then at the first sight of land on November 25th, he might have decided to lead his team by lifeboat to the island of Santa Maria, if only just to look for help and figure out what was going on. But still, this doesn't entirely fit for me. I mean, Briggs took his whole family and the crew on a lifeboat, but no valuables. I mean, not even the ship's logs.
The very thing that he would need help with the documentary does say that Briggs worries might have been compounded if the crew had been constantly pumping out water from the hold, which given the amount of water that was found below decks, seems likely. But I still don't buy that. Briggs would have abandoned the ship entirely. So what if he actually meant to get back on board? In his book, Ghost Ship, Brian Hicks proposes the idea that Briggs and his crew had gotten off the ship by lifeboat, but that they hadn't taken any of their things with them because they had intended to return.
Here's what we already know. There was some water accumulated in the basement and it's likely that there was dust left over in the pipes from construction, which would have created a sort of sludge that would have made it hard to pump. We also know that Briggs was carrying over a thousand barrels of industrial alcohol on board and that nine of the barrels arrived empty. As it turns out, these nine barrels were made from a different kind of oak than the others and oak that was far more porous, meaning that the alcohol probably leaked out.
Now, the smell of industrial alcohol, likely methanol or formaldehyde, would have had severe effects on Briggs and his crew. And we're not just talking about discomfort. We're talking about headaches, nausea, even possibly hallucinations. I mean, it's a very nasty smell. Briggs probably should have recorded this in the ship's logs, but he could have been so drained from the weather and taking care of his crew and his family that he recorded only the bare minimum. Theoretically, all the crew would have had to do is just pump it out along with the accumulated water.
But any of that sludge that was in the pumps might have made this a bit difficult. And more importantly, even if they had been able to pump it out, the fumes likely still would have hung around in the air. And remember, the Mary Celeste went through like three weeks of just nonstop bad weather. There was no possible way that they could even open everything up. So for three weeks, they would have had to deal with that smell until November 25th, when Briggs finally sees his first day of good weather.
Knowing the clear skies might not last for long, Briggs probably rushes his crew into opening up all of the windows and doors and hatches and pumps out as much water as possible. It turns out that the ship did leave port with a lifeboat. So say Briggs decides that he's going to have his crew and family take it out for an hour or two while they air out the ship. But he needs to keep it attached to the main ship. So he uses the Mary Celeste Peak halyard, that rope that typically moves the main sail and is the strongest and longest on the ship.
If the weather did change, breaks could simply pull on the rope and bring them back in. But according to meteorological reports, the weather on November 25th changes quickly over the afternoon, gusts of winds blow through the Azores and a storm sits heavy over the horizon. So Brigs probably tries to pull himself back in as the ship thrashes in the distance. But the one thing that hadn't been retrofitted on the ship when Winchester bought it was the rigging, including the exact rope that they're using as their lifeline.
Remember the day Garaudy crew had found the peak halyard broken, but they hadn't thought much of it at the time. When the Mary Celeste took off with the wind, the lifeline probably broke off, which is why it looked like there had been no rope to lower the lifeboat into the water. And this would leave Briggs, his family and his crew out in the open water with no way to get back to their ship. We don't know exactly what happens next, but we can assume that lost at sea they had little food or water and would have drifted to their deaths as the Mary Celeste sailed away.
They could have made it to shore maybe, and just stayed on Santa Maria Island, but you'd think that someone would have known that they'd survived. Now, we can be pretty certain that they did all leave the ship in the lifeboat. And the smell is the best theory we have for why. It's the only thing that explains why they took nothing with them. But even this, it still doesn't explain everything. Of course, neither their bodies nor the lifeboat were ever found.
And I mean, when you go back and read the log entries from the ship, it really doesn't seem as if anything was wrong. Like surely they would have some kind of record of this, like, horrible smell that was causing an entire crew debilitating nausea. And clearly something did go terribly wrong, something that happened so quickly and ferociously that the crew didn't have time to even consider taking food or water. Now, you could still debate pirates or giant squids, mutiny or UFOs.
But though the sea might be a place for myths and monsters, there's something far more frightening about a boat drifting aimlessly in the open water, especially when we may never know the story behind why she was. Thanks for listening. I'll be back next week with another episode, you can find all episodes of Supernatural in all of their part cast originals for free on Spotify. Spotify has all your favorite music and podcast all in one place. So they're making it easier to listen to whatever you want to hear for free on your phone, computer or smart speaker.
Supernatural was created by Max Cutler and stars Ashley Flowers and is a podcast studio's original, it's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden.
This episode of Supernatural was written by Stacy Lee Niemiec with Writing Assistants by Kate Gallagher. Dear, more stories hosted by me. Check out Crime Junkie and all audio check originals.