Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste was just like any boat, except that mostly anyone who sailed on it met an untimely end. I'm pretty sure the ship was made out of wood from trees that came from an Indian burial ground. I mean, what other explanation is there? The Mary Celeste has a tumultuous history, though maybe the ol' girl is just misunderstood. The Mary Celeste, first named Amazon, was made by Joshua Dewis in 1861 at the village of Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia. The Amazon's first captain, Robert Mclellan, contracted pneumonia nine days after taking command and died on the boat's maiden voyage. OK, so not off to a great start. John Nutting Parker, the next captain of the Amazon, struck a small fishing boat and had to take her back to the shipyard for repairs. While at the shipyard, a fire promptly broke out in the middle of the ship. The first trans-Atlantic voyage of the ship ended poorly when the ship collided with another in the English Channel. Then for six years the boat decided to ease up on its poor crew members. It didn't catch on fire or crash for six years, but apparently got bored of being owned by Canadians. The Amazon ran aground in 1867 from a storm and was promptly salvaged and sold to Richard Haines of New York. He then had it transferred to the American registry and its name was changed to the Mary Celeste: the name of pure evil.

The Mary Celeste was now going to be used strictly for trans-Atlantic runs to and from the Adriatic ports. Benjamin Briggs was to the captain of this ship, and he decided that it would be a good idea to take most of his family along with him for a trip to Italy to deliver pure alcohol. His wife Sarah and two-year-old daughter Sophia would accompany him, while his seven-year-old son won the life lottery and got to stay home with his grandma. There were ten people in all sailing on the ship, the other seven being crew members, all capable sailors. Before the Mary Celeste departed, Briggs met with an old sailor friend of his named David Morehouse. Morehouse happened to be captaining a ship, named the Dei Gratia, that was going along the same route as the Mary Celeste. Unfortunately, Morehouse was still waiting for his supplies so he would set sail a few days after the Mary Celeste. It turned out to be around seven to eight days. There had been reports of storms over the Atlantic throughout October, but the Dei Gratia did not experience any of it. After an uneventful month at sea, the Dei Gratia spotted something peculiar off in the distance. The helmsman of the Dei Gratia spotted a ship about five miles in the distance, but there was something off about it. The ship was yawning slightly and the sails looked slightly torn. Once they got closer, they realized the ship was none other than the Mary Celeste.

The Dei Gratia crept ever closer towards the Mary Celeste but kept a distance of 400 yards. The crew noticed that the Mary Celeste was under sail, yet sailing erratically on a starboard tack, and slowly heading to the Strait of Gibraltar. They watched the ship for two hours and determined that the ship was drifting after not seeing anyone at the helm or on deck, though there were no signs of a distress signal. Morehouse thought this very odd since the Mary Celeste should have docked in Italy already. Oliver Deveau, the chief mate, boarded the Mary Celeste and searched the whole ship. There was no one aboard. While he didn't find anyone, he did notice that most of the ship was flooded, with two of the three pumps being dissembled. Though it was mostly full of water, the ship wasn't sinking and was seaworthy. All of the ship's papers were missing save for the captain's logbook. The ship's clock wasn't functioning, the compass was destroyed, while the sextant and marine chronometer were both missing. The only raft the Mary Celeste had was also missing and a rope was found tied to the back of the ship leading into the water. The alcohol cargo was all in good order, though when it was eventually unloaded in Italy they found nine barrels were empty. A six-month supply of uncontaminated food was found aboard along with all of the crew's belongings and valuables, making a piracy raid seem extremely unlikely. It appeared to the crew of the Dei Gratia that the ship had been abandoned in a hurry. They couldn't find any sign of struggle or violence. For whatever reason, the crew of the Mary Celeste left everything and bolted off that ship.

The Dei Gratia and Mary Celeste were sailed to Gibraltar so they could figure out what the hell happened and apportion marine salvage rights. The commission of inquiry set up by the Attorney General of Gibraltar investigated the abandonment of the Mary Celeste for three months while the story gained worldwide attention. Both European and American maritime experts reviewed the ship and basically found nothing. Any sign of supposed foul play was quickly refuted by another expert. In the end, nobody quite knew what happened to the crew. Authorities in Washington, D.C. basically put out an APB saying that if anyone saw someone who matched the description of any of the crew members to contact them immediately. No one ever did.

James Winchester, the owner of the boat, pondered whether he should sell the boat seeing as it was probably unlucky. His mind was made up after the boat claimed the life of his father, Henry Winchester, who drowned in an accident while bringing the Mary Celeste back to America. He sold the boat at an enormous loss and the boat ended changing hands seventeen times in thirteen years. By the end of it, the boat wasn't looking so good. The last owner, G. C. Parker, who made no profit whatsoever with the boat, decided to wreck the ship purposefully for insurance fraud in the Caribbean Sea in 1885. Though it was run into a reef, the she-devil wouldn't sink so the insurance fraud plan didn't work. Parker then attempted to burn the ship, though even fire wouldn't kill the stupid thing. It did however burn up the Captain's Log, which still had Benjamin Brigg's entries in it. Parker was still found out after making an exorbitant claim on cargo he didn't have and he was promptly arrested. He ended up getting acquitted since the punishment for barratry (purposeful destruction of a vessel) was death and the jury didn't feel he deserved to die. It didn't matter, he died three months later. The Mary Celeste was deemed un-repairable and was allowed to sink deep into the sea. The curse was finally over. Or was it? Yes...yes it was.

There are several theories on what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. The most popular theory concerns the nine empty alcohol barrels. While most of the barrels were made out of white oak, the nine that were found to be empty were made out of red oak. Red oak is known to be more porous and thus more likely to emit vapor. This may have caused a buildup of vapor in the hold. Briggs was wary of the alcohol he was hauling and didn't trust the dangerous cargo. Poorly secured barrels might have rubbed together and caused sparks. The thought of this may have been enough for the crew to hastily abandon ship. Historian Conrad Byers believed Captain Briggs had ordered the hold be opened, resulting in a violent rush of fumes and steam. This caused the crew to believe they were in danger of an explosion and they boarded the lifeboat and connected a rope to the end of the ship, waiting until they thought it was safe to board again. A storm or high winds probably caused the lifeboat to become untied to the boat and they drifted in the sea until the entire crew died of starvation or exposure. The only problem with this theory is that the crew of the Dei Gratia found the hold tightly shut and when it was opened there was no smell of alcohol or fumes. The big mystery is still why the nine barrels were empty. Another viable theory was that two of the pumps had broken and the ship was filling with water, causing the crew to prematurely abandon the ship. Other theories included piracy, mutiny, or drunkenness of the crew, but those theories hold no water since there were no valuables taken, no sign of struggle, and Briggs didn't allow crew members to drink. Honestly, no one has any concrete answers as to what happened to the crew. What could have sent the crew off the Mary Celeste in such a hurry? Did the crew survive and land in Europe or Africa somewhere, though didn't come forward? Did aliens abduct the crew and get totally wasted on nine barrels of pure alcohol? My money's on that.

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