Sunday, April 20, 2008

Unsolved Mysteries~Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste (sometimes incorrectly spelt Marie Celeste) was a brigantine discovered in the Atlantic Ocean unmanned and under full sail heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar in 1872. The fate of the crew is the subject of much speculation; theories range from alcoholic fumes to underwater earthquakes, along with a large number of fictional accounts. The Mary Celeste is often described as the archetypal ghost ship.

Mary Celeste was in Nova Scotia in 1860. Their original name was "Amazon". She was 103 m total of 280 tons and displacing half Brigg. Over the next 10 years she worked at several accidents on the lake and through a series of owners. Finally, she turned to an auction in New York salvage, where she was purchased for 3000 dollars. After extensive repairs, she was under American registry and renamed "Mary Celeste".

On November 5, 1872, under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs, the ship picked up a cargo of industrial alcohol shipped by Meissner Ackermann & Co and set sail from Staten Island, New York to Genoa, Italy. In addition to the captain and a crew of seven, she carried two passengers, the captain's wife, Sarah E. Briggs (maiden name Cobb), and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia Matilda, making 10 people in total.

On December 4, 1872 (some reports give December 5, due to a lack of standard time zones in the 19th century), the Mary Celeste was sighted by the Dei Gratia, commanded by Captain David Reed Morehouse, who knew Captain Briggs. The Dei Gratia had left New York harbour only seven days after the Mary Celeste. Dei Gratia's crew observed her for two hours, under full sail and heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. They concluded that she was drifting, though she was flying no distress signals.

Oliver Deveau, the chief mate of the Dei Gratia, led a party in a small boat to board the Mary Celeste. He found the ship in generally good condition, though he reported that "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess". There was only one operational pump, with a lot of water between decks and three-and-a-half feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold. The forehatch and the lazarette were both open, the clock was not functioning and the compass was destroyed. The sextant and marine chronometer were missing, and the only lifeboat appeared to have been intentionally launched rather than torn away, suggesting the ship had been deliberately abandoned. Popular stories of untouched breakfasts with cups of tea on the cabin table, washing hung out to dry, a cat found asleep on top of the gallery locker and a bowl of a half-eaten apple pie are wholly without substance.

The cargo of 1701 barrels of alcohol was intact, even if it was finally discharged in Genoa, nine barrels were empty. A six-month supply of food and water on board. All papers of the vessel, with the exception of the master log, were missing. The last entry was on 24 November and put them 100 miles (160 km) west of the Portuguese islands of the Azores. The last entry in the ship's slate showed her how have reached the island of Santa Maria in the Azores on 25 November.

Crewmen from the Dei Gratia sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar where, during a hearing, the judge praised them for their courage and skill. However, admiralty court officer Frederick Solly Flood turned the hearings from a simple salvage claim into a de facto trial of the men of the Dei Gratia, whom Flood suspected of foul play. In the end, the court did award prize money to the crew, but the sum was much less than it should have been, as "punishment" for suspected, but unproved, wrongdoing. Captain Morehouse was awarded one fifth of the ship and cargo.

None of the Mary Celeste's crew or passengers has been found. It is unlikely that the events leading to their disappearance will ever be known with certainty.

In the spring of 1873, two small wooden rafts made of wood lashed together offshore were sighted by fishermen from Spain. One contained a body wrapped in an American flag, and the other four bodies. It has been suggested that these are remains of the crew of the Mary Celeste. However, the corpses were buried in a grave without positively identified

The recovered ship was used for 12 years by a variety of owners.

During January 1885, she was loaded with an over-insured cargo of scrap, including boots and cat food, by her last captain who attempted to sink her to claim insurance money. The plan did not work as the ship refused to sink after having been run up on the Rochelois Reef in Haiti and an insurance investigation revealed the fraud.

On August 9, 2001, an expedition headed by author Clive Cussler (representing the National Underwater and Marine Agency) and Canadian film producer John Davis announced that they had found the remains of the brigantine off the Isle de Gonave in Haiti. Archaeologist James P. Delgado identified the wreck as Mary Celeste based on a survey of the large bay and by analyzing vessel fastenings, ballast, timber, and evidence of the fire that burned the stranded hulk. This evidence matched the wreck with historical accounts of Mary Celeste. Other researchers have, however, disputed this claim. Scott St George of the Geological Survey of Canada and the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona analyzed samples from wood fragments recovered from the site in an effort to reconstruct sufficient tree ring data for dating. Based on this, St. George felt that the wood was cut from trees still living at least a decade after the ship sank, as cited in The Independent of January 23, 2005

Dozens of theories have been proposed to explain the mystery, ranging from the mundane and plausible to the fantastic.

The most plausible theories are based on the barrels of alcohol. Briggs hauled had never such a dangerous cargo before and not trust. Nine leaking barrel would be an accumulation of steam in the handle. The historian Conrad Byers believed that Captain Briggs ordered keep that open, resulting in a heavy rush of smoke and steam. Faith, was the ship to explode, Briggs ordered everyone in the lifeboat, not in a hurry to properly secure the vessel with a strong towline. The wind picked up and blew the ship away from them. The inhabitants of the lifeboat either drowned or drifted on the sea to die of hunger, thirst and exposure.

First put forth by the ship's owner, James Winchester, this theory is perhaps the most widely accepted explanation for the disappearance. Even paranormally-inclined writers like Richard Winer and Colin Wilson consider this the most likely solution to the Celeste mystery.

A refinement of this theory was proposed in 2005 by German historian Eigel Wiese. At his suggestion, scientists at University College London created a crude reconstruction of the ship's hold to test the theory of the alcohol vapor's ignition. Using butane as the fuel and paper cubes as the barrels, the hold was sealed and the vapor ignited. The force of the explosion blew the hold doors open and shook the scale model, which was about the size of a coffin. Ethanol burns at a relatively low temperature with a flash point of 13°C or 55.4°F. A minimal spark is needed, for example from two metal objects rubbing together. None of the paper cubes was damaged, nor even left with scorch marks. This theory may explain the remaining cargo being found intact and the fracture on the ship's rail, possibly by one of the hold doors. This burning in the hold would have been violent and perhaps enough to scare the crew into lowering the boat, but the flames would not have been hot enough to have left burn marks. A frayed rope trailing in the water behind the ship is suggested to be evidence that the crew remained attached to the ship hoping that the emergency would pass. The ship was abandoned while under full sail and a storm was recorded shortly after. It is possible that the rope to the lifeboat parted because of the force from the ship under full sail. A small boat in a storm would not have fared as well as the Mary Celeste.

Some people theorize that the alcohol was to blame, but for a different reason. They believe that the crew tried to break into the hold to drink the alcohol, murdered Captain Briggs in the process, and later stole a lifeboat.

Another theory has proposed, there was a mutiny among the crew murdered, a tyrannical Briggs and his family, then fled into the rescue boat. However, Briggs had no history, he suggest the kind of captain to provoke his crew to mutiny. First Mate Albert Richardson and the rest of the crew also had an excellent reputation.

An alternate scenario has the ship encountering a waterspout, a tornado-like storm with a funnel cloud that occurs at sea. In such a case, it is suggested, the water surrounding the ship may, in being sucked upwards, have given the impression that the Mary Celeste was sinking. It would explain why the Mary Celeste was soaking wet when discovered by the crew of the Dei Gratia, and a mass panic among the crew during such an occasion would probably explain the scratched railing, and the broken compass, as well as the missing lifeboat. A further theory offered by Captain David Williams is that a seaquake erupted below the ship and jarred open nine barrels of alcohol (~450 gallons), which leaked into the bilge. The earthquake also dislodged the flue for the hot stove on deck and caused embers from the fire to drift into the rigging. Smelling the alcohol in full view of the burning embers caused the crew to panic and abandon the ship. The ship sailed on alone without the crew. The crew then decided to try to catch the ship and sail off after her in the small sailing dingy, but they never caught up with the Mary Celeste and died at sea.

Yet another theory posits a case of ergotism derived from bread aboard the ship which could have led all its occupants to throw themselves overboard. However, the sailors from the Dei Gratia were not affected.

Brian Hicks and Stanley Spicer in recent books revived the theory that Captain Briggs opened the hold to ventilate it while becalmed. The release of noxious alcoholic fumes from the hold might have panicked the captain and crew into abandoning ship for the yawl, tied to the halyard by an inadequate rope. If this broke with a weather change and consequent wind, then it could easily have explained the sudden and mysterious exit from the ship.

Hicks claims in the Real Life Media documentary that the cargo was the more toxic methanol, although there is no evidence to support this.

A recent investigation Smithsonian postulated that the captain thought close to the Azores in a bad storm, and with a pump inoperable, abandoned ship for the island. But he was 100 miles.

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