Listen in the Dark, It's More Fun That Way!
Aug. 15, 2022

Terrifying & True | American Ghost Ship: The Mary Celeste

Terrifying & True | American Ghost Ship: The Mary Celeste

A life on the high seas can be unpredictable and dangerous but no one could have imagined the fate of the crew onboard the Mary Celeste... because to this day all we know for certain is they disappeared without a trace!

Tonight we are going to dive...

A life on the high seas can be unpredictable and dangerous but no one could have imagined the fate of the crew onboard the Mary Celeste... because to this day all we know for certain is they disappeared without a trace!

Tonight we are going to dive into the details behind the first American Ghost Ship, the Mary Celeste!

Compiled with the help of John Oak Dalton

Support us on Patreon

Contact Us/Submit a Story

Music by AudioBlocks

Produced by Daniel Wilder

Executive Producer Rob Fields

Find everything at:


No less a literary luminary than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, thought the story of a seemingly haunted ship christened The Amazon was worth putting down to paper.  In the many years since, that story has been retold in fiction, during the Golden Age of Radio, in television, and in film.

That ship first dubbed The Amazon was later called the Mary Celeste, a name which has echoed through the years since. 

For as long as humans have been sailing the high seas, they’ve been collecting tales about strange phenomena like mermaids, sirens, sea monsters, magical realms, and haunted ships. Of course, most of these stories come from starved men full of scurvy and rum, so they should probably be taken with a pinch of sea salt. But today let’s unfold the genuine mystery of the Mary Celeste.

It is the year 1860.  Abraham Lincoln becomes the President of United States, just a year before Civil War breaks out…and a modestly-sized cargo ship, built with locally felled lumber, is being constructed in Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia.

The original owners dreamed of making it a merchant sailing ship and becoming rich in the transport business.  But it did not take long for it to become a nightmare…one that seemed never-ending.

Originally registered under the name ‘the Amazon’, her maiden voyage in 1861 from Nova Scotia to London was delayed when, just before her departure, the first captain fell ill and died. 

Then, with a new captain, the Amazon sailed across the Atlantic, but not without misfortune.  The Amazon collided with fishing equipment off the coast of Eastport, Maine, and later ran into and sunk another ship in the English Channel. 

Stories of the seemingly cursed vessel were sparse until October 1867, when the Amazon ran ashore during a storm, being so badly damaged that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. 

That derelict boat was unwanted and untouched, but was eventually bought and sold a number of times before it was restored and renamed the Mary Celeste.

It was the fourth of December 1872. In the preceding months, Mount Vesuvius had erupted in Italy, and the first-ever FA Cup Final had been held in England. A week, later a meteorite would strike the earth near a small town called Banbury. 

But none of this mattered to Captain David Morehouse, commander of the Canadian ship Dei Gratia, as he stared through his telescope at a vessel on the horizon drifting aimlessly in the north-Atlantic Ocean.


Morehouse knew the boat. It was the Mary Celeste, a cargo ship that had left New York eight days before him, loaded with about 1,700 barrels of denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol is not a drinkable substance, as it has an alcohol content between 70 and 99 per cent and is used as a solvent, cleaning agent, disinfectant, and fuel. Those who mistakenly think otherwise find themselves blind or dead. 

When Captain Morehouse spied the ship floating in the open sea, he realized the Mary Celeste should have already arrived in Genoa, Italy, having left much earlier.  The captain thus changed course to investigate. 

When members of the Dei Gratia crew boarded the Mary Celeste they found her deserted, but with no indications of where everyone had gone or, more importantly, why. There were no signs of fire, violence or a struggle. The sails were in bad shape, some missing altogether, and the rigging was damaged and hanging out of place. 

The main hatch still had its cover on, but the covers of the hatches at the front and back of the boat - fore and aft in sailing terms - were off and lying beside the other hatches on the deck. 

The cargo of industrial alcohol was untouched. About three and a half feet of water sloshed around the cargo hold, which was a significant amount but not alarming.

Someone had disassembled one of the two pumps, but the vessel was still perfectly seaworthy.

The only thing of importance missing was the lifeboat. But the crew’s belongings were still in their quarters, and there remained enough food and water on board to last another six months. 

Most of the ship's papers were missing along with the captain's navigational instruments, but in the mate's cabin was the ship’s logbook.  Its final entry was dated at 8 a.m. on November 25…ten days earlier.

That final logbook entry placed the Mary Celeste within sight of Santa Maria Island in the Azores, a group of nine small volcanic islands. But by the time Morehouse and his crew discovered her, she had drifted almost 750 kilometers to the east. 

In all ten people were missing from the Mary Celeste, including Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, and seven crewmen.

Of note was that Briggs was a part-owner of the boat and an extremely experienced skipper. He had handpicked his crew, and they were all regarded as first-class sailors.  Overall, a seasoned team and not the type to abandon ship without a serious reason.

So…what was that reason?

Why and how did ten people disappear from the Mary Celeste without a trace?

These questions would soon fill newspapers and books across the globe…but first, they appeared in the law courts of Gibraltar.

After finding the Mary Celeste, Captain Morehouse decided to sail her himself to Gibraltar, about 1,100


kilometers away, so he could claim salvage.  The law of salvage is an ancient part of international maritime law that states that anyone who helps rescue or recover a ship or cargo is owed a reward proportional to its value by the ship’s owners.

In this case, Morehouse and the crew of the Dei Gratia had rescued the Mary Celeste and sailed her back to safety at their own risk.

But when the ship arrived in Gibraltar, she was confiscated by the authorities until the salvage hearings could be resolved in court.

As part of those court proceedings, it was suggested the disappearances of Captain Briggs, and his family and crew, were because of foul play.

Marks were found on the bow of the ship that some claimed were made by an axe, and there were also dark stains found both on the boat and on the captain’s sword that might have been blood.

The attorney general in Gibraltar believed the crew got drunk one night on the alcohol in the ship’s hold - even though it was undrinkable - and slaughtered Captain Briggs and his family in a drunken frenzy before escaping in the lifeboat.

But soon the results of scientific tests proved nothing untoward had happened aboard the Mary Celeste and, after three months, the authorities released the ship from custody.

Captain Morehouse and his crew received less than 8,000 dollars for their salvage efforts, which was well below the expected payment given the value of the ship and cargo.

Unfortunately for Captain Morehouse, the court case had generated rumors he and his men had killed the occupants of the Mary Celeste so they could claim the ship for salvage.

That accusation wasn’t ever proved, but the doubt never quite faded, and by awarding such a small salvage settlement, it seemed the court remained suspicious.

And thus the curse of the Mary Celeste continued.

Other theories of foul play have claimed that Briggs and Morehouse were friends, conspiring to claim the insurance money for the ship and staging a disappearance.

Another, admittedly somewhat ridiculous, view was that Captain Briggs, who was a devout Christian, had lost his mind in a religious frenzy and murdered everyone on board before killing himself. 

In the decades that followed, the story of the Mary Celeste was retold and built upon many times over. In 1883, The Los Angeles Times published a fictional narrative in which the ship was found in perfect condition and fully rigged, the cooking fire was burning in the galley stove, dinner on the table, barely cold, and the logbook updated to the hour before the ship was found.

The next year, Arthur Conan Doyle’s story on the Mary Celeste was published.  And even though it was as fictional as the reportedly true LA Times story, much of it became accepted as fact. 

These kinds of fictions have made it even harder to come up with plausible explanations for what happened aboard Captain Briggs’ ship, but a few proposals have gained popularity over the years. 

Let’s get the first and most outrageous one out of the way: Briggs, his family and his crew were whisked away by aliens. Since aliens are apparently responsible for building the pyramids, making crop circles, and assassinating JFK, one supposes we should at least consider the possibility that aliens swooped down on a random seafaring ship and kidnapped all those on board. 

Another guess is that the Mary Celeste was hit by a water spout, the oceanic equivalent of a tornado, which would explain all the water in the ship’s hold. A water spout would also have caused the atmospheric temperature to drop, which could have driven water from the bilges into the pumps.

This might have convinced the crew the vessel had taken on more water than she had, and was therefore in danger of sinking. Under those circumstances, Briggs might have chosen to abandon ship while he was in sight of land. 

Building on the theme of natural disasters, other commentators have theorized that an earthquake on the seabed - known as a seaquake - may have generated enough turbulence aboard the Mary Celeste to cause the spillage of alcohol and the release of alcohol fumes. That would potentially explain the hatches, which might have been opened in an attempt to air the cargo hold. It would also tie in with the nine empty barrels that were found onboard.

If there had been a build-up of fumes, Briggs would have been concerned, and that concern might have been elevated by rumblings from the cargo hold, the smell of fumes, and perhaps even an explosion.

In that case, Briggs and his crew might have climbed into the lifeboat, attached it to the ship, and allowed themselves to float behind at a distance. That seems like a reasonable enough response to the situation, but one has to question the sense in tying yourself to something you think might be about to explode, especially since a lifeboat in the open ocean is far from a safe place to be. 

Some experts suggest the Mary Celeste would have been a safer bet than the lifeboat, even if she had suffered an explosion, and that Briggs would have been a fool to abandon ship. But the alcohol explosion theory had a lot of support at the time, and gained some credibility from later reports of ships whose cargo had exploded under similar conditions. 

It was also noted the nine empty barrels were made of red oak, unlike the other barrels, which were made of white oak.  Red oak is more porous than white oak, and it is possible some of the alcohol may have seeped out the barrels, filling the cargo hold with more toxic fumes. The main argument against the idea that the Mary Celeste’s crew were trying to escape an explosion was that no scorch marks or evidence of an explosion were ever found. 

But in 2006, an experiment carried out by Doctor Andrea Sella of University College London showed that such an outcome was perfectly possible. Sella built a replica of the Mary Celeste’s hold with paper cubes to represent barrels, and then used butane to generate the type of explosion that would have happened had alcohol fumes in the hold ignited.

The results showed a massive explosion with no burning, no scorching, and no soot left behind. 

According to Sella, the trapped gas created a pressure-wave type of explosion with a spectacular surge of flame, followed by relatively cool air. Such an eruption would have been enough to blow open the hatches. 

To many, an alcohol-fueled explosion and a desperate evacuation is the most logical and scientifically sound explanation of what happened to those aboard the Mary Celeste. But forensic researcher Anne McGregor thinks there is more to the story. 

After cross-referencing notes from the salvage trial with the ship’s log and oceanic data from the time, MacGregor concluded Briggs’ instruments were probably damaged because his measurements appeared to be wrong - he was actually 120 nautical miles west of where he thought he was. 

It seems the ship had experienced bad weather the night before the final logbook recording, and with the pumps broken - perhaps due to coal dust buildup from a previous cargo - the crew had no way to measure how much water had been taken on in the rough seas. 

If Briggs suspected there was too much water on board, he would have had a decision to make.

If he pressed on, he knew they wouldn’t see land for hundreds of miles, so if there was a possibility the ship was sinking, their best chance would be to head for Santa Maria Island - which by his faulty calculations was nearby - while they still could.

That might not have been the best decision, but it wouldn’t have been crazy. One issue with many of these theories is that Captain Briggs not only abandoned his ship, he also abandoned his log book. If he really did think the ship was slowly sinking, he would still have had plenty of time to collect the log, or at least to scribble a quick note as to his plans. Ships’ captains in the nineteenth century were not in the business of forgetting to make crucial entries in their logbooks, no matter the circumstances. 

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what happened to those on board the Mary Celeste, but we do know the ship’s bad run continued even long after the mysterious disappearance of her crew.

When the trial in Gibraltar was concluded, she sailed to Italy as originally planned to deliver her cargo before heading to New York. 

But by the time the Mary Celeste arrived in New York, the rumors of bloodshed, murder, mutiny and inexplicable disappearances had circulated throughout the shipping world, and nobody wanted anything to do with the seemingly cursed ship. 

Eventually, the owners were forced to sell her at a considerable loss. 

The new owners didn’t fare much better, with the ship consistently losing money, and in 1879 the Mary Celeste called in at St Helena bay to seek medical help when yet another captain fell sick. He died on the island shortly after in a sequence of events eerily similar to the way in which the ship’s first captain had died.

All told, the Mary Celeste had seen three captains die prematurely, fueling speculations that the ship was cursed. 

Six years later luck still hadn’t improved and the desperate skipper, Captain Parker, conspired with a group of shippers in a crooked plot to finally make some cash on what had been a truly terrible investment. 

They filled the Mary Celeste with worthless cargo, which they insured for 30,000 dollars, or about 850,000 dollars by current standards, before deliberately running the vessel aground near Haiti, wrecking her forever.

Investigations by the insurance company revealed the attempted trickery, and Captain Parker and his accomplices were soon facing trial in Boston for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.

Parker was also charged with "willfully casting away a ship," a crime known as barratry, that used to be punishable by death. 

Luckily for the captain he avoided the death penalty and the jury was split on the crime of fraud, so Parker went free…but his reputation was ruined, and he died in poverty just three months later. 

To continue to add to the doomed legacy, one of his fellow defendants went mad and another killed himself. Even under normal circumstances this would be an almost unbelievable chain of events, but looking back it seemed very little was normal about the Mary Celeste, or those who came in contact with her. 

Perhaps it is for the best that the Mary Celeste now lies in a permanent, watery grave at the bottom of the ocean.