Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and her Missing Crew
Paper, $16.00, 289 p.
ebook $9.99 Kindle $11.99 Nook
I said at the first of the year that I wanted read more history. Here’s one of the first historical books I’ve read. Clearly I’m not going to limit myself to major events.
I first read about the Mary Celeste when I was in 5th or 6th grade, maybe 7th. This was during the late 70s, and I was interested in all things mysterious. I was also much more gullible at the time, buying into all sorts of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that today I wouldn’t believe for two seconds. In the course of reading through this sort of thing, I came across the story of the Mary Celeste.
Or rather I came across a highly sensationalized version of it. Perhaps you’re familiar with some variation of this version. The Mary Celeste was discovered adrift by another ship, the Dei Gratia. This particular version has the crew of the Dei Gratia finding a hot meal still on the table and pages missing from the log book. That image lodged itself in my mind, and I’ve never forgotten it.
So when Ghost Ship popped up in my recommendations on Amazon, I put it on the wishlist and bought it with some Christmas money. It showed up earlier this week and threw my reading schedule into total disarray.
Brian Hicks is a journalist who also read a sensationalized version of the story in a book when he was a kid, possibly the same book I read. In Ghost Ship he traces the ship’s history, which is fascinating even before it became famous. (The ship’s first captain died a few days into its maiden voyage.)
Hicks strips away the hype to discuss the facts, as closely as they can be determined today, and provides his own solution. What happened was that the Dei Gratia discovered the Mary Celeste abandoned between the Azores and Portugal on December 4, 1872. There were no pages missing from the log, but the last log entry had been November 25. The weather had been calm that day, although previous days were stormy. There was no indication of trouble.
A few of the ports and hatches had been boarded over, but all of the ones that hadn’t were opened. There was water in some of the cabins and some water in the bilge. All the bad weather gear of the crew was hanging on pegs, and all the sea chests were stowed properly. There was no life boat on board.
The ship had been captained by Benjamin Spooner Briggs from Marion, Massachusetts. He was from a long line of seafarers, most of whom had been lost at sea. Accompanying Captain Briggs was his wife and two year old daughter. Ironically, Briggs had planned to retire once this voyage was over so he could spend more time with his wife, daughter, and son, who had been left behind because he had started school.
The story of the Mary Celeste would become one of the most mysterious stories of the high seas. Over the years a number of explanations would be put forth as to what happened. The ranged from the mundane, such as insurance fraud, to the highly outlandish, such as alien abduction.
Hicks deals with all of these. The captain and crew mostly likely didn’t abandon ship and go into hiding for the insurance. Briggs owned and minority share in the ship, and deeply loved his son. It made no sense to abandon him. Also the insurance companies that held policies on the ship and the cargo never considered fraud to have a possibility. At least not seriously enough to make any serious accusations against the majority partners.
Hicks does put forth his own explanation, and I have to say it makes sense. It is also heartbreakingly tragic. Hicks is able to explain a number of puzzling and seemingly contradictory details. If Hicks is right, and he probably is unless some new evidence is found, then the mystery can be laid to rest.
I found Ghost Ship to be quite readable. The author does a thorough job of putting the events December 1872 into their historical and social context as well as discussing all the permutations of the legend. If you like a good nautical mystery, check this one out.