Take a Voyage on a Ghost Ship

Ghost ShipGhost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and her Missing Crew
Brian Hicks
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.)

Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste image courtesy of the Cumberland County Museum and Archives, Amherst, Nova Scotia Canada

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.

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

Benjamin Spooner Briggs, Captain of the Mary Celeste

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.

2 thoughts on “Take a Voyage on a Ghost Ship

  1. Paul McNamee

    Unfortunately I can’t find the actual show clip available at YouTube.


    Yes, it was the Daleks – according to the Doctor Who serial, .”The Chase.”


    Seriously, though – I read the same sensationalism when I was younger, too. I’ve always wondered.

    Does Hicks subscribe to the “alcohol fumes in the hold” theory? That they opened hatches for fear of an explosion, put out in the lifeboat as temporary safety measure, but somehow got separated from the ship?

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the link.

      If anyone who follows this blog had heard of the Mary Celeste, I figured it would be you seeing as how you live in the part of the country the captain was from. And, yes, he that’s the argument Hicks puts forth. It explains why all their stuff was still there, the lifeboat was missing, and the pump had been removed from the bilge. He also goes makes the argument that they used the rope that hoists the mainsail (main peak halyard he calls it) as the towline because it was the longest and strongest rope on the ship. Because the crew didn’t furl all the sails, when the wind picked up, they went on a Nantucket sleigh ride. Unfortunately, the halyard was frayed and snapped. This fits with what the crew of the Dei Gratia reported; they had to splice the halyard (which had been snapped) in order to sail the Mary Celeste back into port.

      We’ll probably never know for certain, but this explanation seems to fit most of the facts. I’ve not see an counter argument, although I looked online a bit. There are some other explanations, but none of the ones I’ve seen take as many details into account and most predate Hicks’. YMMV.


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