Mystery History: The Top 10 Theories Explaining Why the Mary Celeste's Crew Disappeared


One hundred and forty-five years ago today, the Mary Celeste was discovered adrift by the British ship Dei Gratia. On-board there was a six-month's supply of food and water, the crew's belongings were still in their quarters, and most of the cargo (barrels of denatured alcohol) was intact. The Mary Celeste was still sea-worthy. However, one of the ship's pumps had been disassembled, there was nearly three and a half feet of water in the ship's bottom, and the only lifeboat was missing. The ten people on-board the ship had vanished.

The question remains, where did they go? Here are the top ten theories floating out there:

1) Mutiny

Fredrick Solly-Flood, described as a man "whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ," was in charge of the Mary Celeste's salvage hearings. One of his theories was that the crew got drunk off of the alcohol (which was non-potable because it was basically ethanol). Then they killed Captain Briggs, his family, and the ship's officers, then fled out into the wilds of the sea.

2) Insurance fraud

In a further twist (according to Solly-Flood), James Winchester, who had a stake of ownership in the Mary Celeste, had assembled the crew specifically for the task of murder. The reason Solly-Flood gave for Winchester's murder plot was insurance fraud. There was also the possibility that the captains of the Dei Gratia and the Mary Celeste had formulated their own insurance fraud conspiracy, in which Captain Briggs disappeared with his share of the cash. A very dramatic mystery indeed, eliciting exactly the huge amount of attention you want when you are carrying out fraud.

Though Solly-Flood believed that the Mary Celeste's cargo was over-insured, it wasn't. There was no reason to commit fraud. Ironically, in 1885, the new captain did over-insure the cargo and wrecked the fixed-up Mary Celeste on the coast of Haiti (in an actual attempt at insurance fraud). He was caught.

3) Attacked by their rescuers

Thus, Solly-Flood came to another conclusion. Perhaps Morehouse, captain of the ship Dei Gratia, had ambushed the Mary Celeste, lured them onto the Dei Gratia, and then murdered everyone. Never mind that the Dei Gratia was a slower ship and had left 8 days after the Mary Celeste, and so in no way could set up an ambush. But an article published August 29, 1931 in the Quarterly Review (read it here), loved this theory, and wrote that Morehouse "was sailing under an alias, and that he was a man of evil repute named Boyce."

Where does the name "Boyce" come from, you may ask? In 1913, The Strand Magazine published a fraudulent account of Abel Fosdyk, who said he had been on board the Mary Celeste and survived. Apparently during a swimming contest, everyone drowned or got eaten by sharks (except Fosdyk). Numerous facts in the Strand article were wrong, including changing "Morehouse" to "Boyce."

4) Pirates

In the 1870s, Riffian pirates roamed the waters off the coast of Morocco. However, the personal possessions of the crew, some of which were very expensive, were untouched. This theory, as they say, holds little water.

5) Waterspouts

These look horrifying. Not even Dorothy and Toto would fare well in a face-off against these water tornadoes.

A violent waterspout may explain the disappearance of the Mary Celeste's crew. The state of the ship when found was seaworthy but worse for wear: the sails were ragged and there was water in the ship's bilge. A waterspout would have caused low barometric pressure, which could've forced water from the bilge up into the ship's pumps. Because of this, the crew may have believed that the Mary Celeste had taken on more water than it actually had, was about to sink, and as a result they abandoned ship.

6) Seaquakes

If an earthquake on the sea bed had taken place, the resulting turbulence could have damaged the cargo of denatured alcohol. Displaced hatches point to a possible inspection of the cargo and airing of fumes. However the barrels were damaged, this could have led Captain Briggs to fear that his ship was about to explode:

7) An explosion

Fear of an explosion, or an actual pressure-wave explosion resulting from alcoholic fumes and a spark, may have lead Briggs to assemble his crew on the lifeboat attached to the Mary Celeste until danger had passed. If the rope connecting the lifeboat to the ship sapped, however, they might've soon found themselves adrift without a ship.

8) A giant squid

Terrifying, no? Giant squids can be as long as 43 feet and weigh up to 600 pounds. However, evidence points to squids as prey, not predators. If you see a giant squid, or even a colossal squid, just remember: it's more afraid of you than you are of it.

9) Aliens

Because why not? Mysteries are difficult to solve.

10) Getting lost

The Mary Celeste had just come out of a storm. On a previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal. This may have clogged the pump, leading to it being dismantled. Without one of his two pumps, Briggs wouldn't have known how much water was in his bilge, and couldn't check by sight, because of his packed cargo hold. Possibly as a result of an inaccurate chronometer, Briggs was 120 miles west of where he thought he was. According to his calculations, he should have sighted land 3 days earlier than he finally did. If he believed his ship was indeed sinking due to bad weather, he may have ordered it's abandonment in the hopes of reaching the shore safely.

BONUS: Arthur Conan Doyle and Daleks

One of the main reasons the mystery of the Mary Celeste is so widely known is because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement." It was a work of fiction; however, a member of the US consul still asked Doyle if any of it was true.

In Dr. Who's "The Chase: Flight Through Eternity," a band of Daleks land on a ship and rampage around questioning the crew, many of whom jump overboard. Once the Daleks leave, it's revealed that the ship is the fateful Mary Celeste:

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