Illustration of a haunted ship traversing the night sea with a full moon

Illustration by Jeff Brown

Mystery of the Ghost Ship

Ten people set sail on the Mary Celeste 150 years ago. Then they vanished into thin air.

The rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean churned. It was December 5, 1872. A ship called Dei Gratia was sailing off the coast of Portugal, a country in Europe. Suddenly, a crew member spotted a ship moving shakily across the sea.

The captain of the Dei Gratia sent his crew to investigate. As they boarded the other ship, called the Mary Celeste, cabin doors swung open and slammed shut. The vessel creaked and rocked upon the waves.

The men realized they had discovered what sailors call a ghost ship. The Mary Celeste had no crew. All 10 people who had been on board were gone. They were never seen again. 

A Rough Start

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Captain Benjamin Briggs

About a month earlier, the Mary Celeste left New York City and set sail for Italy. It was carrying barrels of industrial alcohol, which was used in some medicines. Captain Benjamin Briggs was in charge. His wife, their 2-year-old daughter, and seven crewmen sailed with him.

Anne MacGregor researched the Mary Celeste for more than four years to make a documentary movie. She believes the ship’s navigation equipment was faulty. So Briggs may have had trouble figuring out the ship’s location. According to the ship’s logs, the crew encountered rough weather.

Eerie Clues

But Briggs’s last log entry, dated November 25, 1872, didn’t show any alarm. Why then was the ship found deserted just 10 days later? 

Sailors from the Dei Gratia found 3 feet of water sloshing in the bottom of the Mary Celeste. Still, the vessel was in working condition. It should have been able to finish its trip.

Even odder, survival items such as drinking water and six months’ worth of supplies lay untouched. Everyone’s personal items appeared to be in place. But the lifeboat was missing. The crew investigating the ghost ship concluded that the passengers left in a rush. 

Unsolved Mystery

The mystery of the small ship became a big legend. In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle, who later wrote the Sherlock Holmes series, wrote a story based on the Mary Celeste. The world was fascinated.

“In the absence of answers, this myth has grown,” MacGregor says.

Over the years, people have come up with many theories. Some think pirates attacked. But there were no signs of struggle and none of the cargo was stolen. 

MacGregor believes that Briggs feared the ship was sinking. He may have tried to get everyone to safety aboard the lifeboat. Though it would have been unusual for a captain to abandon ship in the middle of the open sea. 

“I can’t prove anything,” MacGregor explains. “People have loads of theories, but there’s no physical proof to explain their disappearance.”

This is one mystery that might never be solved.

  1. What is the author’s purpose in the first three paragraphs of the article?
  2. According to the article, what are two theories about what happened to the Mary Celeste crew?
  3. Why does the author write that “this is one mystery that might never be solved”?
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