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The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship that disappeared in November 1872 only to turn up intact on December 4th 1872, but with the crew missing. One lifeboat was gone, but apparently all of the crew's personal belongings were still in place. Various theories have cropped up over the years about what happened, as the crew were never found. Some of these theories are credible, such as the fact that the ship was carrying a cargo of alcohol, which might have been leaking. Others run the gamut from underwater earthquakes to UFO abductions.
A common mythical tale about the ship is that on the ship's discovery, the table was set for dinner. One version even holds that the crew of the Dei Gratia (the ship that found her) saw people moving about on deck, only for them to have utterly vanished when the two ships came alongside.
The ship is often associated with the Bermuda Triangle despite being found on the other side of the ocean (though, since the Bermuda Triangle doesn't have a fixed geographic definition, one could argue it hardly matters).
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the most famous account of the Mary Celeste, though he spelled it Marie Celeste and made up the bit about the table having been just freshly set for dinner. It is likely that the loss would have remained obscure had he not written about it. He wrote it as a piece of fiction, and was dumbfounded when he discovered newspapers taking it as a real eyewitness account.
Two fraudulent accounts of survivors were also published. In 1913 in The Strand, a fictional Fosdyk claimed that the entire crew fell overboard while watching a swimming race and were eaten by sharks (except Fosdyk who swam to land). In the 1920s Chamber's Journal published an article written by a Mr. Keating about a survivor called Pemberton; Keating blamed a conspiracy involving the crew of the Dei Gratia, but he got several key details wrong and even spelt the name of the ship incorrectly, suggesting his main source of information was not an eyewitness account but Conan Doyle. Keating expanded his article into a book called The Great Mary Celeste Hoax. And sure enough, when Keating failed to produce Pemberton, it was exposed as a hoax.
Many of the more credible theories relate to the cargo. The ship was carrying highly volatile alcohol, some of which appears to have leaked. This cargo was of course very dangerous, as a fire and explosion on a wooden ship would most likely result in the loss of the ship. Either the crew abandoned ship fearing an explosion, or an explosion actually took place. A captain would normally be very reluctant to abandon ship except in the most extreme circumstances (and there's no evidence of extreme circumstances like an actual fire), but it's possible that when a leak occurred they could have gone to a smaller boat intending to return once the fumes had dissipated, but somehow become separated or sunk. One problem with some of these theories is the lack of evidence of any explosion, but an experiment by University College London found that a gas or vapour explosion could take place without leaving soot or scorching.
The dangerous cargo and empty barrels make some kind of leak the most plausible explanation, leading Cracked to call the mystery solved. But plausible is not the same as true, and we can't really know for sure if following a leak they took to a smaller boat and became separated, or if an explosion occurred that left no traces, or perhaps even a combination of both.
Another theory suggests that the crew could have abandoned ship in a storm thinking that land was nearby, due to a faulty pump causing the ship to take in water and be in danger of sinking.
Related to theories of a storm are those that the ship was stricken by a natural disaster, requiring the crew to abandon the vessel. A number of similar incidents have sometimes been blamed on seaquakes (earthquakes at sea); this includes the loss of the Norwegian bark Alhama of Arendal near the Azores in 1885 and the MV Joyita in 1955. A waterspout (tornado at sea) could likewise have caused damage leading to the crew abandoning the vessel. Again, a problem with this is the lack of serious damage (there was some damage and waterlogging but nothing suggesting the vessel was about to sink) and the unlikeliness of a captain abandoning ship in the absence of serious damage.
One hypothesis proposed early on is that the captains of both the Mary Celeste and the ship that discovered her conspired to abandon the ship and collect on the insurance money. The main problems here are 1)They'd have gotten a much larger sum from simply legitimately selling the ship, and 2)The Mary Celeste's captain never showed up to collect his share. Funnily enough, once the story became widespread, the ship was so infamous that the then-current captain did attempt this exact scheme, since nobody would do business with him. As is the case with actual conspiracies, he got caught and arrested.
Piracy is sometimes advanced, but rapidly dismissed because nothing was actually taken: neither the cargo nor valuables belonging to the passengers. Related to this is the idea that the crew of the Dei Gratia who "discovered" the Mary Celeste killed the occupants for the salvage rights. Frederick Solly Flood, the Attorney General of Gibraltar, advanced this theory during the salvage hearing, but couldn't find any evidence of foul play.
Another theory with no evidence is that they landed or ran aground on a sandbank, got off the boat, and then the sandbank receded and they drowned. Possible, but who knows? Maybe they got off onto the back of a whale, which ate them.
Giant squid or sea monster
Cryptids or actual real ocean creatures could in theory have eaten everyone. But could anything really have done so without ripping the top off the boat or leaving other tell-tale tooth or tentacle marks?
UFOs and alien abduction have been mentioned, because of course they have. They can explain anything precisely because we've no idea what such a thing could involve — beaming everybody aboard a UFO by a Star Trek-style transporter, or overrun by Daleks? This theory is often invoked by people who have heard incorrect claims that the crew disappeared from the ship in the middle of a meal, leaving the vessel pristine and perfect; in reality, they didn't leave a meal and the ship was waterlogged and a mess.
- The MV Joyita was a merchant vessel, all of whose passengers and crew disappeared in 1955.
- The Resolven, a Welsh sailing brig found abandoned in 1884 by a Royal Navy gunboat off the eastern coast of Canada.
- The American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion disappeared near the Azores, possibly in the same general area as where the Mary Celeste's crew abandoned ship (the Scorpion was actually found southwest of the Azores while the Mary Celeste was found east of the islands); the loss is sometimes blamed on a seaquake though mechanical problems are more likely.
- Smithsonian magazine
- The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, Skeptoid
- See the Wikipedia article on Mary Celeste.
- 5 Theories on What Happened to the Mary Celeste, UKTV
- Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, UCL In the News, 20 May 2006
- 6 Famous Unsolved Mysteries (That Have Totally Been Solved), Cracked.com, 2010
- What happened to the Mary Celeste?, History.com
- Mary Celeste, Deaf Whale
- The mystery of the Mary Celeste... solved?, ABC (Australia), 2015
- Could the 131-year-old mystery of the Welsh Marie Celeste about to be solved?, Wales Online, 2015