Friday, October 30, 2015

The Ghost Ship

It’s the day before Halloween in the States, and things have already been going bump in the night on television and in movie theatres. But one of the spookiest things about the nineteenth century were the legends that sprang up, including one about the Mary Celeste.

The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship from America. She sailed with a crew of ten and the captain’s family from New York City in November 1872 on her way to Genoa, Italy, carrying a cargo of industrial alcohol. But after what appeared to be an uneventful journey based on the ship’s log, the vessel was discovered on December 4, 1872, off the Azores, abandoned. She was sailing along, all by herself, with cargo, supplies, and crew’s belongings largely intact, although the navigational instruments were missing and so was the lifeboat. The last log entry was dated 10 days earlier. No one who had sailed on her was ever seen again.

So what happened?

Over the centuries, theories have abounded. Some of the barrels of alcohol were apparently empty. Had the crew drank the foul stuff and mutinied? (Note to conspiracy theorists—have you ever tried drinking denatured alcohol? It isn’t pleasant, and I would think the crew would be too busy throwing up or running to the head to mutiny.) 

Was it piracy? Unless the pirates decided after slaying all the crew that the aforesaid alcohol wasn’t worth the effort to pilfer, not likely. Besides, there was no sign of a struggle, no damage to the hull from canon fire.

Was it insurance fraud? Not a particularly good one. The salvage award wasn’t particularly lucrative, because both the ship and the cargo were in good shape.

Had they abandoned ship because of a natural phenomenon such as submarine earthquakes, storms, or a water spout? None were recorded in the area, and at the time of the ship’s last log entry, the Mary Celeste wasn’t too far from one of the islands. Surely the life boat could have made it to shore.

Even more far-fetched theories have been suggested. Was it a giant squid? Sorry, he was busy that day. Bermuda Triangle? Nowhere near where the ship was found.

Oblivious to the consternation around her, the Mary Celeste continued her career, passing through several hands before being wrecked off the coast of Haiti in 1885. That captain actually was attempting insurance fraud. But her demise didn’t stop the stories. Newspaper and magazine pieces popped up in England and America from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. In January 1884, a young Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes himself, told the tale in a British literary magazine, from the point of view of a supposed survivor. He blamed the abandonment on the vengeance of a former slave, who rose against the white crew. The Strand published another “survivor story” in 1913, stating that the crew had fallen into the sea from a temporary platform and either drowned or were eaten by sharks. In the 1920s, other stories from so-called survivors claimed that the crew had colluded with that of the ship which found her to win salvage or the crew had found another ship abandoned with a rich cargo and sailed off on it instead. Radio plays, a stage version, and novels have also been written about the mystery. The Smithsonian sponsored a documentary as late as 2007; it disproved many theories but reached no conclusions.

So what really happened to the Mary Celeste?

The Brits have an answer. It seems their venerated hero the Doctor may have been involved, according to the accepted canon for the long-running Dr. Who franchise. I understand the Daleks were involved.

Now, that explains everything.

Happy Halloween!

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