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. They soon vanished without a trace.

The rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean churned. It was December 5, 1872. A ship called Dei Gratia was sailing a few hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, a country in Europe. 

In the distance, the captain spotted another ship bobbing unsteadily across the sea. Fearing that something was wrong, he sent some of his crew to investigate. 

As they boarded the ship, called the Mary Celeste, all was eerily silent. A cabin door swung open and slammed shut as the vessel rocked upon the waves.

The men realized they had discovered what sailors call a ghost ship. All 10 people who had been on board the Mary Celeste were gone. They would never be seen again.

A Rough Start

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Captain Benjamin Briggs

About a month earlier, the Mary Celeste had left New York City and set sail for Italy. The ship was carrying more than 1,700 barrels of industrial alcohol, a chemical used in some medicines. Benjamin Briggs, who had spent much of his life at sea, was the ship’s captain. His wife, their 2-year-old daughter, and seven crewmen sailed with him.

According to Briggs’s logs, the ship encountered rough weather during its first two weeks at sea. But his last entry, dated November 25, 1872, didn’t indicate any worry or alarm. Why, then, was the ship found deserted 10 days later? 

Eerie Clues

Sailors from the Dei Gratia found more than 3 feet of water sloshing in the bottom of the Mary Celeste. Still, the vessel was in good working condition and showed no signs that it couldn’t have completed its journey.

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. However, the ship’s only lifeboat was missing. The crew investigating the ghost ship concluded that the passengers had left in a hurry.

Unsolved Mystery

The mystery of what happened during the fateful voyage sparked many theories and wild stories. Some people believed pirates attacked the ship. But there were no signs of struggle, and none of the cargo was stolen. 

In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle (who later created Sherlock Holmes) wrote a story of murder aboard a ship named the Marie Celeste. Though the story was fictional—and the ship had a different name—many people believed it was a true tale of the events on the famous ghost ship.

“In the absence of answers, this myth has grown,” says Anne MacGregor. She researched the Mary Celeste for more than four years for a documentary movie.

She thinks that Briggs feared the ship was sinking and might have tried to get everyone to safety aboard the lifeboat. However, it would have been unusual for an experienced captain like Briggs to abandon ship in the middle of the ocean. 

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

One of the biggest maritime mysteries might never be solved.

1. What is the author’s purpose in the first four 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 what happened to the people on the Mary Celeste is a mystery that “might never be solved”?

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