On 4 December 1872, Seaman John Johnson of the Dei Gratia informed Captain Morehouse that he spotted a vessel off the port bow, 38°20′ N 17º 15′ W and 600 miles west of Portugal. As this vessel drew closer to the Dei Gratia they noticed that only three sails were still set.
The remainder of the sails had either been blown away or not raised. Something seemed amiss and after repeated attempts to contact the members of this ship, Captain Morehouse ordered three sailors to board her for inspection.
As these sailors rowed toward the ship, they noticed the name “Mary Celeste New York” written on the stern. Mary Celeste was approximately 100 feet long with an ornamental scroll on her bow. She was built in Nova Scotia in 1860 and originally named the Amazon. She displaced 280 tons and was registered as a half brig. Upon climbing on board, they realized it was unmanned. The vessel was noted to have minimal damage but overall in proper working order. The only thing that initially seemed out of place was that the lifeboat was missing. The captain of the Mary Celeste’s bed was unmade and toys laid on the deck. The last entry in the ships log was dated 8:00 A.M. on 25 November 1872 stating all conditions were normal and that they were near the Azores, approximately six miles from the island of Santa Maria.
After a thorough search the crew realized the chronometer, sextant, navigation book and ships register were missing. The rigging was in disorder, the binnacle was toppled and the steering compass was smashed in. They found a six month supply of food and fresh water and a cargo consisting of 1,701 well stowed and unopened barrels of raw alcohol destined for Genoa, Italy to fortify wine. The bilge contained only about 3-4 feet of water. The ships crew and passenger’s lockers still contained their clothing.
Upon returning to the Dei Gratia, the sailors briefed Captain Morehouse on the results of their search. Ironically, Captain Morehouse knew the captain of the Mary Celeste as Captain Benjamin Spooner Biggs (37) and also his spouse, Sarah. In fact, Captain Morehouse had dinner with the Biggs the day before the Mary Celeste set sail from Pier 44 from New York City’s East River on that fateful Tuesday, 5 November 1872. The Biggs had mentioned their two year old daughter, Sophia Matilda, would be sailing with them. Biggs had also mentioned how pleased he was with his new, professional crew.
Captain Morehouse eventually decided to split his crew and sail the Mary Celeste and Dei Gratia to Gibraltar for her salvaging.
Many theories were formulated as to what happened to the crew of Mary Celeste, but to date this mystery has yet to be solved.
* As a footnote, the Mary Celeste made history once again when Clive Cussler, best-selling novelist and adventurer, representing the National Underwater & Marine Agency, (NUMA) and John Davis, president of ECO-NOVA Productions of Canada, announced on 9 August 2001, that they had discovered the remains of Mary Celeste on a reef off the coast of Haiti.
Davis explained “the ship sailed under different owners for twelve years, until her last captain loaded her with a cargo of cheap rubber boots and cat food before deliberately sinking her, and then filing an exorbitant insurance claim for an exotic cargo that never existed. Unfortunately, for the captain his plan fell apart after running the ship onto Rochelais Reef in Haiti, the ship hung up on the coral and refused to sink. Insurance inspectors investigated and found the worthless cargo. The captain and his first mate were later convicted on charges of what was then known as barratry.”