American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MARY CELESTE. From time to time, ships at sea and even remote lighthouses* have been found abandoned for no explicable reason and their crews never found. The half-brig Mary Celeste (built 1861) has become the quintessential archetype of these events and their ensuing lore and rationalization.

The Mary Celeste was launched as the Amazon in 1861. She was renamed the Mary Celeste in 1868. On 4 December 1872, she was found abandoned between the Azores and Portugal with her sails still set. The last logbook entry was 24 November, and her last position was given as six miles off the island of Santa Maria. Her boat was gone along with the ship’s papers and the captain’s chronometer and sextant, but other navigational instruments were still aboard. Nothing else appeared to be missing. There was some trash water in the cabins, but no sign of panic or violence. The vessel carried a cargo of 1,700 barrels of alcohol. The crew consisted of the captain, his wife, his two-year-old daughter, and a crew of seven. They were never found. The Mary Celeste was found by the British brigantine Dei Gratia and salvaged, but she later struck a reef near Haiti and was lost in 1885.

Popular newspaper accounts spread the story of the Mary Celeste. Dozens of legends have accreted to her, and numerous explanations of what happened have been posed. None have answered the question conclusively. Original documents pertaining to the Mary Celeste can be found in Charles Edey Fay, Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship (1942; reprinted as The Story of the “Mary Celeste,” 1988).

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Horace Beck