It's the stuff of maritime legend: a ship sighted in the distance, hailed without response, and boarded to reveal a vessel under full sail, its wheel creaking aimlessly, cabin doors slamming open and shut in the wind, and ... not a soul onboard.
On Dec 4, 1872, it actually happened. The Mary Celeste was discovered between the Azores and Portugal—her crew vanished without a trace of a struggle, the ship still fully provisioned. What calamity befell the ship remains a mystery. A final log entry, on Nov. 24, showed no hint of distress. The cabin of Capt. Benjamin Briggs was untouched, right down to the sewing machine and parlor melodeon belonging to his wife and infant daughter; the child's ghostly indentation remained visible on a bed. The crew must have "left in a great hurry," reported the boarding party, for their pipes and tobacco were still there—and no sailor, they noted, willingly abandons ship without his pipe.
Theories on the cause of the disappearance have ranged from cargo fumes to mutiny to (inevitably) alien abduction. The Mary Celeste's fate inspired fictional solutions in an Arthur Conan Doyle story (which blamed a race war), a 1935 Hammer horror film (a hook-armed Bela Lugosi), and a Dr. Who episode (Daleks, of course.)
What's not as well-known is that the Mary Celeste was also at the center of a second mystery. The disconcerting disappearance of its crew notwithstanding, the Mary Celeste still had plenty of life left in her, and soon went back into service. Thirteen years and 17 hapless owners later, Mary was mostly infamous for being in poor shape and for losing money on runs from Boston to Africa and the West Indies. It was merely one final indignity when she wrecked off Haiti in January 1885, slamming squarely into Rochelois Reef, a known hazard. The ship didn’t sink, but its hopelessly splintered remains would never leave the reef. Capt. Gilman Parker declared the cursed ship a loss, and then went ashore to sell the salvage rights to a load of ale, cutlery, and shoes for $500. That's where the story might have ended—except that police showed up at the captain's door in Boston three months later. The Mary Celeste, they charged, was a 282-ton, fully-rigged insurance scam.
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