On 5 December 1872, when the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia was about 400 nautical miles (740 km) east of the Azores, Portugal, the crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas. The erratic movement of the ship and the odd set of her sails made Captain David Morehouse apprehensive. As he could see nobody on deck and received no reply to his signals, he sent a boarding party to the ship, comprising of his first mate Oliver Deveau and second mate John Wright. He was taken aback as he was reported that the unguided vessel was the Mary Celeste, which had left New York City eight days before the commencement of the journey of his Dei Gratia, and should have already arrived at its destination in Genoa in Italy, with its cargo of more than 1700 barrels of alcohol. The search party reported that they found the ship deserted.
While its partly set sails were in poor condition and some were missing, much of the rigging was damaged with the ropes hanging loosely over the sides. The single lifeboat of the ship, a small yawl, apparently stowed across the main hatch, was missing, one of its pumps had been disassembled, and the binnacle, a waist-high case that stands on the deck housing the ship's compass, had been shifted from its place and its glass cover was broken. The ship’s daily log was found in the mate’s cabin, indicating the last entry at 8 am on 25 November, off Santa Maria Island in the Azores, nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where Dei Gratia found her on 5 December. Although the interiors of the cabins were wet and untidy from water infiltrated through the doorways and skylights, they were otherwise reasonably in order. Apart from its cargo of 1700 barrels of industrial alcohol, there was sufficient provision of food and water for six months without a soul to consume it. Although there were no obvious signs of fire or violence, and the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship by using the missing lifeboat, somehow it seemed that the ship had been abandoned in haste.
Mary Celeste had a shady past. Built in 1861 in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia in Canada, it was launched as Amazon on 18 May 1861, and unfortunately faced a series of mishaps that included the sudden attack of pneumonia and subsequent death of its first captain, and damage on several occasions due to collision with other ships. In October 1867, it was driven ashore in a storm at Cape Breton Island and was abandoned as a wreck.
However, it was sold to an American, Richard W. Haines, in November 1868, who made several significant structural changes to the ship over the next several years, renamed it Mary Celeste, and sold it to a New York consortium headed by James H. Winchester.
After undergoing a major enlargement of its size, with the addition of a second deck, Mary Celeste began its fateful voyage on 7 November 1872 from New York City to Genoa in Italy with 1700 barrels of industrial alcohol, along with seven crewmen and Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their two-year-old Sophia. However, the 282-ton brigantine had to battle rough weather for two weeks before it reached the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic, located 850 miles off the coast of Portugal, where the last entry of the ship’s daily log was recorded.
After spotting it ten days later, the crewmen of the Dei Gratia sailed Mary Celeste some 800 miles (1287 km) to Gibraltar, where a British Vice-Admiralty court convened a salvage hearing, which ultimately found no evidence of foul play, although the mystery remained unsolved. There was neither any significant indication of any violence, nor any missing cargo to cast doubt about mutiny, murder, and piracy. Even there was no evidence to support the claim that an accidental explosion caused by the alcohol fumes was responsible for the ship being abandoned.
It was argued that probably Captain Briggs decided to desert the ship as he erroneously believed that his ship was taking on too much water and it was about to sink. The theory was supported by the fact that the sounding rod, used to determine the quantity of water in the hold, was discovered on the deck, suggesting that it had been used just a few minutes before the ship was abandoned. During its previous voyage, Mary Celeste had carried coal, and then it had been refitted. It is not impossible that the coal dust and constructional debris fouled the pumps of the ship, which would explain the disassembled pump found on the deserted ship. It can be assumed that with one of the pumps inoperative, Briggs was unable to know exactly how much water was in the hull. In addition to that, a faulty reading of the sounding rod could have prompted Captain Briggs to believe that the ship was capsizing and decided to desert. A subsequent mishap could have resulted in the loss of the longboat, along with its commuters.
Although the mystery of the Mary Celeste was never solved, the ship and her lost crew were commemorated at Spencer’s Island by a monument at the site of the brigantine’s construction and by a memorial outdoor cinema built in the shape of the vessel’s hull.