On 5th December 1872, the ship Dei Gratia was about 400 miles east of the Azores, when crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas. Capt. David Morehouse was surprised the vessel was the Mary Celeste, which had left New York eight days ahead of the Dei Gratia and should have already arrived in Genoa. Morehouse sent a boarding party to the ship.

Below decks, the crew’s belongings were still in their quarters. The ship’s only lifeboat was gone. Three and a half feet of water was sloshing in the ship’s bottom. The cargo of industrial alcohol was largely intact. There was a six-month supply of food and water— but there was no one on board to to consume it.

What happened to the ten people who had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste? This is the main premise of The Mary Celeste Society, who meet every month in Lisbon, to try and find out what happened to this mysterious ship. As Joao Goncalves their chairman says no one knows for sure: “Theories have ranged from mutiny to pirates to sea monsters to killer waterspouts. The story of the Mary Celeste might have drifted into history but for Arthur Conan Doyle’s J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement in 1884; his sensationalistic account, printed in Cornhill Magazine, set off waves of theorizing about the ship’s fate. This is what we continue today. We would like to have found the lifeboat as that would have given us a clue about what happened.”

Speculation concerning sea monsters was easy to dismiss as the Mary Celeste showed no signs of damage, other than from storms. The ship’s fully laden condition seemed to rule out pirates. One theory bandied about in the 19th century was that the crew drank the alcohol onboard and either mutinied or fell overboard after pushing the captain and his family into the sea. Another theory assumed that alcohol vapors expanded in the Azores heat and blew off the main hatch, prompting those aboard to fear an imminent explosion. But the boarding party found the main hatch secured and did not report smelling any fumes. Nine of the 1,701 barrels in the hold were empty, but these were made of red oak, not white oak like the others. Red oak is known to be a more porous wood and therefore more likely to leak.

Another theory has come to prominence in recent years as Joao Goncalves explains: “Seaquakes have been mentioned as a possible reason why the crew would leave the ship, but that in itself wouldn’t be enough, because you would be moved up and down violently in both the main ship and the lifeboat. It would be more dangerous in the smaller ship, so why do that? There has to have been something else, some other reason. Fire has been mentioned, but why when there was no evidence of any fire on the ship? Perhaps the alcohol from some of the barrels caused a flash fire and everyone jumped overboard expecting the ship to burn? There was no smell of alcohol when the other crew arrived. Who knows, it remains a mystery.”

Extract from the book 40 Strange Societies