On this day, December 4, back in 1872, the ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned and abandoned, in the Atlantic near Spain and Morocco. It was a ghost ship.

The ship was an American merchant ship that had been at sea for about a month. The sea was calm. She had no issues that would have made her unable to sail. When found, it had a 6 month store of food and supplies. There were no signs of violence or mutiny. No distress flag. No notes or log entries of any problems.

All passengers and crew had vanished.

Yes, the ship’s lifeboat was gone, so you would guess that they had abandoned ship. But if they did, why did they leave all their personal possessions and valuables? They must have been in a big hurry. Or they were taken (by pirates, spirits or UFOs?)

Who took the ship’s papers but left the logbook? It makes sense that the navigation equipment and two pumps if they were headed out in that lifeboat. But why did they leave in the first place?

The Mary Celeste has been fictionalized since then. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, is one author who was intrigued by the possibly paranormal parameters the tale offered.

The ship was still under sail and heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar when found – as if ghosts were sailing her.

It is still one of the best maritime mysteries. So, what happened? There is no shortage of theories: alcoholic fumes, underwater “seaquakes”, waterspouts, and paranormal explanations involving extraterrestrial life, unidentified flying objects and sea monsters.

Piracy is one explanation. The crew was crew murdered and thrown overboard by Ottoman pirates known to operate in the area. But why no  signs of a struggle? Why take navigation equipment, pumps and a lifeboat and leave the cargo and personal possessions?

Here’s a complicated explanation. A seaquake erupted below the ship and jarred open nine barrels of alcohol (~450 gallons) which leaked into the bilge and some dislodged fuel for the stove on deck caused embers from the fire to drift into the rigging. Modern experts believe that the alcohol fumes that would have been easily ignited, and because alcohol burns at such a low temperature, even a large explosion could have left the ship and even the surrounding barrels undamaged. The crew abandoned ship, perhaps planning to return if all looked safe. But they were unable to catch the ship in their lifeboat (a sailing dinghy). They floundered at sea and all died.

The paranormal explanations are a lot more interesting.

There is no lack of books about the mysterious ship to read, and they cover the gamut of explanations. I checked out Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks which is an easy read and covers many theories, but also gives a nice background on the ship’s crew so that the story has a human feel. It reminds me a bit of the film Titanic‘s approach to that ship’s tale.

There are also plenty of websites, like maryceleste.net, that will keep you busy if you want to follow the theories. That site pretty much sides with Charles Edey Fay’s book which settles on the alcohol theory.

You won’t find any sound evidence for the theory that aliens abducted the crew in a flash from the ship.  (Did the aliens need a lifeboat and pumps?) And when you think of “ghost ships”, you are more likely to be referring to is a supposedly haunted or ghostly vessels like the Flying Dutchman, but the term is also used for derelict ships found adrift with their entire crew either missing or dead, such as the Mary Celeste or the Baychimo.

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