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High Seas Drifter: The Mary Celeste

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The Mary Celeste while still named and outfitted as the Amazon.

PART I

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   The most famous derelict to haunt the dusty annals of the sea is the American brig Mary Celeste. No other name has come to possess the quality of mystery as that euphonious name carries. It strikes an ominous chord whenever it is spoken, and all around bend an ear to hear the tale recited yet again. Somewhere between her departure point of New York, November 7, 1872, and her destination of Genoa, Italy, her entire compliment of 10 people disappeared. Yet the Mary Celeste sailed on until she was discovered, lifeless but shipshape, on 5 December 1872, by the Nova Scotian brigantine Dei  Gratia. Her master,  David Morehouse, recorded in his ship’s log the day’s event:

 

     Begins with fresh breeze & clear, sea still running heavy but wind moderating.  Saw a sail to the E 2 p.m. Saw she was under very short canvas, steering very wild and evidently in distress. Hauled up to speak her & render assistance if necessary. At 3 p.m. hailed her & getting no answer & seeing no one on deck on board, sent the mate & 2 men on board. Sea running high at the time. He boarded her without accident and returned in about an hour and reported her to be the “Mary Celeste” of & from New York for Genoa abandoned with 3 feet of water in hold.

    

     To walk through a deserted, creaking ship and there to gaze upon the mementos of interrupted life is a rare experience. It fills one with curiosity and it stimulates the mind with questions and overpowers the senses with mystery. Despite pundits to the opposite, the human mind is a very logical device. We all think quickly. We analyze and we deduce rapidly, more than any computer can. It is utterly ridiculous to think that a crew is going to abandon a perfectly stable ship, for the alternative is to head into a very small lifeboat to brave a very inhospitable and temperamental ocean. Therefore no derelict vessel that has been found has ever been written-off lightly, either by those who found them or by those that have investigated them. And the Mary Celeste has become world famous for more than just this reason. She was found where she could not have drifted, sailed to the area without a crew, and she had some very suspicious evidence found aboard.

     Now, I have had my share of humbugs drop their monocles in my mashed potatoes just from an introduction like this. So it is best that I put some facts in order here before we delve into this strange case. I’m not speaking of axe marks in the top gallant rail or rust on an old Italian sword blade that was promoted as blood. Renditions of the Mary Celeste that seriously contain those clues are a hundred years old, and they don’t need regurgitating anymore. I’m speaking about a ship on the starboard tack. This setting of her sails was made to catch a wind from the south. Yet the wind had consistently been from the north since November 25, the last day there was an entry in her daily log. On such a tack it seems impossible that she could have drifted 9 days and some 500 miles and yet remained on course with a wind blowing in from an unfavorable direction.

     The best explanation for the setting of the sails is that she suddenly hove to and came about and headed back over her course, either to avoid something or to reach another destination. With a wind from the north, a ship intentionally heading westward would indeed be on the starboard tack. And, indeed, she was fallen-in-with heading west and not east, though her course had been eastward to Gibraltar. Her jib was set to the port, but her foremast sails to the starboard tack. That means whatever happened happened before the crew had finished changing her tack. But this would mean that she had not drifted but had sailed intentionally to this area some 400 miles off Portugal first. Yet if that was the case, why was there no entry in her log since the 25th of November 500 miles away in the Azores? 

     We can dispense with the hundred year old rubbish of pirates, gay swordplay and mutiny. But we can also dispense with the bland rubbish that continues today as fact. There was no line attached to the stern of the vessel and leading back to a frayed end. The implication is made that this obviously means that the crew got into the lifeboat and attached it to the ship.  Her cargo of raw alcohol is given as the excuse. This theory speculates that it was agitated by a rough sea and began to rumble. This made her master, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, fear a sudden explosion. Thus they took to the lifeboat and stood off, attached to her by a line, waiting to see what would happen. This theory has it that the line ripped free and the Mary Celeste sailed on leaving her crew to be swamped in an unforgiving sea. 

     There was no line. The peak halyard, a long line of the running rigging, was supposedly found “broke.” This bit of rigging, about 300 feet long, adjusts the gaff to the mainmast. Translated from nautical terms: the gaff is the top boom on a 4 cornered gaff-rigged sail. The peak halyard is a long rope that adjusts the end (or peak) of that top boom’s position. Since it was said to have been discovered broken, it has been theorized that it had been used as a towline that conveniently broke free at the ship’s end and thus left no trace of a towline.

     Over one hundred years of theorizing has obscured fact with accepted assumptions and doctrinaire conclusions. This dominant theory remains, however, a sincere attempt to explain a very mysterious incident. Its weakest link, however, is that it ignores the fact that other running rigging was found “broke and gone” in the same manner as the peak halyard and yet this other rigging could never have been used as a towline.

     But what the endurance of this theory really reveals to us is the extent to which stereotype and formulaic renditions have come to embody the substance of any retelling or speculating about the mystery of the Mary Celeste. They survive in the face of the impossible and render the actual evidence mute. This blinds us to examining the case afresh rather than simply fitting it into accepted parameters of economic storytelling.

     For the Mary Celeste the result is that our popular impressions are hard to change, and these tick-tock between the outrageously sensational to the monstrously mundane. The incident has been written about so much that facts are mingled with conjecture. They no longer stand alone to be influenced by other facts in the chain of evidence. Unfortunately, even the actual testimony in the Vice Admiralty Court Proceedings at Gibraltar has been rendered mute amidst the stereotypes that had arisen within the 42 year time span  between the  incident  and their initial release in 1930. 

     Writers have referred to the existence of the stenographic Minutes. George S. Bryan was the first in an admirable work, Mystery Ship (1942). But in that very year and almost to the month Charles Edey Fay’s Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship came out and overshadowed it. Bryan quotes the Minutes with great paucity and little skepticism. Although Edey Fay reproduces large portions of testimony, they are not from the actual Proceedings but, once again, from the Minutes. The Minutes completely remove the actual questions posed by the Attorney General, other attorneys and even the Judge. The answers given are thus frequently and literally only one side of the coin. The motivations for the questions, and with this the intent of those asking, is completely void, and this is a deep void which takes away some of the context of the answers given. Edey Fay and Bryan’s intent was to present facts that contradicted the overblown legend of half-cooked meals, mysterious survivors, preternatural causes and all the legend that had built up prior to their time. They wrote wonderful biographies of the case, but not investigative theses.    

     Large excerpts of the Vice Admiralty Court Proceedings were first published by Harold T. Wilkins, who had the genuine English bulldog grip of the old school. He first got the paperwork in 1930 after quite an ordeal with British officials. But his account of the Mary Celeste is paradoxically largely obscure. It first appeared as “Light on the Mary Celeste” in the London Quarterly Review, 1931. Soon thereafter credit for “rescuing from oblivion” the stenographic copies of the Proceedings was usurped by a man from Liverpool, who took this unfair credit in a New England historical publication (No. 74 Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches). He had actually secured them from Wilkins, paying only half what it cost Wilkins to get the records. It may be from this source that both Bryan and Edey Fay obtained what they did. If both did study the actual Record of Proceedings at Gibraltar, they made very little critical use of them (although Edey Fay thought Wilkins’ article interesting). 

     At the same time as their limited edition books hit the stands, Wilkins published a short book by a small publisher New Light on the Mary Celeste. It is this monograph that was placed within his later compendium Strange Mysteries of Time and Space, 1959, published by Citadel Press of New York, a publisher known for its offbeat topics.

     Perhaps that’s why Wilkins’ contributions to the topic are ignored. He also liked to research and write about old South American Indian stories, UFOs, and other Fortean things. But unlike Charles Fort, Wilkins did not just repeat newspaper stories. He was a tenacious researcher for the facts. For the Mary Celeste he has preserved for us some very vital evidence.

     For 20 years, hin and wieder, I have tried to locate the same documents. I have used, to no avail, a professional researcher who was sure they must still be in Gibraltar. I have contacted Gibraltar and received no aid. In the early 1990s, I asked for all that exists at the American National Archives, receiving much paperwork, but no Minutes. Solly Flood, the British Attorney General and Proctor for Gibraltar, had actually given copies to Horatio J. Sprague, the US Consul at Gibraltar. But he presented them as proof of his efforts on behalf of the USA in the case, asking for payment for all the costs the Proctor encountered during the investigation. Sprague was taken aback. He didn’t know what to do. British officials with the Board of Trade then told him to give them back and refuse to pay. Alas, this Sprague did. His cover letter, along with Flood’s, remains in the National Archives, but the special stenographic copy Flood had scribes transcribe for him is not there. Thus Wilkins’ success of 81 years ago is revealed as doubly valuable.

     Although I disagree with Wilkins’ conclusions, his extracts of the Minutes and/or Proceedings must be relied on here. They are supported by his use and quotation of many ancillary documents which the US National Archives also has. I have obtained all of these and cross-referenced that Wilkins quoted exactly. The testimony of key witnesses is also identical with those quoted in detail by Edey Fay. The accuracy of his quotation of the V.A. Court Proceedings should not be suspect. I am disappointed, however, that he did not reproduce all the testimony in context. Yet what he does provide, plus the documents I have uncovered, gives us a very accurate accounting. And this gives us far more to mull over when it comes time later to try and assess this mysterious case.

     It is best now to go back and start over again and begin to recount the strange case of the Mary Celeste. 

     It was about a week after passing the Azores that Morehouse sighted a sail on the horizon. The vessel was yawing erratically. He decided to close. It took about 2 hours to come around and stand off. There was no sign of life aboard. There was no lifeboat and the gangplanks had been removed from the railing. The vessel was in a strange state of desertion. Only the jib and the fore top staysail were set. Another sail hung loosely by its corners. But in coming closer it was apparent that a couple other sails had been set, but they had been ripped away. The main stay sail had been lowered and shrouded the forward deck house. The others were furled. The entire ship had a forlorn, unkempt appearance. The tattered sails fluttered with the wind. Those set distended as the vessel’s bow came into the wind and then fell back (yawing). Then the sails went flat again.

     In the pitching seas it was hard for Morehouse to get a steady sight on the ship’s name. The vessel was a brigantine similar to the Mary Celeste, but she should have been at Gibraltar by now. And she would not be heading west anyway, and this ship was bearing down on them. Morehouse was well acquainted with Briggs. Seeing what could be his ship like this was distressing. He told his First Mate, Oliver Deveau, to take a couple men and row over in the boat to investigate.

     Once there, Deveau’s hails of “ahoy” met with no answer. The sails fluttered. Doors to the forward house swayed open and closed. Rigging sulked upon the deck. There were creaks and groans, but no answer except the prying of the boards and the wind moaning plaintively over the open hatches. The wheel was unlashed. The crew hadn’t even bothered to tether it. It gently rocked as the sea played with the rudder.

     Deveau and one of the crewmen, John Wright (the other, John Johnson, remained alongside in the boat), started to investigate. The first thing Deveau did was sound the bilge. He had noticed one of the pumps had been disassembled to allow a sounding rod down to check how much water was in the bilge. It showed about 3 and a half feet.

     At first Deveau didn’t know what to make of it. But a quick inspection about the main deck and between decks revealed a possible cause. Her fore-hold and lazarette hold (aft hold) hatches were open, and there was a lot of water between decks. Since the ship seemed sound, he deduced that the water had come in through the open hatches and doorways. Water kegs on the main deck seemed to confirm this. They had been jolted from their chocks, as if hit by a big wave. The stove in the forward deckhouse had also been jolted a couple feet from its place. The condition of the binnacle proved surprising. This is the wood podium upon which is set the compass. It had been knocked over and the compass was smashed. Deveau had never seen a wave come so far up to the stern that it could dislodge the binnacle.

     Looking down into the fore hold, however, revealed a utopian find. Hundreds, perhaps close to 2,000, of barrels of raw alcohol were neatly stowed. The cargo was worth a fortune, and it was simply sitting there, firmly racked, while the ship rolled and drifted onward. Something dire truly must have happened to inspire a crew to leave this.

     Deveau took a closer look.  The main cabin  also  suggested heavy weather had been encountered. The 6 windows had been battened up. Canvas and wood had been nailed over them. Descending further into the darkness he found the crew’s possessions in their sea chests. Razors had not been tainted yet by rust despite the dampness in the vessel. Cutlery was in its place in the galley.       

     Then Deveau found the Captain’s cabin and the Mate’s. Both cabins shared a skylight overhead. The skylight was raised and opened on both ends, allowing the cabins to air out. This was significant. This suggested the vessel had come through the heavy weather and was now airing itself out.

     The Captain’s bed was damp, and the room was wet, apparently from rain coming in the open skylight. There was an impression on the bed. It appeared as if a child had lain there. A couple of open charts were also lying on the bed.

     Deveau was looking at the eeriest thing possible: an interrupted moment. The child must have been taken from the bed while another person— the Captain no doubt— pulled out the charts and selected the right one. Is that the case? Was the ship airing itself out after a storm and something else happened that drove them quickly from the vessel?

     It was hard to say. There were things that contradicted this. There was a rosewood melodium (like a small piano), for example, under the skylight. Yet it was not touched by water. How could it have not been dampened if the ship had been left open after being deserted? There was nothing else to indicate any dire emergency. Lanterns rocked back and forth, but there was no hint of fire. 

     Then Deveau noticed the log on the desk. The last entry was dated November 24. The vessel’s position was given as 36° 56 minutes North Latitude and 27° 20 minutes West Longitude; in other words, passing through the Azores. Then he found the slate log in the Mate’s room. He read the last entry: they had sighted St. Mary’s Island, Azores. Since the last entry was at 8 a.m. November 25, and the log had no further entry, it seemed logical to deduce that the vessel was abandoned sometime on the 25th before the ship’s daily log could be updated.

     It also seemed logical to deduce the Mary Celeste had been abandoned while perfectly shipshape, and the sea had had her way with her thereafter. She had drifted for 9 days with her holds and skylight open. The derelict no doubt encountered more heavy weather. It had, in fact, rained that very morning. With her wheel unlashed she was at the mercy of every wave, bounding about and reeling like a newborn colt as the sea slapped her rudder this way and that. This would also explain the water kegs sprung from their position, and it also explained how the heavy cast iron stove was found jolted a couple feet from its place in the galley.

     Continuing investigation indicated the vessel was abandoned in a hurry. The seamen’s pipes were found. Deveau was surprised, for these are articles a seaman would normally take with him. There was no Bill of Lading for the cargo. The chronometer (to determine longitude), sextant and ship’s register were missing. There was indication on the deck that a lifeboat had been secured over the main hatch and had been removed. The gangplanks had been removed from the rail. It seemed the boat had been launched and the gangplanks removed first because they were in the way.

     But why did the crew leave?

     All Deveau knew was that they had a derelict ship with a very valuable cargo. They rowed back to the Dei Gratia and he told the captain that from the log it was the Mary Celeste.

     Morehouse was genuinely surprised. Before he had left on this voyage, he had dinner with Briggs. He knew that he had taken with him his wife, Sarah, their baby daughter Sophie, and what was thought to be a very reliable German crew. Briggs was also part owner of the vessel with James Winchester, a well-known name in New England shipping. Winchester’s nephew, Albert Richardson, was also First Mate on the Celeste.  

     Deveau had no explanation. But no matter what had happened, the vessel was sound. He could sail it on to Gibraltar, but he’d need at least 2 men with him. Morehouse was interested in the salvage alright, so true, but he didn’t fancy splitting his crew. Yet Deveau’s enthusiasm caused him to relent.

     By that late afternoon Deveau was headed back over to the vessel, with Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund. They took their things and what food their cook had prepared. For about 2 days his men worked about getting the vessel trim for sail. They pumped her out, repaired the sails they needed, re-secured the hatches, re-erected the binnacle and placed in their own compass.

     All this time Dei Gratia stood off just in case Deveau would need assistance. Every day thereafter he sighted Dei Gratia, sailing in tandem, until the last two days. Heavy weather had hit on December 12 and Deveau set in by land and cast anchor. On the 13th he arrived at Gibraltar, there to see the Dei Gratia at anchor, Morehouse awaiting him.

     It was required that they report in, and Morehouse had to formally claim salvage. This brought into the equation both the US Consul, Horatio Sprague, and the Vice Admiralty Court, the duty of which is to adjudicate on the matter of restitution after an investigation.

     Within 2 hours T. J. Vecchio, Marshal of the Court, had “arrested” the vessel in order to determine the actual salvage rights and make assessments of value. This naturally required him to personally investigate. After his first visit he came back to the court with surprising information. The brig seemed completely seaworthy. Moreover, her cargo, 1,700 barrels of raw alcohol, was valuable, possibly worth over $36,000 dollars, far more than the value of the ship. This information excited the ears of no less than the Queen’s Proctor and Attorney General for Gibraltar, Frederick Solly Flood.

     Later writers have come to attach onus to Flood’s name, so that one must give a lengthy preamble defending themselves if they wish to agree with him on even an insignificant point. Thus I bend a little to that urge here. Stereotype and those ghastly economic renditions of the story have locked Flood into the typecast part of pompous jackanapes, knave and incompetent grandstander. None are accurate. Flood was a flood himself. He could be overwhelming and overbearing. Contemporarily even Horatio Sprague referred to him as a “fussy little man.” This may indeed be the case, but there is the old French proverb: “Even the blind sow that roots around long enough will find the acorn.” Flood wasn’t the most adept theorist, but the evidence indicated there was an acorn somewhere. His problem was that he was a noisy rooter. He did not initially jump to the conclusions that have mired his name with later biographers. But after he found said acorn he snuffled loudly on his way to find the oak.

     What stuck  in  the Hon. Flood’s  craw  the most was  how sound the ship was reported to be, how valuable was her cargo, and that strange location where she was found 500 miles from her last reported position. This motivated Flood’s questions throughout the drawn-out Hearing to follow. The reader must keep this in mind as we now delve into testimony.

     On the 18th of December, 1872, Oliver Deveau was sworn in before His Worship Judge Sir James Cochrane to give his full account viva voce in open court. Flood sat quietly.

     Deveau began:

 

   I left New York on 15 November, bound for Gibraltar for orders, Captain Morehouse master. On 5 December, about 1:30 p.m. sea time, being my watch below, the captain called me and said there was a strange sail on the windward bow, apparently in distress, requiring help. By my reckoning, we were 38° 20 North Latitude, 17° 15 West Longitude. We hauled up, hailed the vessel, but found no one aboard. I cannot say whether the master or I proposed to lower the boat, but one of us did, and I and two men went in her to board the vessel. The sea was running high, the weather having been stormy, though then the wind was moderating.

     I boarded the vessel and the first thing I did was to sound the pumps which were in good order. I found no one on board the vessel, which had three and a half feet of water in the pumps. The pump gear was good, but one of the pumps was drawn to let the sounding rod down. There was no place to let the rod down without drawing the box, as is often the case in a small vessel. I cannot say how long it would take to draw the pump— it depends on the circumstances. I only used the other pump on my way here, and the first pump I left in the same state as I found it.

     I found the fore-hatch and the lazarett-hatch both off. The binnacle was stove in. There was a great deal of water between the decks, the forward house was full of water up to the coaming and is on the upper deck. I found everything wet in the cabin, in which there had been a great deal of water. The clock was spoilt by the water. The sky light in the cabin was open and raised, and the compass in the binnacle was destroyed. I found all the captain’s effects had been left— his clothing and furniture. The bed was just as they had left it, and that and the other clothes were wet. I judged there had been a woman on board. I found the captain’s charts and books in the cabin— some were in two bags under the bed and two or three loose charts lay over the bed. I found no charts on the table. I found a log book in the mate’s cabin on his desk. The long slate I found on the captain’s table. There was an entry in the log book up to 24 November, and an entry on the log slate, dated 25 November, showing that they had made the island of St. Mary. I did not observe the entry on the slate, the first day, and made some entries of my own on it, and so unintentionally rubbed out the entry when I came to use the slate, at least I thought so.  I did not find the ship’s register, or other papers concerning the ship, but only some letters and account books.

     I found the mate’s notebook in which were entered receipts for cargo, etc. The book now shown to me is the book I found, also the Mate’s Chart. In his cabin hanging over the mate’s bed showing the track of the vessel up to the 24th there were two charts— one under the Mate’s bed and one, as I have said, hanging over it. I’m not positive whether the chart with the ship’s track marked on it was found above or below the mate’s bed. There seemed to be everything left behind in the cabin as if left in a great hurry, but everything in its place. I noticed the impression of the captain’s bed, as of a child having lain there. The whole of the vessel appeared in good condition and nearly new. There were a great many other things in the cabin, but impossible for me to mention all. The things were all wet. The sky light was not off, but open. The hatches were off, cabin was wet but had no water in it, as the water had naturally run out of it. The masts were good, and the spars, but the rigging was in very bad order and some carried away. The foresail and upper fore topsail had apparently blown from the yards, and the lower fore topsail was hanging by the four corners.  The main staysail was hauled down and lying on the forward house as if it had been let run down. Jib and foretop staysail set. All the rest of the sails were furled.

 

     Edward Rowe Snow’s 1948 book Mysteries and Adventures Along the Atlantic Coast proved very influential on later writers. He suggested that no self-respecting New-England housewife would have an unmade bed past 8 a.m. Therefore the abandonment must have happened about this time. This, however, presupposes that one of the Briggs was not sick, especially the child, since it is a child’s impression which was clearest to Deveau. By this reckoning, it could have been a couple of hours after 8 a.m.    

     In answer to Cochrane’s question about how she was rigged, Deveau replied that the vessel was rigged a brigantine of over 200 tons. “I should say she was seaworthy and almost a new vessel. Anchors and chain were all right.” He continued with the appearance of the deck.  

     There were no boats and no davits at the side. It appeared as if she carried her boat on deck; for there was a spar lashed across the stern davits; so that no boat had been there. I went back to my own vessel and reported the state of the brigantine to the captain. I proposed taking her in. He told me well to consider the matter as there was great risk and danger to our lives as well as to our own vessel. We consulted among ourselves and the crew and resolved to bring her in the distance I estimate at six to seven hundred miles, but have not made out the exact distance.

     The captain gave me two men, a small boat, a barometer, compass and a watch. I took with me my own nautical instruments, and whatever food our steward had prepared. I went on board the same afternoon, and about the 5th hour afterwards, hoisted the boat on deck, pumped her out and took charge of her. Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund are the names of the two men I took with me. They are not the same men as I took with me when I first boarded the brigantine, whose names were John Wright and John Johnson.  We arrived in Gibraltar on the morning of 13 December.

   When we first went on board we had a great deal to do to get the ship into order. I found a spare trysail which I used as a foresail. It took me two days to set things to rights as to proceed on the voyage and make any headway. We had fine weather at first and until we got into the Straits when it came on a storm; so that I dare not make the Bay but lay to under Ceuta, and afterwards on the Spanish coast to the east. When I arrived at Gibraltar I found “Dei Gratia” already there. I had seen her almost every day during the voyage and spake her three or four times. We kept company with her until the night of the storm when I lost sight of her.  I saw between decks the nature of the cargo— barrels marked ‘alcohol’ on the head of them— and likewise in the note of the mate of the “Celeste”; whereby it appeared he had given receipts for so many barrels of alcohol at a time. I forgot to state that the cabin, which was a deck cabin, had all its windows battened up. I also found the sounding-rod on deck alongside the pump.

     Solly Flood: Would you call the “Mary Celeste” a good sailor?

     Deveau: I call both the “Dei Gratia” and the “Mary Celeste” fair sailors. . .Supposing both vessels to have been equally well found and manned and sailed, she would have been faster than our own ship.

     Solly Flood: Did you pass any other ship on your voyage before you sighted the “Mary Celeste”?

     Deveau: We spoke one other brigantine on our voyage, bound to Boston; we did not pass or see any other vessel of a similar class on our outward voyage. So the first time we could have seen a ship was the day we found her as we did, deserted. I cannot say, without referring to my log where our ship was on the 24th or 25th. I do know we were to the north of the vessel from seeing her track traced on her chart. We were between latitudes 40 and 42.  We did not sight St. Mary’s at all. I do not know the latitude and longitude of St. Mary’s without seeing a chart. I have made only one voyage from New York to Gibraltar before, and we did not sight St. Mary’s then. I never was at St. Mary’s— never have seen it. . . From 15 to 24 November, we had stormy weather. Most time of our passage the weather was very heavy. During that time we never took off our fore hatch  since we sailed. . . The  “Mary Celeste”  has  only  two hatches, fore and main, besides the lazarett. . . .

     . . .Her head was westward when we first saw  her.  She was  on the starboard tack, but the wheel was not  lashed. The  wheel gear was good, and with her foresails set she would not come up to the wind and fall off again. With the sails she had set when I first saw her she might come up and fall away a little, but not very much. She would always keep those sails full. The wind was blowing from the north, but not strongly then, though blowing heavily in the morning. We allow for a current running easterly, but the currents there depend very much on the winds. The first point I made when I could take my bearings was Cape St. Vincent. . . .The vessel’s sheet was fast on the port side, and she was found on the starboard tack. The wind would entirely govern the tack she was on at the time. Both vessels going one-way might be on the port tack, the other on starboard tack on the same day . . . .

 

     The way in which Deveau gratuitously gave some information can be disturbing, such as how he harped on never seeing St. Mary’s or how he tries to clarify, with the obvious intent to minimize, why it isn’t necessarily suspicious that the Celeste was on the starboard tack and yet found where she was found. It is probably better to be gracious and say that this reflects the extent that Gibraltar was already abuzz with rumors about possible foul play. An uneducated (even an educated) man under oath and under these circumstances might be apt to ramble and let his nerves do the talking.    

     But, but, there is no denying that Morehouse wanted the salvage case sped through the process as quietly as possible. He had even been naïve enough to ask that Court be avoided. Indeed, on the very day the Mary Celeste was brought into port Horatio Sprague quickly wrote the State Department in Washington that “the Master of the ‘Dei Gratia’ claims salvage and would prefer settling this matter out of court if possible, to avoid formalities and other expenses.” The last thing Morehouse wanted was a complex, publicized case. The result would be anything but a case sped through the system.

     Examples of minimizing can be amply found. One curious bit of testimony concerns the supposed last log entry. Why did Deveau make a point of clarifying he thought he had rubbed it out when he really hadn’t? The only logical conclusion is that at one point after they had docked, perhaps even casually, he must have said that he rubbed it out and this rumor went through Gibraltar’s small community and large ears until it reached Vecchio’s. Behind the scenes this might have become quite a controversy. The implication would have been he concealed some explanatory or sensational entry. He now tries to make it sound as though there was nothing to it. Did he truly rub out the genuine last entry?

     Another curious contradiction is the position of the sounding rod. Deveau said he found it conveniently by the pump. This position naturally tends to support the theory which Deveau had already expressed publicly: that the crew merely misread the reading and thought the ship was sinking, so they quickly abandoned her. Yet he describes a deck swept by heavy seas, and even speculated the heavy sea damage happened after the vessel was abandoned. How then did the sounding rod— but a small metal pin on the end of a line— not get washed away?    

     When it came to the sounding rod, Augustus Anderson even seemed nervous. He belabored his ignorance to Cochrane: “I was present when the pump was sounded. It was sounded with a piece of line and a bolt six or seven inches long. The line and bolt were found in the cabin. The bolt was about 1 ½ inches thick, the line was fastened to the bolt ’round the end. There was no hole in it. It had no head to it— it was a piece of iron fastened by having a cord tied round it. We used the same bolt and line to sound with during our voyage to Gibraltar. The mate found the sounding rod on deck, but I did not see him find it. It was all wet and could not be used. I did not see it— the mate saw it. I never took notice of the sounding rod myself. I did not see it when I first went on board. I never saw any other sounding rod than the iron bolt and string. The mate told me that there was a sounding rod lying on deck but that it was  all wet and could not be used. He did not tell me what he did with it.”

     In other words, Anderson wasn’t sure if the rod they used was the real one or the one Deveau made because the original was no good. Supposedly, the original was a metal ball on the end of a line. If he initially used the original and yet it was too wet to be worth anything, what weight does his reading of 3.5 feet of water in the bilge carry? Aside from Anderson’s skittishness causing us to wonder, the entire sounding becomes very unreliable if we are not sure what line was initially used and if it was actually capable of giving an accurate reading.

     Minimizing the whole affair or, as in Anderson’s case, distancing themselves from sensitive points, wasn’t speeding the case through. It was raising many contradictions. For example, Deveau testified that the log line was missing. This is the long rope, rod and heavy spool used every hour to determine the ship’s speed. Yet the flimsy, by comparison, sounding line and metal rod was supposedly still beside the pump. How could one be washed over and not the other?— and indeed not even washed from its place beside the pump?     

     Consternation over the vessel’s sails being set to the starboard tack was definitely one aspect of the mystery that was considered suspicious to the Attorney General’s office. It was a sensitive issue because no one, especially the Honourable Freddie Flood, could believe that the Celeste could have been abandoned off the Azores and drifted to where she was found in those 9 days. Moreover, the Azores Current in the area is a cross-current. It runs south to southeasterly. The Mary Celeste was found slightly north of her last position, so that she not only drifted 500 miles eastward but also drifted across the Azores Current and instead of drifting southeast with it she cut across northeast. It was hard not to think that she had been intentionally sailed to this area and abandoned shortly before the Dei Gratia came across her.

     Much of this evidence is genuinely curious, and further testimony from the Dei Gratia prize crew didn’t really help to settle the matter. Deveau also said too much when it came to the question of the Mary Celeste’s lifeboat. He said there was no evidence that the boat had been lashed to the main hatch, meaning not even the ropes that had lashed it to the fenders were present anymore. In this case, we should assume the ropes had been later washed overboard in the heavy weather the drifter encountered. Yet if that is the case, the mystery of the convenient sounding rod is raised yet again. How did but a 6 inch metal pin (or ball) and line not get washed at least down the deck?

     Deveau’s testimony continues:

 

    The way down into her hold is through the hatchways, which is quite different from the cabin.  Into the cabin, the entrance is through the companion way, down steps. I went into the cabin within a few minutes of sounding the pumps. On the table there was the log slate, but I cannot say what else might have been on the table. I do not know whether there were any knives. I saw no preparations made for eating in the cabin. There was plenty to eat, but all the knives and forks were in the pantry. The rack was on the table, but no eatables. There was nothing to eat or drink, in the cabin, set out on the table. But preserved meats were in the pantry.  I examined the state of the ship’s galley. It was in the corner of the forward house, and all things, pots, kettles, etc., were washed up. Water in the house was a foot or so deep. I cannot say how the water got in, but the door was opened and the scuttle hatch off. The windows were shut. There were no cooked provisions in the galley.  I never saw the water come over the topmast of a vessel. There was a barrel of flour in the galley, one third gone. We used the provisions found on board the Mary Celeste. We used potatoes and meat, and she had, I should say, six months’ provision on board.

    Solly Flood: What else did you notice about the ship when you boarded her?

     Deveau: The binnacle was injured when I went aboard. I fixed it and used it on our way here. Its glass was broken and the binnacle was washed away from its place. It is lashed on the top of the cabin above the deck, being a wooden one, the lashings had given way, and a cleat was gone. The second time I went aboard I found the cabin compass in the mate’s room. There were two quadrants in the second mate’s room. The cargo seemed to be in good condition, well stowed and had not shifted. As far as I could judge the cargo was not injured. I found no wine, beer, or spirits whatever in the ship.

     Sir James Cochrane: Did you see anything to make you conclude that the Mary Celeste had been overset by a storm or heavy waves and had been thrown onto her beam ends?

     Deveau: The vessel was perfectly upright while I was on board and I saw no signs whatever to suggest that she had been on her beam ends at any time. . .If she had been thrown on her beam ends, her hatches would have been washed off. But if she had been thrown on her beam ends, and her hatches had been all close, she might have righted again without her cargo shifting, or without showing any indication.

     Sir James Cochrane: Can you form any idea why the officers and crew so mysteriously abandoned the Mary Celeste?

     Deveau: My idea is that the crew got alarmed, and, by the sounding rod being found lying alongside the pumps, that they had sounded the pumps and found perhaps a quantity of water in the pumps at the moment, and thinking she would go down, abandoned her.

 

     Again that sounding rod conveniently comes into play. Despite Deveau saying the heavy binnacle was knocked over and “washed away from its place” that sounding rod remained next to the open pump. Perhaps that raised a skeptical brow in the court, too. When John Wright testified later, he gave the sounding rod a little more room to have wandered. He said that it was “found lying on the deck near the cabin.”

     Deveau seems to have come to his simple theory early-on. Perhaps it was Morehouse’s own suggestion in order to minimize the whole affair. Whichever, Deveau stuck with it and yet he could not see how his accurate description of other parts of the deck completely rendered his theory untenable. This theory also presupposes another crewman would not re-check the reading. It also never takes into consideration what inspired the crewman to check the pumps. Deveau’s actual testimony, however, prefaces the crew checking the pump after getting “alarmed.” This might put an entirely different slant on it, but he is often not very clear. His actual wording suggests that perhaps the Celeste had some encounter, such as ramming something, and naturally they checked the pumps. A misreading in this circumstance might cause a crew to hastily abandon a sound vessel.

     This interpretation of Deveau’s statement helps, but only superficially. It doesn’t seem very well-founded in light of other factors. For one, when John Wright was called he testified that it would “take about 15 minutes to remove the box, etc., from the pump so as to be able to sound through it.” To add injury to insult, there’s no experienced mariner who cannot tell if his ship is sinking quickly. It slows drastically, becomes sluggish at the helm and takes the waves in a slow founder. He can feel it under his feet. At sea the ship and the mariner become one person tied together by the sinews of experience. Moreover, the Celeste’s holds were by weight only half full. A rapid ingress of water would have been easily felt. Put together, it seems the open pump cannot indicate anything too dire and sudden. A misreading inspired by a routine check would have been disbelieved and rechecked. Something truly imminent would not have left time to sound the pumps.

     Yet there is no question that the pump had been drawn out. It is more likely that whatever happened to the Mary Celeste happened at the moment the crewman was going about his regular inspection, which included sounding the pumps, and this had nothing to do with why the vessel was abandoned. Deveau clarified that the “pumps would be sounded perhaps every two or four hours. In order to make entry in the long of ‘pumps carefully attended to,’ the pumps should be sounded every watch of four hours— if the vessel were leaky, more often.”

     Because Deveau found less than 4 feet of water in the bilge, he was right to assume most of the water had run into the ship after it had been abandoned. The trip to Gibraltar confirmed this. They had to pump the vessel’s bilge very little. Deveau testified that “she made little or no water, about an inch in 24 hours. Therefore I conclude that all the water found in her went down through her hatches into her cabin.”

     If Deveau is right (and his sounding legit), the 3.5 feet of water in the bilge came there through the open hatches after the Mary Celeste was abandoned. Thus it is hard to imagine a crewman misread what must have been a miniscule amount of water in the bilge. Whatever the amount, it most likely wasn’t much, since the vessel was not a leaky ship. She had been to sea about two weeks when she made the Azores, not enough time for even one and a half feet of water in the bilge. And this assumes they never pumped her daily as Lund did on the voyage to Gibraltar.

     In short, the pump being drawn and the sounding rod lying by it probably means nothing. . .unless the ship had hit something. These thoughts, I dare say, were probably going through the Proctor’s mind. At the end of that day he prepared a list of things upon which to follow up. One of them was to have Cochrane issue Vecchio an order to make a thorough inspection of the ship. He quickly retained Richard Portunato, a diver, to make an inspection of the vessel’s hull. This would tell whether the Celeste had actually hit something that would cause a crew to sound the vessel and, in a panic, suddenly flee a stable ship.

     While this was being prepared, two days later, December 20, Solly Flood put Deveau back on the stand. For the first time, Flood showed his suspicion that there was more afoot here. He asked Deveau to state in detail the condition of the Captain’s cabin. He went over it in detail yet again. Then the Mary Celeste’s chart was produced and placed before him. 

 

     Deveau: I found that chart on board the Mary Celeste with the ship’s course marked on it. I used it afterwards for our track here. The words written ‘Mary Celeste abandoned 5 December, 1872,’ are in my handwriting. I put it down merely by guess as the place where I supposed we found the vessel as nearly as I could. The arrows shown on the chart show the way the currents are supposed to run, but they often practically run just in the contrary direction. The chart was found in the mate’s cabin.

 

—Another bit of gratuitous minimizing, just like his earlier comments about how a ship might be on the starboard tack even with a wind from the north.

     Deveau wasn’t taking into account the big picture, which Cochrane and especially Flood had already considered. He was probably more motivated by Flood and or Cochrane’s skeptical faces (or in their tone/demeanor). But whether the currents could behave so in the immediate vicinity was irrelevant to the bigger picture and overriding suspicion. And, indeed, the learned judge now asked:    

 

   Sir James Cochrane: How do you account for the fact that, as you say, the Mary Celeste ran 500 or 600 miles with no one aboard, and the sails set as you found them?

   Deveau: I cannot give an opinion as to whether the derelict could have run the distance where we found her, in the intervals with the sails she had set. We passed to the north of the group while the Mary Celeste passed to the south. Between the 24 November, and 5 December, the wind was blowing from the north to the southwest.

   She was going steadily from one and a half to two knots when we saw her with the wind off her beam. She might have had more sails set at first, but she would not run steadily before the wind with her rudder unlashed. She had two head sails set, her lower foretop sail was hanging by the four corners. The wind was North, her head was to the West. She was on the starboard tack, going in the opposite direction to ourselves when we met her. She probably had changed her course more than once. She was going backwards. It is impossible, therefore, to say how long or often she had changed her course. . .

 

     In other words, once again to belabor a point, the Celeste had drifted cross the southeasterly current yet went slightly north, against the northwesterly wind, which was a headwind, and nevertheless maintained her course for 9 days. Now she was turned around, heading westward. John Wright said she was headed northwest by north, exactly opposite them (they were headed southeast by south). There is some debate on what Deveau meant by “backwards.” The Celeste could have been facing them but drifting backwards toward Portugal. If not, the image their testimony paints is that of a ghost ship sailing on, bearing down on them defying the wind and currents. At the very least, this is truly odd.   

     When John Wright was called, Flood re-asked some of the same questions. He wanted as many details set in order from the beginning. He was particularly interested in the first thing Wright did after boarding her. He asked: “What did you see when you went down into her cabin?

 

    Wright: I went down into the cabin after assisting to sound her pumps. . . .There is a door to the companion stairs. The door was open. The top of the cabin is above the deck, about ten inches. . . The windows were nailed up on the starboard side with plank, but not on the port side. The windows on that side were shut, but would let the light in. I could not say whether the windows were fastened up for the voyage, or had been fastened during the voyage. On the starboard side the planking was nailed outside the glass. On the port side the windows were shut with glass only, and were not broken. When below in the cabin there was plenty of light to see what was on the table. I did not see any of the sky light glass broken. I saw that the binnacle had been knocked off its stand and was lying on deck alongside the wheel, which was not lashed. There was nothing the matter with the binnacle. It had not been destroyed. But the compass was destroyed and its glass cover knocked off.

     The door was open, it was in a bad state. The stove was knocked out of place. That could have been done by a sea striking the galley and the stove through the door. . .The main hatch was fastened and lashed with two rough spars. Why they were put there I can’t say.

 

     Flood now had more contradictions before him. Major discrepancies between Wright and Deveau include the latter saying that all the windows were battened down whereas Wright said only those on one side of the main cabin. Deveau had also said he removed one batten from the mate’s window, making it seem as if he removed it from within the cabin. But Wright had said the windows were nailed from the outside. There was also disagreement on the state of the rigging. Deveau said the standing rigging was okay. Wright said it was in bad shape. Wright specially said he never noticed the peak halyard, which seems a hard thing to miss if it was snaking over the deck and broken.

     By the 20th of December, the 2nd day of the hearings, the Mary Celeste case had interested Gibraltar for 7 days. Solly Flood had cross-examined the salvors for two full days. Few Vice Admiralty Courts had seen the intensity of the questioning as in this case. Although he had revealed some suspicion, Flood was not yet sure what to think. He was both Proctor of the Vice Admiralty Court and Attorney General, and he was now mixing the duties of both offices. As AG for Gibraltar he was responsible for criminal matters, which the VA Court is not.

     At this time Flood either felt the Dei Gratia’s crew was so feckless that they had muddied up clues or they were intentionally lying to cover up clues of violence or mystery in order speed the salvage process. Vecchio’s actions subsequent to his orders indicate that Flood must have confided much suspicion in him. As a part of his investigation he requested John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping for Gibraltar, to also get involved and make a full survey. Both began their investigation while Flood, on the 21st, continued to cross-examine other members of the Dei Gratia’s crew, in particular Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund

     This revealed more contradictions, especially about the peak halyard. Lund’s and Anderson’s testimony was more significant than Wright’s because they were on board the vessel for days and were the ones who had to repair much of the damage in order to get the ship sailworthy again. Of her standing rigging, Lund said it was “old but taut.” The peak halyard “was broke and gone” whereas Anderson said of the standing rigging “was all to pieces; the ratlines were all to pieces.” He even said that the ropes of the running rigging (which includes the peak halyard) were “coiled on the deck,” not possible if it was “broke and gone.”

     Each also testified that the first thing he did. Anderson said: “The first thing I did was to sound the pumps. I did not go into the Cabin until I had been on board half an hour.” Lund said “I went down into the cabin perhaps in a quarter of an hour or ten minutes after I was on board. . . .The first time I went into the cabin was for the sounding line. I sounded the well of the Celeste— . . .I found it and the line in the cabin. The chief Mate [Deveau] sounded the pump with my assistance.” This means everybody sounded the pump first, though it obviously was impossible.

     On top of these contradictions, Flood now discovered that Vecchio and Austin considered their discoveries disturbing enough to enlist him to come along and accompany them on their final joint day of inspection. The need for Flood’s presence was essential. He was the only one in court all those days. He alone could tell them exactly what had been claimed by the witnesses in contrast to what they had discovered. Vecchio had told him that Portunato had found no indication the ship had hit anything. Moreover, Vecchio could find no real indication the vessel had encountered heavy weather. The barrels of alcohol were well-stowed and had shown no signs of shifting or damage. Austin’s findings corroborated this. There was no indication of storm damage.

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Part II

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