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Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing… (edition 2005)
by Brian Hicks (Author)
Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks
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Completely solves the mystery. Well-written, well-researched. Kudos to the author!
I first heard about the mystery surrounding the crew of the Mary Celeste when I was pretty young... it was through a television program, possibly "In Search Of..." and it made enough of an impact that I keep going back to the story periodically. So, I had high hopes for Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship- The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and her Missing Crew." I was not disappointed.
Hicks does a great job, not only getting at the important facts of the tale -- the ship was found derelict with no signs of its crew, or a struggle-- but the variety of explanations and hoaxes that have added to the story over the years. I've heard Hicks' explanation for what happened to the crew before -- his book was published more than a decade ago, so I don't know if I read it in some other form or if someone else has made a similar suggestion. The explanation fits all of the data really well and seems most plausible.
I found the book to be very readable and well done.
Growing up by Lake Michigan I always was intrigued by the story of the ghost ship the Griffon. That made me pick up this book. This is a great mystery story. A tragedy at sea with no explanation. There is great background on the seafaring family, the Briggs, the events leading up to and after the tragedy. It is interesting all the story that have come about as to what happened, everything from giant squids to water spouts. The final explanation surely seems to make the most sense. I loved this book and any maritime history buff should read it.
B-list horror films are edukashunal (or inspiring, more accurately) - who would have known? While watching Ghost Ship because there was nothing better on TV, a passing description of the original ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, prompted me to look up the history of the ill-fated merchant ship on Wiki, then download this book. Turns out that what I thought I knew - which is a damn sight more than the ignorant characters on the film - was either incorrect or woefully lacking. Brian Hicks' definitive (modern) account helpfully set me straight.
To start with, I didn't know that the Mary Celeste and her crew were American, or that the Frenchified alternative spelling of the ship's name - Marie Celeste - comes from a famous story based on the ship by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was also under the impression that she sank a lot longer ago than 1872. I was aware, thanks to the enduring legend, that her crew vanished without trace on an otherwise calm day in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, but never knew why. And although the answer has been hotly debated almost ever since, with various crackpot theories from a drunken, homicidal crew to aliens, and we may never know for certain, Hicks' theory - that the cargo of industrial alcohol was giving off noxious fumes, which the crew tried to escape by getting into the lifeboat while airing the ship - makes the most sense.
Hicks delivers a thoroughly engrossing and comprehensive narrative, from the history and crew of the Mary Celeste (and the Dei Gratia who recovered her) to the final fate of the 'cursed' ship, including some of the more outlandish theories and hoaxes along the way. By the final chapters, I was feeling defensive of Captain Briggs' reputation too, and hope that he and his family and crew didn't suffer too harshly for one making one tragic miscalculation.
There is definitely a film to be made of the true account, however. Consider the atmosphere aboard the ghost ship when the crew of the Dei Gratia found her, and the zealous lawyer who tried to prosecute the unlucky salvors, then the ship's increasingly murky track record, not forgetting the eternal mystery of her missing crew, which has been tied to all sorts of natural and unnatural events. Surely the facts present a more convincing plot than the hokum I endured while watching that dreadful film about a haunted ocean liner!
On December 4th, 1872, a 100-foot brigantine was discovered drifting through the North Atlantic without a soul on board. Not a sign of struggle, not a shred of damage, no ransacked cargo--and not a trace of the captain, his wife and daughter, or the crew. What happened on board the ghost ship Mary Celeste has baffled and tantalized the world for 130 years. In his stunning new book, award-winning journalist Brian Hicks plumbs the depths of this fabled nautical mystery and finally uncovers the truth. The Mary Celeste was cursed as soon as she was launched on the Bay of Fundy in the spring of 1861. Her first captain died before completing the maiden voyage. In London she accidentally rammed and sank an English brig. Later she was abandoned after a storm drove her ashore at Cape Breton. But somehow the ship was recovered and refitted, and in the autumn of 1872 she fell to the reluctant command of a seasoned mariner named Benjamin Spooner Briggs. It was Briggs who was at the helm when the Mary Celeste sailed into history. In Brian Hicks's skilled hands, the story of the Mary Celeste becomes the quintessential tale of men lost at sea. Hicks vividly recreates the events leading up to the crew's disappearance and then unfolds the complicated and bizarre aftermath--the dark suspicions that fell on the officers of the ship that intercepted her; the farcical Admiralty Court salvage hearing in Gibraltar; the wild myths that circulated after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a thinly disguised short story sensationalizing the mystery. Everything from a voodoo curse to an alien abduction has been hauled out to explain the fate of the Mary Celeste. But, as Brian Hicks reveals, the truth is actually grounded in the combined tragedies of human error and bad luck. The story of the Mary Celeste acquired yet another twist in 2001, when a team of divers funded by novelist Clive Cussler located the wreck in a coral reef off Haiti. Written with the suspense of a thriller and the vivid accuracy of the best popular history, Ghost Ship tells the unforgettable true story of the most famous and most fascinating maritime mystery of all time.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)910.9163 — History and Geography Geography and Travel Geography and Travel History, geographic treatment, biography - Discovery. exploration Geography of and travel in areas, regions, places in general Air And Water Atlantic Ocean
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The tale resonates with me, because I remember reading a book of "unexplained mysteries" when I was ten or so, with the Marie Celeste figuring prominently along with the Moving Coffins of Barbados and the Treasure of Oak Island. I could imagine the first curious, then frightened sailors of the Dei Gratia boarding the drifting ship, only to find the galley stove still hot, the meals on the crews table, and a spool of thread balanced on a sewing machine - but no sign of the crew, the captain, or his family. What happened? Space aliens? Atlanteans? The Bermuda Triangle? Giant Squid? Submarine earthquake?
The start of the story is, in a way, more moving than the occultified aftermath. Benjamin Spooner Briggs was from the small seafaring town of Marion, Massachusetts, and came from a seafaring family. His uncle was lost off Block Island when he was only four. His eldest brother died off Havana from yellow fever and was buried at sea. His only sister and her sea captain husband were lost in a collision off Cape Fear. His youngest brother died of yellow fever off South Carolina. His father quit the sea while he was ahead; shortly afterwards he was watching a thunderstorm from the doorway of his house (probably congratulating himself that he didn't have to be out in that) when he was struck by lightning and killed instantly. Benjamin himself, off course, disappeared (with his wife and daughter) from the Mary Celeste, and some years latter another brother went down in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. I would have moved to Kansas. The author of Ghost Ship, Brian Hicks, has done yeoman service in tracking down the fate of the Briggs family. I suppose I tend to think of people from Massachusetts as Volvo-driving wimps now, but back then was obviously a different story.
The story remains interesting through Captain Brigg's last voyage, though it's been told many times before. It's straightforward enough; another New England brigantine, the Dei Gratia spotted a ship somewhere between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. Something didn't look right and the Dei Gratia drew close enough to send a boat over. The Mary Celeste was empty, with hatches and scuttles open, no small boats, the wheel not lashed, and the crew's foul weather gear still hanging on hooks. Although there was 3 ½ feet of water in the well and the sails and rigging were torn up, the mate of the Dei Gratia though he could pump her out and get her into Gibraltar. Although it was a near thing with a half crew, he made it.
Then things went from bad to worse. The Queen's Advocate for the Vice Admiralty Court of Gibraltar, a Mr. Frederick Flood, was absolutely convinced that there was something criminal about the Mary Celeste. He appears to have thought it was some sort of insurance fraud, but never presented a theory. Instead he had the ship inspected and picked on every minute detail - there were "mysterious" cut marks around the bow, and equally "mysterious" marks on the railings. Various stains on the deck were interpreted as blood. A short sword or long knife in the captain's cabin was supposed to have been bloodstained and wiped clean. One of the alcohol barrels in the hold had been "tampered with". And so on. After a long delay, the crew of the Dei Gratia was not found guilty of anything, but was only rewarded with a fraction of what the Mary Celeste and her cargo were worth in salvage fees.
Then, of course, the fun started. As mentioned, the Mary Celeste has been a staple of the woo-woo crowd for more than a century. Mr. Hicks doesn't really explore the reasons for this; he's a journalist interested in telling a good story himself, not a psychologists, but most of the wacky explanations for the fate of the Mary Celeste have things in common:
*Failure to exclude the null hypothesis. It's assumed that the case of the Mary Celeste was extraordinarily unusual, and therefore must have extraordinarily unusual explanations. In fact, ships went missing all the time - Hicks cites 19 a month. And other, apparently intact but crewless ships had been found before and have been found since. What made the Mary Celeste different was she was brought into Gibraltar - one of the busiest ports in the world - and kept there long enough for the principal owner to come from New York and then to summon a ship inspector from the U.S. Hundreds of seamen must have come through Gibraltar while the Mary Celeste was in court, and each probably spun his own yarn about what happened. And spread it around - which brings up the second problem with the Mary Celeste case:
*The original data have been so confabulated and muddled by subsequent retellers and dramatizers that it's impossible to tell what the starting conditions really were. With the Mary Celeste the principal (but unintentional) culprit is an English doctor and author who achieved his first major literary success with "J. Habbakuk Jephson's Statement", a short story published in the prestigious Cornhill's Magazine purporting to be the "truth" about what happened on the "Marie Celeste". The story was so successful that its account of the state of the "Marie Celeste" when discovered became accepted as the fact; it even partially convinced the members of the Admiralty Court at Gibraltar, who wrote indignant letters to Cornhill's protesting the inaccuracies (including the ship's name) in what they apparently assumed was a documentary rather than fiction. (To this day, if someone refers to the ship as "Marie Celeste" rather than Mary Celeste, you can assume that they are getting their "facts" from the Arthur Conan Doyle story, not the actual event). These subsequent retellings are where the “hot galley stove” and “spool balanced on the sewing machine” come from; there was no spool and the galley stove was not only cold, it was broken loose from its chocks.
So what really happened? Of course, Mr. Hicks has his own theory - the alcohol cargo leaked, the crew opened all the hatches then left the ship to allow the hold to air out, then a wind came up and blew the Mary Celeste into history. Based on what I know about hazmat, he might be on the right track - but he doesn’t make his case very strong. The original log and cargo manifest of the Mary Celeste are long gone, but there are still some trial records. Mr. Hicks thinks the cargo was “industrial alcohol” but doesn’t cite any evidence. Various confabulators have claimed it was industrial alcohol (i.e., methanol or denatured ethanol) going to Genoa to be made into paint, but others claim it was raw grain alcohol to be used to fortify Italian wine. Mr. Hicks is needs some help with hazmat chemistry here; he claims that denatured alcohol could be used to fortify wine, that alcohol will float on water, that the “stench” of some industrial alcohols is comparable to ammonia, and that formaldehyde is a kind of alcohol. What’s more, we have the statement made at the trial that the cargo had a specific gravity of 0.815 and was 93.95 proof. Hicks argues that the trial confused proof with percent, and that it was actually 93.95% alcohol; however, that isn’t consistent with the specific gravity. Maybe there’s something to Mr. Hick’s theory, but it needs a little more digging - and there’s really nothing left to dig. I suspect we’ll know what happened to the Mary Celeste when we know what song the sirens sang and the name Achilles used among women. ( )