History in Review
The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew
By Brian Hicks
Ballantine Books, 2005
Reviewed by Herbert White - March 26, 2012
On December 4, 1872 the brigantine Mary Celeste sailed into history when she was found running off the coast of the Azores, her sails unfurled, her hatches opened, and not a soul onboard. She was discovered by the crew of the Dei Gratia, which claimed her for salvage and sailed her to Gibralter, where a formal salvage claim was submitted. What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste? Why was the crew of the Dei Gratia almost put on trial for murder? What happened to the Mary Celeste after she was found, and what was her history before this fateful day? These and more questions are covered in Brian Hicks's Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew.
In writing Ghost Ship, Hicks, who is a journalist, literally left no stone unturned. He follows the history of the Mary Celeste from her construction in Nova Scotia, and her commission in 1861 as the Amazon, until her ultimate demise in 1885 off the coast of Haiti when she was purposely wreck by her captain in a case of insurance fraud. In between, Hicks details her early history and misfortunes and the family history of Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, whose family history was filled with as much misfortune, if not more, than that of the ship that he was to sail off to his death in, along with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
A goodly portion of the book is devoted to Hicks's recounting of how the Mary Celeste was found, and the ensuing trial in the British Vice Admiralty Court where the Queen's Proctor, Frederick Solly Flood did his utmost to 'prove' that the crew of the Mary Celeste mutinied and killed the officers of the ship before, for some unknown reason, simply disappearing without taking any 'loot'. When that failed, he tried to 'prove' that Oliver Deveau, the first officer of the Dei Gratia somehow managed to kill the crew members of the Mary Celeste when he went aboard to inspect her, just so he could salvage the ship. He also put out the theory that the entire case was nothing more than a case of insurance fraud perpetrated between Captain Briggs and Captain David Reed Moorehouse, the captain of the Dei Gratia. None of these allegations wherever proven, but the scandal touched off by Flood was to haunt the crew of the Dei Gratia for the rest of their lives.
The salvage hearing finally over, Hicks moves on to the later years of the Mary Celeste, her many owners and the troubles that they had with her, the various misfortunes that continued to haunt this most unlucky of ships, and the details of her inglorious demise on Rochelais Reef on January 3, 1885. He also covers the trial, in America, of Captain Gilman C. Parker, the ship's captain on her last voyage. He was charged with, among other things, barratry. Were he to found guilty of this charge, the punishment would have been hanging!
The most important aspect of this book is Hick's detailed analyses of the various theories that developed around the time that the crewless Mary Celeste was found, concerning exactly what happed to the crew such as claims that they must have been lost due to bad weather or that they were swept overboard, or that they were attacked by pirates. Hicks does not stop there, but also investigates more modern theories including those associated with alien abductions or that their loss was somehow attributed to the Bermuda Triangle. Hicks also offers his own theory that basically boils down to the fact that they were simply very, very unlucky. (You'll need to read the book to discover the meat of this theory.)
From beginning to end, Ghost Ship is a fascinating read, one that is full of maritime lore and which presents a comprehensive and page turning account of one of the greatest maritime mysteries to still haunt the modern imagination. It is also a story that refuses to die, as its story is continually being resurrected in the popular imagination by it's reappearance in such stories as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," an 'eyewitness' account from a supposed survivor of the Mary Celeste, to making short appearnces or being reference to in numerous advertisments and television shows from a 1964 ad for the insurance company Atlantic Mutual to episodes of Doctor Who. Where will the ghost ship appear next?
The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History, by Jane Yolen.
Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea, by Paul Begg.
The Saga of the Mary Celeste: Ill-fated Mystery Ship, by Stanley T. Spicer.
Mary Celeste: The Odyssey Of An Abandoned Ship, by Charles Edey Fay.
The Mary Celeste , by Brian Freemantle.
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