On December 4, 1872, twenty days after leaving New York, the monotony of shipboard life was broken up for the sailors on board the Dei Gratia by an event that they would never forget. A short time after checking his ship's position in the early afternoon, Captain Morehouse sighted another ship several miles ahead. What sails she carried were trimmed the wrong way for the prevailing northerly wind and she seemed to be badly handled. As the mysterious ship grew closer, he hailed her again and again through a speaking trumpet, but his hails met only silence.
Thinking that something seemed odd, he sent his first mate and two seamen over in a boat to investigate. As they rode closer, they saw her name, Mary Celeste. As they climbed aboard, they heard only the wind in the rigging and the sound of the ocean slapping against the hull. Not a soul was in sight.
Afraid that she might be sinking, they checked the hold for water. Although they found three and half feet off water, this was not a dangerous amount and could be easily expelled out by the pumps, which were in good working condition.
As they explored the ship the mystery deepened. Everywhere they looked, it seemed as if the men had just walked away, but expected to be back in a few minutes. Their clothing, boots, money, razors, pipes, and other personal possessions were still aboard. Except for the laundry that had been hung up to dry, everything was in order and properly stowed away. The ship seemed to have a six-month supply of food and plenty of fresh water. In the captain's cabin the berth had been slept in but not made up and there was evidence that a woman and small child had been on board.
Satisfied that there was no one aboard and that the ship was in no immediate danger of sinking, the men returned to the Dei Gratia. Although they had no clue as to why it would have happened, it seemed obvious to them that the Mary Celeste had been abandoned. Her boat was gone, as were the ship's papers and navigational instruments. From her logbook, it seemed that she had been abandoned ten days earlier and had traveled some 500 to 750 miles on her own before being discovered. Since it seemed pointless to go looking for them, Captain Morehouse and the first mate decided to try to sail the Mary Celeste into port and enter a salvage claim for the ship and her cargo. With only two seamen to assist him, the first mate successfully sailed the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar on the morning of December 13, arriving only twelve hours after the Dei Gratia.
Although it was certainly strange that a seaworthy ship with no apparent serious damage would be abandoned, at first no one worried very much about the crew. Everyone was certain that they must have been picked up by a passing ship and would eventually show up and explain everything. This never happened.
With the ship as the only evidence, it was difficult to figure out what could have gone wrong. This didn't stop investigators from devising various theories, each less likely than the one before. The chief investigator pointed the finger at the men of the Dei Gratia, accusing them of murdering the crew in order to claim the salvage money. This was hard to prove. Besides the fact that Captain Morehouse had a good reputation and the money to be gained was not that great, the two ships had been hundreds of miles apart in late November.
Then he decided that may be it was a mutiny and murder. For evidence, he pointed to some brownish red spots on the deck and rail and a small cut in the rail that could have been made by an ax. He also felt that an old rusty sword that had been found in the captain's cabin might have had blood on it. The ship carried a cargo of alcohol, and one barrel was found to be damaged. He felt that this damaged barrel of alcohol might have led to the theoretical mutiny. Yet there was no sign of any fight or drunkenness by the crew. On the contrary, everything was neat and in order. The sword was tested and didn't have blood on it. The spots on the deck and rail weren't blood either.
A more obvious theory was that she had been abandoned in a moment of panic. But what could have caused an experienced captain to abandon a seaworthy ship? Some felt that the ship might have been driven toward a rocky shore and the men, after losing hope of drawing away, abandoned ship. After this, the wind changed and the ship saved itself, while the lifeboat was driven onto the rocks. Yet such a situation would have arisen gradually, so how could the hasty departure be explained?
A later investigator felt that the key was the 1,700 barrels of alcohol in the hold and the open cargo hatch. Perhaps the alcohol gave off gas, which someone smelled. Maybe there was a small explosion, and the captain and crew felt that the ship was about to blow up. Abandoning the ship in the panic, they were somehow lost while the ship sailed off by itself.
What really happened, we might probably never know. The story of the Mary Celeste remains one of the great mysteries of the sea.