Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ghost Ship The Mysterious True Story of The Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship" gives a marvelously fresh look at the most famous mystery in maritime history--the Mary Celeste and her missing crew. Most accounts focus solely on the mystery, and Mr. Hicks does not neglect that in any way, he explores the various theories in a candid, matter-of-fact style purged of sensationalism and supernatural trappings, but he also gives us much more. For the first time, the cast of characters in this tragedy do not appear as merely names printed on the page, they emerge as real people, with feelings, hopes, and dreams. For example, we learn that Captain Briggs longed to give up the seafaring life as it cost him so much precious time out of his son's childhood, but feared he could not earn enough money to properly support his family.

The mystery began on the afternoon of December 4, 1872 when the crew of the Dei Gratia, a brigantine out of Nova Scotia bound for Gibraltar, spotted a ship meandering aimlessly, bucking like a bronco in a rodeo, atop the white-capped waves. For over an hour they watched her erratic progress and even tried to signal her before Captain Morehouse decided to send three of his men to investigate. What they found would fast become a legend, that would soon take on a life of its own, growing and gaining embellishments in the years to come.

There was not a soul on board the Mary Celeste. The ship was completely seaworthy, with only minimal weather damage obviously suffered after the mysterious disappearance of her crew, there were no signs of a struggle, violence, or any discernible reason why the ship should have been abandoned. The log was still in place, the last entry dated November 25, 1872 showed all was well aboard the Mary Celeste. In Captain Briggs' cabin the impression of a child's sleeping form still marked the mattress, and a sewing machine, a child's toys, and Mrs. Briggs' prized melodeon (a small piano-like instrument), and feminine apparel showed that the Captain had been traveling with his wife and child. In the sailors' quarters their sea chests were found undisturbed and their foul-weather gear oilskins, were found hanging on the wall pegs, and, most chilling of all, for sailors never went anywhere without them, their pipes had also been left behind. And the cargo, 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol bound for Genoa, Italy, lay in the hold undisturbed. But of the ten souls who sailed aboard the Mary Celeste there was not a trace nor conclusive proof of their fate.

Scores of theories have been advanced, from the ludicrous to the logical, and there have been numerous hoaxes throughout the years, but to this day the mystery remains unsolved. Pirates, mutiny, murder, insurance fraud, waterspouts, a disappearing island, fear of an imminent explosion in the cargo hold due to the alcohol, UFOs, a giant squid plucking the crew off the deck one by one, sailing into another dimension via a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, or some connection to the lost city of Atlantis and the Great Pyramids of Egypt, have all been advanced at one time or another to explain the mystery, but all ultimately fail to fully convince. Mr. Hicks explores the various theories and the hoaxes, both intentional and unintentional, including the furor created and confusion caused by the publication of the short story "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" by Arthur Conan Doyle three years before he found lasting literary fame with his creation of Sherlock Holmes. He also offers a theory of his own, which I will not spoil for prospective readers by revealing here, I will merely say it is entirely logical, but logical does nothing to dispel the tragedy.

Mr. Hicks also relates the history of the ship after it became famous, or rather infamous. The Mary Celeste went on to garner a reputation "as wholesome as that of a haunted house," finding a crew willing to sail on her became a serious challenge, and she changed hands several times, always being sold at a loss and failing to earn a profit for her owners. She ended her life in 1885, intentionally impaled on Rochelais Reef, off the coast of Haiti, as part of an insurance scam. Her scant remains were found on the reef in 2001 by divers in an expedition funded by novelist Clive Cussler. In warm, crystal clear Caribbean blue waters her remains lie on white sands amidst coral, conch shells, and schools of tropical fish; when she died the Mary Celeste truly did go to paradise.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Mary Celeste. If you only know the story from brief chapters in books of unsolved mysteries, I urge you to let Mr. Hicks tell you the whole story from the Mary Celeste's conception, her life story through her infamous immortality, and the squalid years that followed and ended in a blatant act of fraud within sight of the island of voodoo.


franceshunter said...

What a terrific book review! Like most people, I have heard of the Mary Celeste through shows like Unsolved Mysteries. This book sounds like it's full of fascinating details about this creepy, tragic story. Just in time for Halloween, too.

Brandy Purdy said...

It's a great book, the best on the subject I've read so far.