Disappearing Crew Inspires Nautical Myth

Columbia Free Times | July 8, 2004
Disappearing Crew Inspires Nautical Myth

A Review of Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks

Ballantine Books; 288 pages; $25.95

By David Axe

On December 4, 1872 a 100-foot sailing vessel named Mary Celeste was discovered drifting on the North Atlantic with its sails partially furled and every hatch and portal open to the elements. The ship was still and deathly silent. Investigation turned up no sign of her captain, crew and passengers, nor any sign that they had abandoned ship or been taken by force.

It seemed that the crew of Mary Celeste had simply vanished.

Old salts and intrigued amateurs were quick to offer reasons. Some said her crew fell overboard and were eaten by sharks. Others said pirates were responsible. Still others insisted supernatural forces were at work.

One hundred and thirty years later Mary Celeste has become a nautical legend and a symbol of the mystery and dangers of the sea. To this day no one knows for sure what happened. But Post and Courier reporter Brian Hicks has an idea. Hicks’ new book Ghost Ship –his third maritime history—recounts the events surrounding Mary Celeste’s fateful voyage and posits an explanation.

It’s a fantastic story made all the more fantastic by the fact that it’s true. But even more interesting than the simple history of the vessel and the disappearance of its crew are the myths that have complicated the story of Mary Celeste since 1872.

The ship might have disappeared into history were it not for a young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle, who later would be famous as the creator of Inspector Sherlock Holmes. In January 1884 Doyle published a short story based on the Mary Celeste mystery in Cornhill Magazine. It said the crew of the Marie Celeste (as Doyle called her) had been murdered by a black passenger. It was Cornhill’s policy not to publish bylines, so the story, which was written in the form of an eyewitness account, seemed to those unfamiliar with the magazine to be a true account.

Doyle’s story reinforced the basic story of Mary Celeste, introduced some lurid (and fictional) detail, and popularized the mystery in corners of the English-speaking world that otherwise didn’t give a damn about the fates of a dozen sailors. Writes Hicks: “Doyle’s story renewed interest in the Mary Celeste, sparking a fresh round of newspaper and magazine articles, and setting a course for the hoaxers that would follow.”

Beginning with Doyle’s retelling, the Mary Celeste story steadily became legend then myth. Journalists penned irresponsible speculation. Fiction writers followed Doyle’s lead with fantastical short stories about ghost ships and treacherous seas. Hungry readers accepted even the wildest fiction as fact. Over time the Mary Celeste story became entangled with otherwise unrelated myths. By the 1960s writers had the crew of Mary Celeste being eaten by giant squids or abducted by aliens. Meanwhile the ship herself long ago had been declared cursed and deliberately sunk.

It’s testimony to the power of the myth and its influence on fiction that when someone finally mustered the resources to find Mary Celeste’s wreck, it was novelist Clive Cussler, whose diving organization located the vessel on the seafloor near Haiti in 2001.

Hicks’ book wisely focuses on the myth of Mary Celeste over the simple facts. After over a century of fictionalization it’s impossible to separate the ill-fated vessel from the stories she inspired. Mary Celeste’s influence is everywhere, Hollywood included. Whether they know it or not, the screenwriters of Ghost Ship, Deep Rising, Leviathan, Event Horizon, and even Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World invoked the cultural memory of Mary Celeste in their descriptions of crewless vessels.

To his credit, however, Hicks returns to the historical origin of the Mary Celeste myth in Ghost Ship’s final chapters. With the integrity of an historian and the clear thinking of a real-life Inspector Holmes, Hicks considers the evidence to propose a solution to the mystery. What Hicks considers the actual fate of the crew of Mary Celeste is possibly more horrifying than any giant squids or curious aliens.

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