Saturday, 28 February 2015

Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu)

The story of the Mary Celeste is one of those useful spine tingling tales that ghost story writers have relied on for over a century, to add that extra chill to a mystery ship story. Imagine finding a derelict, adrift at sea, all sails set and a meal cooling on the table. There's no sign of captain or crew, and the ship's log indicates that the voyage was an uneventful as any captain could wish for, right up to the presumed moment when everyone vanished. What happened? Was it an ordinary, tragic disaster at sea, or did something otherwordly happen to this ship's crew?

In the case of the Mary Celeste, most of what people think they know is, in fact, false. There was no meal cooling on the table. Much of the ship's contents were soaked with sea water, indicating a sudden event, though what that event was remains a subject for debate. Waterspouts and seaquakes, as well as more ordinary incidents, have been cited as possible causes. Several items were missing, including the ship's papers and navigation equipment, and there's evidence that the ship's boat was launched. There was no indication of sudden violence, despite the best efforts of Frederick Solly Flood, attorney general of Gibraltar and one of the chief officers of the court of inquiry into the incident, to persuade the court otherwise. In all likelihood the crew of the Mary Celeste abandoned the ship in fear of their lives, only to perish on the open sea. The ship they abandoned went on drifting with the wind and currents, before being intercepted by the Dei Gratia and brought to Gibraltar.

The real mystery isn't so much what happened, as why. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, was a very experienced sailor from a family of experienced sailors. His wife and daughter were aboard, as well as a crew of seven; two mates, a steward and four seamen. All were veteran seamen, and had good characters; one, the first mate, had sailed with Briggs before. There seems to be no good reason why a captain and crew as well prepared and capable as they should decide to abandon an apparently seaworthy ship and risk their lives in a lifeboat.

This was Briggs' first voyage with the Mary Celeste, which he and his brother had bought as a joint investment.  Briggs took her down to New York to pick up cargo, a hold full of denatured alcohol, which he intended to ship to Genoa. He departed harbor on November 7, 1872. The Dei Gratia would later discover the abandoned Mary Celeste on December 4th. There's no clear indication of what happened to her between the 7th and the 4th; the ship's log was one of the things missing, though the daily slate - where notes would have been taken each day, later to be transferred to the log - was still aboard. The slate indicated nothing untoward.

The tragic Mary Celeste became a ghost story, rather than a maritime disaster story, thanks in part to the efforts of fiction writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote and published one of his first stories, J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, about the disaster. Much to his astonishment, people began repeating that story - involving murder on the high seas by a man intent on race war - as true, and soon others began inventing spook tales which, in turn, became accepted as the 'true account' of the tragedy of the Mary Celeste. Nothing was too outrageous or outre. Perhaps the crew were devoured by a giant octopus, perhaps aliens got them, perhaps the captain, in a burst of religious mania, murdered everyone aboard ... and so on.

The truth is probably more prosaic. It's possible that Briggs became convinced that his cargo was about to explode, or that the ship was about to sink. Both events would justify abandoning ship, and there's at least some evidence to support either theory. The sounding rod - a bit of iron with rope attached, used in the same way you'd use a dipstick in your car - was found on deck, as if dropped there in a hurry, and the hatches were open, possibly to air the hold out. The crew may not have intended to completely abandon the ship; they may have been attached to the Mary Celeste with a rope, which subsequently snapped.

Even so, it's surprising that Briggs left the Mary Celeste completely unmanned. After all, the ship contains what amounts to his life savings and hopes for the future; he'd have to be pretty convinced all was lost to abandon it completely. It would have been more in character to send most of the crew, and his wife and child, out in the boat, particularly if it were tied to the Mary Celeste, and stay aboard himself. Brigantines like the Mary Celeste aren't complicated to operate; the Dei Gratia got her to Gibraltar with a four man crew, and it would have been possible to keep her going with one man only. It would have been incredibly difficult and exhausting, but it could have been done. 'She was so sound and stout,' said Oliver Deveau, the Dei Gratia's first mate and the man who sailed Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, 'That I cannot think that if I had been on board I should have abandoned her. I should have considered her safer than an open boat unless she was on the rocks.'

It would make more sense if Briggs stayed aboard, yet clearly he did not. It makes me wonder if he was out of commission at this point, perhaps having taken a blow to the head during the same incident that put the Mary Celeste in peril. The crew, lacking leadership and faced with what seemed to them to be extreme danger, might have launched the boat with him in it. Or perhaps he did stay aboard, only to see the ship's boat come adrift, or even capsize, taking his wife and daughter to the bottom. That might have been enough to make him throw himself overboard. Or that event, whatever it may have been, which put the Mary Celeste in jeopardy might have been so severe as to make staying aboard an impossibility. Threat of an exploding cargo would do that.

After the Mary Celeste was brought to Gibraltar, the inquiry into her abandonment very nearly became a one-man lynch mob. Flood, convinced that murder or mutiny was at the back of the mystery, was hell-bent on proving that the crew had met with foul play, and that the Dei Gratia's people were somehow behind it all. This theory met with a severe setback when scientific investigation proved beyond question that stains found on the ship, and on a sword discovered in Briggs' cabin, were not blood. Eventually the court decided to uphold the Dei Gratia's salvage claim, but awarded it a relative pittance of one-fifth the value of the Mary Celeste, including cargo. Probably this was because the court had made its own mind up and felt that there was still some merit in the piracy argument, though there was no evidence to support it. Just goes to show, when the judge hates you, you might as well stay as far away from the court as possible.

The Mary Celeste bounced from owner to owner for a while, before finally finding its way to Gilman C. Parker in 1884. She now had a reputation as an unlucky ship, and had regularly lost money on her cruises. Parker loaded her with a supposedly valuable cargo, insured that cargo with three different agencies, and took her down to Haiti, where she conveniently found her way onto a reef and went down. '[I] had no more intention of wrecking the vessel,' said Parker to a disbelieving New York court of inquiry, 'Than I did of cutting my own throat.'

Yet that valuable cargo proved, on inspection, to be dog collars, spoiled beer, and rotten fish, loaded by merchants who clearly expected a huge insurance payout. Parker was charged with barratry - damaging a vessel or its cargo through abandonment, illegal scuttling or theft - which carried the death penalty. In the end barratry was dropped, though other charges were brought against Parker and the merchants. In the one civil case that came to court the jury refused to deliver a verdict, as there were several counts pending against Parker and his accomplices, and it was unwilling to prejudice the case against Parker in those separate indictments by returning a guilty verdict, particularly since the barratry indictment might mean hanging. The insurers immediately requested a new trial, but the court, electing not to go through all that expensive mess again, persuaded all concerned to drop charges. The insurers wouldn't have to pay out, any money already paid would be returned with interest, and the accused would leave the court, free men.

In the aftermath, one of the accused went insane, another committed suicide, the rest went out of business, and Parker himself died within three months, destitute and with a ruined reputation. The Mary Celeste remains on that Haitian reef to this day.

If the aspiring Keeper wants to use this tale as a one-off, say for Fear Itself or Trail, and is looking for more information, I highly recommend Paul Begg's Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea. If you already know Begg's name, then you're probably a Jack the Ripper fan.

Here's some potential treatments:

You're all members of the Mary Celeste crew. One of you becomes possessed by an unclean spirit, or perhaps just goes mad, and starts killing off crewmates one by one. Who's behind it? Is it some kind of shapeshifting demon? A ghost? Some invisible Cthulhuoid entity, running the crewman like a puppet?

Or alternatively, the Mary Celeste comes under attack by something otherwordly, or just overwhelmingly powerful; a giant octopus, say. Then it becomes a survival horror narrative, with crewmen trapped below decks or in cabins, trying to keep the monster at bay, while its questing tentacles probe at every weak spot. 

A Trail 1930s scenario could have the characters go to Haiti, perhaps to investigate something else, or even to shoot a film about the Mary Celeste. Maybe they're led there by evidence discovered in New York; perhaps one of the merchants, the insane one or the suicide, left some document behind that strongly hints at an occult angle to the Mary Celeste's wrecking. There they discover that whatever curse struck down the crew of the Mary Celeste is still very much active, and claiming more lives. Sorcerers ashore are trying to put a stop to it with their own magic, but whatever it is, it's far too powerful for them. Or perhaps those sorcerers have been salvaging bits from the Mary Celeste to use in their own spirit magic, only to discover that, whatever it is, it's much too dangerous to handle.

Once TimeWatch becomes available, there are other options. After all, the Mary Celeste story has already been the subject of at least one time traveler's adventures. Mysterious disappearances ought to be meat and drink to aspiring time agents.

That's it for the moment! I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!

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