The People of Gibraltar
1872 - The Mary Celeste - Compulsive Bible Reader

Solly Flood and Sir James Cochrane -  Thomas Vecchio and Patron 

The story of the Mary Celeste - fact or fiction - has been written about too often to be able to add anything new. But  Gibraltarians were involved in at least part of the story and as such it deserves at least a mention here.

The Mary Celeste

On a cold winter morning of 1872 a small American Brigantine called the Mary Celeste sailed out of New York harbour bound for Genoa with a first stop at Gibraltar. She was carrying a cargo of just over 1700 barrels of alcohol which were to be used to fortify wine. The master was Benjamin Spooner Briggs a man well known in Gibraltar as a confirmed abstainer and compulsive bible reader.

Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs

Somewhat unusually Briggs had good company for the long trip across the Atlantic. He had brought his wife Sarah and his two years old daughter Sophia Matilda with him.  The ship had a crew of seven. The second in command was the mate, Alfred Richardson.

Sarah Briggs

Sophia Briggs

Albert Richardson, 1st Mate of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste was followed out of New York a week later by a small British brig called the Dei Gratia under the command of Captain David Reed Morehouse. He was a friend of Briggs and had dined with him in New York shortly before they sailed. Both bound for the Straits of Gibraltar the ships took more or less parallel courses across the Atlantic.

The Dei Gratia

Captain David Reed Morehouse of the Dei Gratia

Almost a month after the Mary Celeste had left New York Captain Morehouse came across the ship halfway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. Captain Brigg's ship was moving erratically and appeared out of control. After failing to get a reply from her he sent his first mate - Oliver Deveau - on a small boat to  board her.

Oliver Deveau 1st Mate of the Dei Gratia

Deveau found the Mary Celeste sea worthy and in good condition but his impression was that the crew had left in a great hurry. The chronometer, the sextant and the ships register were missing but they had left behind their oil skin boots.  One of the two pumps was out of order, several hatches were unfixed and there was quite a bit of water between decks. The log's final entry showed that she had made the island of Santa Maria in the Azores about a week earlier.

Chart showing courses of the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia ( Unknown )

Oliver Deveau took over the ship and with the aid of two seamen, Augustus Anderson and Charles Lund, sailed her to Gibraltar where within two hours of dropping anchor she was placed under arrest by the President of the local Admiralty Court, Thomas J. Vecchio.

Meanwhile Deveau convinced his Captain to claim salvage rights. Under maritime law anybody who salvages an abandoned ship is entitled to a percentage of the value of the vessel and its cargo. The law, of course, envisaged a wreck which the Mary Celeste was not.

The sighting of the Mary Celeste ( Unkown )

The Admiralty office in Gibraltar then set up a board of enquiry with Sir James Cochrane  presiding as Judge. Sir James was the Chief Justice of Gibraltar. He was appointed Attorney General on the Rock in 1837 and spent the rest of his life there - in considerable comfort - in his house in Glen Rocky. When he retired in 1877, Lord Napier of Magdala - the Governor at the time - had this to say of him:

During the long time that Sir James Cochrane has presided over the supreme court at Gibraltar he has eminently maintained the high character of the bench. The clearness of his judgment, the wisdom of his decisions, and his personal character have commanded the respect of all classes of the community. He has done much for the lower classes, and his firmness and perfect fairness have helped greatly to dispel from the city of Gibraltar the crime of using the knife, which was unfortunately once so prevalent.
This then was the man who would ultimately decide upon the case of the Mary Celeste.

Another prominent member on the board was Horatio Jones Sprague, a wealthy local businessman and celebrated American consul to Gibraltar. ( See LINK ) Frederick Solly Flood acted for the 'prosecution' in his capacity as Attorney General for Gibraltar - or to give him his proper title, Advocate General for the Queen in Her Office of the Admiralty.

Solly Flood belonged to that class of colonial administrator whose bureaucratic arrogance was only matched by his pomposity. To make matters worse he obviously  thought that the enquiry into the Mary Celeste was a heaven sent opportunity to show off his  skills as a lawyer. Whatever the case there is little doubt that without Flood the 'mystery' of the Mary Celeste would have soon faded into obscurity. Unfortunately his over-the-top and mistaken accusations attracted the attention of the world press.

The damage was done in instalments. His first accusation was that the original crew had gained access to the alcohol, drank large quantities of it and had then  murdered Briggs, his wife, his child and his Mate. Unfortunately it was soon shown that the cargo consisted of a denatureded liquid that would have been far too unpleasant to allow anybody to get drunk on the stuff.

Flood abandoned this line of questioning and brought out a second theory - Briggs and Morehouse had conspired to share the salvage rights of the Mary Celeste. Briggs had murdered his crew and left with his wife and child to a prearranged destination. Morehouse then took the boat to Gibraltar in order to collect the salvage money. He would later meet up with Briggs to share their ill-gotten gains. It was a ridiculous theory. Briggs partly owned the Mary Celeste. A share of the salvage would have been far less than his share of the boat.

Unabashed Flood then came up with a third suggestion: Captain Morehouse had inveigled his way on board the Mary Celeste and had then murdered everybody on board.

The New York Times reporting on the enquiry into the Mary Celeste - Solly Flood's insinuation were beginning to take hold outside Gibraltar

As part of his persistent attempts to accuse somebody - anybody would do - of wrong-doing, Flood asked a local doctor J. Patron to investigate several suspicious stains found on the Mary Celeste. One set of stains were found on the deck of the ship and another on the blade of a sword. Unfortunately for Flood, Patron's analyses led him to conclude that whatever they were none of the stains were blood. ( see LINK )

Unlike Flood, the American consul Sprague was convinced that Briggs was - or had been - an honest man. He requested that a US. Navy Captain examine the ship and give his considered opinion.  The man who carried out this task - Captain R.W. Shufeldt - came to the conclusion that the Mary Celeste 'had been abandoned by Master and crew in a moment of panic and for no sufficient reason.' The Admiralty Court quite rightly cleared Morehouse and his men of any kind of involvement in the affair and granted them salvage rights.

However, there was more to come. Solly Flood was without doubt  guilty of promoting the myth surrounding the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Claire. But he wasn't the only one. In 1884 a young  pre-Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle wrote J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, a fictionalized account of the disappearance of the ship.

It was published in the Cornhill Magazine and its main claim to fame is that it succeeded in confusing everybody ever since as to the real facts surrounding the case. For a start he changed the name of the ship from Mary to Marie - which is actually the name most people use - incorrectly - when referring to the boat. But that as they say, is another story. The real one is certainly more than enough to be going by. According to the historian Allen Andrews ( see LINK ) :
Twenty-nine years after the Mary Celeste was brought into port, a letter arrived at the office of the Gibraltar Chronicle ( see LINK ) from Ramon Alvarado, of Cincinnati, enclosing a message in some sort of shorthand code. The letter said that the mystery of the Mary Celeste was explained in the enclosure.
The  message has never been deciphered.

An 1862 view of the Mary/Marie Celeste. In those days she was known as the Amazon  ( Honore Pellegrin )