Brian Hicks,
Ghost Ship
(Ballantine, 2005)

The sea is full of mysteries and is reluctant to give them up. One of the most notorious is that of the Mary Celeste, found drifting at sea, intact, with her crew gone. In the 130-some years since, the story has sparked countless theories of conspiracy, murder and supernatural shenanigans, and the circumstances of the incident have grown from fact to folklore. Still, the answer to the question of the Mary Celeste's actual fate has eluded historians, scientists, scholars and other investigators.

Until, perhaps, now. Researcher Brian Hicks doesn't claim to have the answer but, after describing the events as they actually happened and harpooning the many myths surrounding her, he does offer the most plausible explanation I've yet encountered.

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste & Her Missing Crew is a fascinating volume simply for its detailed account of the ship's checkered history and the biographical information on her captain and crew.

The ship, then named Amazon, was launched in 1861 from a Nova Scotian shipyard. Bad luck dogged her heels from the start, and her rechristening in 1869 may have been an attempt -- fruitless, it turns out -- to give her a fresh start. Similarly, her captain on that fateful voyage in 1872, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, was by all accounts an able and highly respected seaman, but his seafaring family had suffered more than its share of bad luck at sea.

But everything seemed hunkydory in 1872 when Briggs loaded his wife and 2-year-old daughter aboard the newly refitted Mary Celeste in New York for a routine cargo run to Genoa, Italy. The ship's hold was loaded with alcohol, most likely of the industrial or medical, not potable, variety.

On Dec. 4, the crew of the cargo ship Dei Gratia came upon the Mary Celeste adrift in the North Atlantic, more than 400 miles from the coast of Portugal. There was not a soul aboard, nor any sign of a struggle or other reason for leaving the ship. Despite a number of puzzling clues -- the open hatches, the valuables left behind, the imprint of a child's body on the captain's bunk -- the ship was in good condition and in no danger of sinking. The Dei Gratia, although short-handed, split its crew and brought the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar for salvage -- launching a lengthy investigation by officials there, during which time the Dei Gratia crew was accused of murder and piracy.

Hicks outlines the investigation in great detail, drawing heavily on records of the time. He describes the Mary Celeste's remaining years of service and her eventual fate -- and, in 2001, her rediscovery at the heart of a tropical reef off Haiti. He follows the lives of those tied to the ship's mystery and explains the colorful theories -- often based on wildly inaccurate "facts," rumors and outright hoaxes -- that sprang up in her wake. For the completist, he even includes the more incredible notions involving UFOs, strange magnetic fields, fantastic sea beasts and Atlantis.

At the end, he offers his own theory, which fits the facts of the case neatly without straining the reader's credulity. It is, to me, a perfectly reasonable and acceptable solution that, until some new findings present themselves, lays the matter to rest.

Hicks' narrative is fresh and a pleasure to read, wading through dense material without bogging down in the text. His thorough research is beyond reproach, and his conclusions are grounded in logic. The story itself is a sweeping epic that has held the world's imagination for generations, and the author gives it its due. Anyone tantalized by the sea or unsolved mysteries will find this a gripping experience.

by Tom Knapp
7 October 2006

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