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Don’t Mock the Mummy: Lessons in Risk Assessment from the Mary Celeste and the S.S. Amazon

Don’t Mock the Mummy: Lessons in Risk Assessment from the Mary Celeste and the S.S. Amazon 1

The central truth of most horror movies is that their protagonists behave as if they’ve never seen a horror movie, which is of course what made the Scary Movie franchise moderately amusing.  A dangerous liaison with a pretty girl in the woods at the abandoned summer camp known for suspicious deaths will inevitably end in impalement.  The monster you thought you just killed invariably will require an additional head shot to finish the job.  If local legend suggests the creepy mansion that hosted a murder spree is haunted, it’s probably haunted.  If the last six people who laughed at the mummy’s curse died horrible deaths, don’t mock the mummy.  The history of the human race vis-à-vis supernatural phenomena is the very definition of insanity as described by Albert Einstein i.e. “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  I imagine if irrational optimism when faced with improbably low survivability was not an innate human quality, wooly mammoth hunting would never have taken off the way that it did, but archaeological authorities assure me that the people who came up with the Clovis point couldn’t get a decent life insurance policy, so a certain lack of actuarial awareness on their part is forgivable, whereas modern man has the cultural advantage of casinos and online gambling to teach us about risk assessment, statistics, and probability.  Historically, when it comes to the paranormal, we don’t seem capable of internalizing the lesson.   We will merrily rebuild the suburban development on the Native American graveyard, even when the last folks were chased away by poltergeists.  Deals with the devil have never ended well, yet people keep making them.  While those who are ignorant of history may indeed be doomed to repeat it, apparently, even when we know the history, we are still doomed to repeat it.  For those of you who remember your standardized testing syllogisms, that means we are doomed regardless.  Just saying.  When it comes to avoiding recurrent, unnatural bad mojo we never seem to learn, and there are few better examples of this than the great maritime mystery of one of the world’s best known ghost ships, the Mary Celeste.

For those of us strange folks interested in things like ghost ships, the facts surrounding the Mary Celeste are fairly well known.  In 1872, the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company insured a cargo for the Mary Celeste, and reported the details of the incident.  The insurance company dismisses a few of the journalistic embellishments that were added to the story by over-enthusiastic reporters who couldn’t resist the notion of a modern Flying Dutchman, but can still offer no explanation why the well-captained, seaworthy Mary Celeste appeared floating aimlessly off the Straits of Gibraltar, one month after leaving New York, with no sign of crew or passengers, no missing cargo, and no indication of foul play (except of course the vanished crew who never were seen again).

In November 1872, this Company insured $3400 on Freight or Charter of the American Brigantine “Mary Celeste.” This vessel has been the subject of more attention at the hands of the imaginative school of writers than any other vessel known to maritime history. For those who are more interested in facts than conjectures, the following details taken from the Company’s own records and other authoritative sources will be of interest. The “Mary Celeste,” a brigantine of about 282 tons register (formerly a single-decked brig called the “Amazon”) was built in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia in May 1861. She sailed from New York on November 7, 1872 for Genoa, Italy with a cargo consisting of 1700 bbls. Alcohol, valued at $37,000, belonging to Meissner, Ackerman & Co. of 48 Beaver Street, New York City. The cargo was insured abroad but the Freight interest was covered by the Atlantic and other local companies. The vessel was owned in part by J. H. Winchester & Co. of this city and partly by her master, Capt. Benjamin S. Briggs of Marion, Mass., who was accompanied on this ill-fated voyage by his wife and two-year old daughter. On Dec. 4th in Lat 38° 20′ North and Long 17° 30′ West she was discovered out of control and with no one on board, by the Nova Scotian Brig “Dei Gratia” under the command of Capt. David Reed Morehouse, and taken to Gibraltar. The United States Consul at that port, Horatio L. Sprague, in his report made at the time to the State Department at Washington, thoroughly disposes of the uncertainty as to whether or not any boats were found on the deserted “Mary Celeste.” His communication reads as follows: “No ships papers were found on board except the log-book which has entries up to 22nd or 23rd ulto. (i. e., Nov. 22 or 23) nor were any boats found on board.” A number of writers in their efforts to create a dramatic situation deemed it necessary to cast aspersions on the character of Captain Briggs and his crew. For this reason, the ends of maritime justice may be served by quoting further from Consul Sprague’s report to the U. S. Government in which it is stated that Captain Briggs was “well-known” and “bore the highest character for seamanship and correctness.” Moreover, all the available information regarding Mate Richardson and the other members of the crew inspires confidence rather than otherwise. Various and ingenious have been the theories to account for the disappearance of the entire ship’s company, not one of whom, so far as is now known, survived to clear up this unfathomed mystery of the sea (Atlantic Mutual Insurance, 1932, p43-44).

Now, if you were paying attention, you’ll note that the American brigantine Mary Celeste, built in 1861, was formerly the British-Canadian S.S. Amazon, renamed when she was purchased by American investors in 1868.  I’m no salty sea-dog, but even in my unabashed land-lubberiness, I know that it’s considered a really bad idea to change the name of a ship, somewhat akin to poking a hungry tiger with a short stick.  Basically, every ship that is named, or so the superstition goes, gets its name written down in Neptune’s Ledger from the Deep.  Neptune doesn’t like to have incomplete records, and really hates to erase, thus changing the name of a ship is likely to incur the wrath of the sea god (and there are extensive rituals required to inform Neptune of your intentions, which one can assume if unobserved, do not presage a safe voyage).  Were this the only instance of tempting fate in the checkered history of the Mary Celeste, one would be inclined to ignore the breach, assuming that seasoned sailors took the proper precautions.  The entire history of the Mary Celeste is fraught with astonishingly bad luck, disasters, and deaths, suggesting that if ever there was a “cursed” vessel, this was it.  And that was even before she was rechristened and sailed off into maritime mythology as a spooky ghost ship.

The Mary Celeste began life in 1861 as the single-deck, 198 ton, 99 foot S.S. Amazon, the first large ship to be built at Nova Scotia’s Spencer’s Island Ship Yard.  Conflicting reports emerged from the day the ship was launched, many locals maintaining that she refused to budge for days when the shipyard first attempted to float her, comments particularly attributed to the son of the shipbuilder Joshua Dewis (who himself disputed the fact).  Spencer’s Island, actually a peninsula on the Bay of Fundy, had no shortage of nautical creepiness associated with it, including the ghost ship Baltimore that in 1735 mysteriously appeared in Chebogue Harbor, and remained there at anchor for many years.  We can’t assume that the historical presence of blood-soaked ghost boats in the neighborhood by default portended an unfortunate future for ship-building on the Bay of Fundy.  Or maybe, if we are keen on avoiding getting pimp-slapped by maritime phantoms, we can.

More than a century before Amazon was built, a similar brigantine had haunted Fundy waters.  In December of 1735, residents of Chebogue awoke one morning to find a silent ship anchored in their harbor.  For nearly the entire day, townsfolk stood on the shore watching for signs of life aboard the brig.  By that afternoon when a small boat was launched to investigate, locals were already speculating on the supernatural powers that had steered the empty vessel into their harbor.  The ship was called the Baltimore, and the men in the skiff soon discovered evidence to fuel their superstitious notions: the ship’s deck was awash with blood…the Baltimore soon came to be known as the “Death Ship”.  No one wanted to buy it, sail it, or even go aboard.  For seven years it swung at anchor in Chebogue Harbor, until Yarmouth County officials finally ordered it towed to sea and burned.  Later locals learned that the Baltimore was actually a prisoner ship that had sailed from Ireland.  The inmates had broken loose, killed the captain and crew, and then each other (Hicks, 2004, p21).

The early history of the Mary Celeste (nee S.S. Amazon) was rather disturbingly inauspicious, even before it elected to eat its passengers and crew in 1872.  The first captain, Robert McLellan, died of pneumonia nine days into the Amazon’s initial attempted voyage (the first of three captains who would die on the ship).  The next captain to take over, John Nutting Parker hulled the ship in a collision with a fishing boat and had to sail back to the shipyard, where of course an unexplained fire broke out on the ship.  Parker was dismissed.  On her first crossing of the Atlantic, the Amazon crashed into and sunk a two-master in the Straits of Dover, requiring extensive repairs and a new captain.  After a few unprofitable and reportedly uneventful years, in 1867 she ran aground off Cow Bay, Nova Scotia.  The Amazon was pulled off the rocks, salvaged, sold off to Richard Haines of New York at a bargain basement price of $1750, and re-registered as the American vessel Mary Celeste.  The ship was pretty heavily damaged after its wreck in Nova Scotia, and was subsequently rebuilt, emerging in 1868 as its new incarnation as a two-decked, 282 ton, 107 foot brigantine destined to sail for the Adriatic.  Sailing in the 19th century was not exactly a cakewalk, but this was an inordinate amount of misfortune to befall one ship.  The point is that someone should have noticed that Mary Celeste had a rather unpleasant habit of ruining the careers of its captains, losing money for its owners, spontaneously combusting, and participating in all manner of nautical disasters.

Call it a firm belief in American exceptionalism, but the new American owners of the Mary Celeste clearly surmised, despite the evidence, that Canadians just didn’t know how to sail, rather than the far more obvious assumption that the ship was evil and homicidal.  There is no clear record why the ship was named Mary Celeste, but given its track record, I think we have to assume that it was probably some unfortunate’s lost love, given that yet another major superstition when it comes to naming ships is that one should avoid naming it after an engaged woman, as this will make the ship jealous, and it will proceed to try to kill you.  Ignoring all the obvious warning signs, in November 1872, well-respected Captain Benjamin Briggs and an experienced crew of seven seamen set sail from Staten Island, New York with a cargo of alcohol earmarked for fortifying Italian wines in Genoa, Italy.  Let’s not fail to mention the further mocking of the fates, as Captain Briggs brought along his wife Sarah and daughter Sophia for the Mediterranean cruise.  Yet another superstition among the nautically inclined for a few hundred years is that women on board are bad luck.  Sexist, you say?  Don’t worry.  They felt the same way about priests.  So, given the fact that the Mary Celeste had spent the past eleven years trying to murder anybody who dared to sail her, a prudent recourse would have been to take preventative action, oh I don’t know, like hanging rabbits feet from every yardarm, stocking a cargo of holy water, or offering free passage to an exorcist.  The wise man does not kick Poseidon in the nuts and then go gallivanting off into the ocean blue without a care in the world.  Unless of course, you want to be remembered as that crazy crew that vanished without a trace.  And, of course, having learned nothing from a few hundred years of maritime tradition, things went badly for the crew of the Mary Celeste.  The Nova Scotian brigantine Dei Gratia (Good thinking on the name, boys, assuming you were hedging your bets) found the derelict Mary Celeste drifting off Gibraltar, mysteriously abandoned, on December 4th, 1872.

The vessel’s log, found in the cabin, would disclose both her name and her hailing port, New York. It was then about three o’clock. Making a thorough search of the vessel, they failed to find a single soul on board. There were no boats. The one ship’s boat, which, there was evidence to show, had lain across the main hatch, was missing. They found about three and a half feet of water in the hold, a quantity which was considerable in such a small vessel, but, with seventeen hundred barrels of alcohol in the hold, would not have been particularly noticed except by sounding the pumps. The forward-house was full of water up to the coaming, and there was a great deal of water between decks. Both the fore hatch and the lazarette hatch were off. The binnacle (which was a stand of wood for the compass to rest in) was knocked out of its place and injured; the compass was destroyed. The wheel was not lashed but was undamaged. Her jib and fore-topmast staysail were set on the starboard tack. Two of her sails—the fore-sail and upper fore-topsail —had been blown away; the lower fore-topsail was “hanging by the four corners”; the main-staysail had been hauled down and was lying loose on the forward-house. All the rest of the sails were furled. The standing rigging was all right, but some of the running rigging was carried away. The captain’s chronometer, sextant, navigation book, ship’s register and other papers were missing. The log book was found on the desk in the mate’s cabin, and the log slate was found on the cabin table. There was nothing to eat or drink in the cabin on the table, and there was no cooked food in the galley. There were six months’ provisions in the storeroom and plenty of drinking water (Fay, 1942, p40-41).

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The Mary Celeste was brought back to America, where the father of the owner James Winchester died in a suspicious onboard accident.  Winchester wisely decided to sell the Mary Celeste at an enormous loss.  The ship changed hands between seventeen different owners for the thirteen years that followed, and was deliberately wrecked off Haiti in 1885 by the last owner and captain in an attempt to commit insurance fraud.  The pesky ship refused to break up when wrecked on a reef, and stayed intact even after it was burned.  The final captain was acquitted on the fraud charges, but went bankrupt and died three months later.  Obviously, you don’t mess with the Mary Celeste.  The fundamental caveat I’m trying to convey here is that you can scoff at superstitions, ignore patterns, and generally dangle your existence in front of the fates like bait, but at some point you just have to knuckle under and play the odds.  In the end we are all gambling, regardless of our philosophical perspective.  If you’re not gambling that god exists, you’re gambling that he doesn’t.  You’re gambling that there aren’t monsters lurking in the dark.  You’re gambling that extraterrestrials don’t find you sexy.  We just can’t help ourselves with all this existential gambling, for as poker ace Lou Kreiger remarked, “a gambler plays even when the odds are immutable and the odds are against him”.  But for god sakes people, use a little common sense, and don’t mock the mummy.

Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company. Ninety Years of Marine Insurance, 1842-1932. [New York: Printed by the Triggs Color Printing Corporation, 1932.
Fay, Charles Edey. Mary Celeste: the Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship. Salem [Mass.]: Peabody Museum, 1942.
Hicks, Brian.  Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew.  New York, NY: Random House, 2004.



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