In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.
This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of late-nineteenth-century literary society. While on a voyage to Africa, a rather hard-up and unproven young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. This story causes quite a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste's captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste.
These three elements—a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor—converge in unexpected ways, in diaries, in letters, in safe harbors and rough seas. In a haunted, death-obsessed age, a ghost ship appearing in the mist is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity, and a tragic story of the disappearance of a family and of a bond between husband and wife that, for one moment, transcends the impenetrable barrier of death.
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A Disaster at Sea
The Brig Early Dawn Off the Coast of Cape Fear, 1859
The captain and his wife were asleep in each other's arms. She, new to the watery world, slept lightly; her husband, seasoned and driven to exhaustion the last two days and nights by the perils of a gale that shipped sea after sea over the bow of his heavily loaded vessel, had plunged into a slumber as profound as the now tranquil ocean beneath him. As his wife turned in her sleep, wrapping her arm loosely about his waist and resting her cheek against the warm flesh of his shoulder, in some half-conscious chamber of her dreaming brain she heard the ship's clock strike six bells. The cook would be stirring, the night watch rubbing their eyes and turning their noses toward the forecastle, testing the air for the first scent of their morning coffee.
For four days the captain's wife had hardly seen the sky, not since the chilly morning when their ship, the Early Dawn, set sail from Nantasket Roads. Wrapped in her woolen cloak, she had stood on the deck peering up at the men clambering in the rigging, confident as boys at play, though a few among them were not young. The towboat turned the prow into the wind and the mate called out, "Stand by for a starboard tack." A sailor released the towline, and as the tug pulled away, the ship creaked, heeling over lightly, and the captain's wife steadied herself by bending her knees. Then, with a thrill she had not anticipated, she watched as one by one the enormous sails unfurled, high up, fore and aft. A shout went up among the men, so cheerful it made her smile, and for a moment she almost felt a part of the uproarious bustle. We are under way, she thought--that was what they called setting out. A line from a poem she loved crossed her thoughts, "And I the while, the sole, unbusy thing." Her smile faded. She had left her little son, Natie, with her mother and now she felt, like a blow, his absence. How had she been persuaded to leave him behind?
In the year since their son's birth, the captain's wife had not passed two consecutive months in her husband's company and she was sick of missing him, of writing letters that might never find him, of following his progress on a map. Her mother had urged her to go. Her father, another captain, retired now, home for the duration, avowed that he would have his grandson riding the pony by the time she returned. Her mother offered reassuring stories of her own first trip as the captain's wife, long years ago, and of the wonders she had seen on the voyage to Callao and the Chincha Islands. "There's nothing like the open deck on a warm, calm night at sea," she said. "The vastness of the heavens, the sense of being truly in God's hand." And her father chimed in with the time-honored chestnut, "There are no atheists at sea."
The captain's wife lowered her hood and turned to gaze at her husband, who stood nearby, his legs apart, his face lifted, his eyes roving the stretched canvas, which talked to him about the wind. He was a young man, but he had been at sea since he was scarcely more than a boy and had about him an older man's gravity. His dark eyes, accustomed to taking in much at a glance, were piercing. He was lean, strong, and steady. His frown could stop a conversation; his laughter lifted the spirits of all who heard him. After his first visit to the rambling house they called Rose Cottage, her father had announced, "Joseph Gibbs is as solid a seaman as I know. He keeps his wits about him."
And now he kept his wife about him. She studied the sailors, absorbed in their labors, each one different from the others, one skittish, one bullying, another diffident, a shirker, a bawler, a rapscallion, and a fool, yet each at his task harkened to the voice of the Master. Doubtless her mother was right--they were all of them in God's hands, but should the Almighty turn away for a moment, every soul on this ship would shift his faith to the person of Captain Joseph Gibbs.
"I'm going below," she said to him, and his eyes lowered and settled upon her. He smiled, nodded, turned to speak to the mate who was striding briskly toward them. Clutching the ladder rails, she backed down into the companionway, where she paused a moment, patting down her hair, before entering the cabin. There was, of course, no one there. For an hour she busied herself with sewing, for another in reading a volume of poems. The ship moved around her, above, beneath, rising and settling, picking up speed. A sensation of nausea, no more than a twinge at first, gradually announced its claim on her attention. She stood up, dropping the book on the couch, anxiously looking about the neat little room. She spied a pot hanging from a hook near the table. As she staggered to it, her stomach turned menacingly, and no sooner had she taken up the vessel than she emptied her breakfast into it. "Oh Lord," she said, pulling out her handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from her brow. She carried the pot through to the cabin and poured the noxious contents into the bucket, then closed the lid and sat down upon it. The sailors, when so afflicted, had the option of vomiting over the side, but it wouldn't do for the captain's wife, who wasn't allowed anywhere near the main deck on her own. She pressed the handkerchief to her lips. Another eruption threatened. Best not stray far from this place, she counseled herself. She wondered how long it would last.
It lasted three days, but during that time her stomach was the least of her problems. When at last the captain descended to find his wife flat on her back in the bunk, fully clothed, with a wet cloth draped across her forehead, it was to tell her that he didn't like the look of the western sky. For another hour she slept fitfully and woke to hear the officers talking in the wardroom. Her husband came in to ask if she wouldn't have a cup of tea, which she declined. The ship was pitching bow to stern and he held on to the bedframe as he bent over to press his cool hand against her cheek. "My poor darling," he said. "You're pea-green. What a way to begin your maiden voyage." At the word "maiden," she smiled; it was a joke between them.
"Don't worry about me," she said.
There was a shout from the deck, a clatter of boots in the companionway. The captain made for the door. "Here it comes," he announced as he went out.
It was a squall out of the northwest, which shifted to the southwest and blew a hard gale for eighteen hours. A jib and a topgallant were carried away, as well as a rooster, last seen wings outspread riding backward on a blast of spray. Gradually the wind abated, though the sea was still high, kneading the ship like bread dough between the waves.
The captain's wife didn't witness the storm. When it seemed the bunk was determined to dump her on the carpet, she turned on her side, gripping the frame. All she could hear was the wind howling, the timbers creaking, and the men shouting. At last it grew calmer; she lifted her head and glanced about the cabin. Her small collection of books had been scattered widely, as if an impatient reader, pacing the carpet in search of some vital information, had thrown down volume after volume. There was a knock at the door and to her query "Who is it?" the nasal voice of the steward Ah-Sam replied, "Mrs. Gibbs. I have tea for you."
She scrambled from the bed, relieved to find, as she sat on the chest next to her empty bookshelf, that her stomach, though decidedly tender, was calm. "Come in," she said.
Cautiously, his head bowed and his legs wide apart to keep himself steady, Ah-Sam came in holding a mug between his hands. "This beef tea," he said. "Good for stomach." She reached out, taking the cup, but before she had time to speak, the man had backed out the door. "Thank you," she said, as the latch clicked behind him. The broth was dark, clear, fragrant, revitalizing. She sipped it, swaying lightly as the ship swayed, and planned her next appearance above deck.
But by the time she had washed and changed her clothes, the wind had turned to the east, the heavens crackled with lightning, the rain came on in torrents, and darkness closed over the ship like an ebony lid. The captain, his face gray with exhaustion and care, descended to invite his wife to the wardroom, where he and his first officer sat down to a hurried meal. Ah-Sam rushed in with the coffeepot and a slab of hard cheese wrapped in a cloth, and then disappeared in his self-effacing fashion. The captain's wife poured out the coffee, declining the mate's offering of tinned meat and soft tack. "Ah-Sam brought me some lovely broth," she told her husband. "Did you tell him to do that?"
"I just told him you were green," he said. "He knows everything there is to know about seasickness."
"Well, he must, for he has cured me," she agreed.
When the men were gone, the captain's wife sat at the table for some time, listening to the fury of the storm and comparing the sensation of being in a ship to that of lying in her bed at home on a tempestuous night. No wonder the sailors were sometimes so contemptuous of landsmen. As the night wore on, she persuaded herself that it was only a matter of time before the storm must abate and she might as well go to bed, as it was impossible to hold a needle, or a pencil, or even a book. She undressed and crawled back into the bunk. After what seemed a long time, but was barely an hour, she slipped into a dreamless sleep.
When she awoke, the room was dark and to her surprise her husband lay by her side, one arm draped across her waist, sleeping soundly. She moved close to him and kissed his cheek. His hand strayed to her thigh, grasped the flesh just above her knee, and pulled her leg over his hip. He whispered her name, nuzzling his mouth against her breasts. The noise of the ship was hushed; the violent pitching and rolling had resolved to a soporific churning that made her think of a child, her child, rocking in his cradle. He was too big for that now. She wandered into sleep again.
Her husband turned over and she did too, so that she faced his back. Now, distantly she heard the clock strike six bells. She opened her eyes to find the room bathed in a shimmering aqueous light. The storm had passed.
She was wide awake, brimming with vitality, but she didn't move, unwilling to disturb her husband, who had slept so little and had only an hour before he must take up his duties again. She pressed her lips against his back; her drifting thoughts settled on breakfast. Brown bread, plum jam--she'd brought seven jars on board herself--and butter. Oat porridge, hot coffee with heavy cream. I'm starving, she thought, amused by that. How good to be safe, warm, hungry, alive. Her husband groaned in his sleep and a shudder ran down his spine. "Are you awake?" he asked softly.
"I am," she said. "You've got another hour. Go back to sleep." She eased her leg from his hip as he turned heavily to face her.
"No," he said. "I'll get up."
They were washed and dressed when the steward arrived with the coffeepot, the porridge, and the bread. The captain went on deck to look at his ship, his crew, the sky, and the sea. When he returned she had the table laid with bread, the leftover cheese, her homemade jam and butter, the pot of coffee, the cream, and the squat ewer of porridge wrapped in a towel. "Is all well?" she asked as she poured his coffee, resting her fingers on his neck before turning to her own cup.
"For the present," he said. "It's squally to the southeast and we're headed for it."
"Can't we stop?" she asked.
He smiled at his wife's naïveté, then, sensing that she spoke in jest, turned and swatted her skirt with the back of his hand. "No, miss. We can't stop. It's not a horse you're riding."
"I want to get out of this cabin," she said. "I'm dying for fresh air."
The captain went up first, while his wife put on her cloak and laced her boots. She passed through the wardroom to the hatch, humming to herself, curious to see how the ship would look now, how the sea would look, as they skimmed across it. As she stepped onto the deck, a blast of frigid air blocked her so forcefully she stumbled back, clinging to the ladder rail. Her husband strode toward the mainmast, in conversation with the mate, who gesticulated at something going on in the bow. A wet, white mist, mingling in the sails, obscured her view. She pulled her hood in close, took a few steps from the hatch, and there it was, the sight she had long imagined--at once she lamented the paucity of her imagination--the sea. Slate-blue peaks studded with white foamy caps, line after line, each wave preceded by another and every one followed by another, as wide as the world was wide, and above it the sky, which was white, flat, and cold, the sun a brighter patch hovering in the distance. There was no visible horizon. She turned to face the bow and there she saw a different sky, the one that worried her husband, a rolling gray above and black below with a band of sickish yellow in between. She couldn't tell how far off it was, but sky and sea appeared all one, moving rapidly, like a wall of lead, toward the ship.
She breathed in the chilly, salt-laden air, gazing up at the sailors who were occupied in shortening sail. When she looked back at the deck, her eyes were drawn to a man crouched behind the main hatch, his hands resting on his thighs, his face turned up to her, his eyes narrowed, as if trying to draw a bead on a target. His beard and hair were all black and wild, as were his eyes. In a sudden grimace, he bared a line of fierce white teeth. The captain's wife stepped back, unnerved, conscious of her accelerating heart rate and a cautionary weakness in her knees. She looked aft, where the helmsman gripped the wheel, his attention fixed on the binnacle. The mist obscured his face. The sea was scarcely visible but made its disposition known; as the hull shifted, the starboard side dropped down and a mass of water rose up, clubbing the side. A tremor of anxiety scuttled up her neck and she felt her upper teeth pressing into her lower lip. There was a new sound, a chugging, pulsing sound, rhythmical and increasing in volume, but she couldn't tell which direction it came from. Was it belowdecks, or in the dark water below that?
About the Writing of
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
I first read about the ghost ship the Mary Celeste when I was in fifth grade I think it must have been an article in the Weekly Reader, the children's newspaper my school subscribed to and which I looked forward to with modest excitement every Friday. I'm sure the article barely sketched out the story - a ship sighted drifting at sea in some sort of trouble, with no sailor at the helm; the boarding of the Mary Celeste by the anxious crew of a passing ship; the discovery that there was no one aboard; the evidence that the crew had left on the ship's boat and in a hurry; and the perplexing problem - the mystery - of their motive for abandoning the ship, which was fully provisioned and in seaworthy condition. “Fit,” as one of the salvers would testify in the salvage hearing at Gibraltar, “to sail round the world.”
A few years ago, by accident and I'm still not sure where, I learned that the missing crew of the Mary Celeste included the captain's wife and his baby daughter. This detail caught my attention because I was under the impression that sailors considered women aboard ships bad luck. I began some superficial research about the subject trawling a few nets in the wake of the Mary Celeste, and quickly uncovered a world I'd never dreamed of.
Throughout the 19th century, women regularly sailed on the vessels that plowed the seas, and it was not uncommon for children to be born aboard ship. Especially on whalers, which would be out at sea for years on end, wives took the opportunity of going along with their husbands. One whaling captain delivered all five of his children on his ship, and some of these learned to walk on a deck before they put their little feet on land. The captain's wife and family were such an ordinary component of seagoing commerce that the sailors had a name for ships with a wife and children in the aft cabin they called them “hen frigates.”
When a captain married, the couple might combine his business with their pleasure and take a honeymoon trip. This was the case with Capt. Benjamin Briggs and his wife Sarah Cobb Briggs, who sailed to Genoa shortly after their marriage in Marion, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1872, Benjamin Briggs purchased a one/fifth interest in a newly fitted ship and signed on to sail her to Messina, a trip that would take about three months. Sarah Briggs, who disliked sailing, decided to join him, taking their two-year-old daughter along. As she wrote to her mother-in-law, “Going to sea in itself considered is anything but agreeable, at least to me, but if Benja must go I would gladly go when I could.” On October 26, having shipped ahead her melodeon, sewing machine, two boxes of music books, toys, and clothes for herself and her daughter Sophia, she took the train to New York and joined her husband at Pier 8 to board their ship the Mary Celeste.
Before long, investigation of the events that followed turned up an unexpected name: Arthur Conan Doyle.
The future creator of Sherlock Holmes was a boy when the Mary Celeste was recovered and doubtless followed the news stories about the salvage trial in Gibraltar that appeared in the British and American press. Twelve years later, when he was a struggling young doctor in Edinburgh, Doyle published a story in the Cornhill magazine that purported to be a true account of the lone survivor of the Mary Celeste. Though Doyle altered the name of the ship and changed the captain's name, the public's imagination was fired by this tale and to this day certain details entirely invented by the young Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, who longed to make his way as a writer, continue to be attached to new accounts, fictional and otherwise, about the famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste.
Even a superficial study of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle bangs up against the 19th century Spiritualist movement, which was spawned in upstate
New York and quickly spread across the country and abroad. The craze for mediums, séances, spirit writing, spirit photography, spirit guides, table turning, apparitions, and the materialization of ectoplasm excited the interest of a credulous public, as well as an alarming number of prominent and intelligent men and women. Horace Greeley, Alfred Russel Wallace, William James and his brother Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Todd and
Abraham Lincoln and even Queen Victoria indulged in séances and clairvoyant lectures. Many of these notables were ultimately disabused of their fascination, but Arthur Conan Doyle became a committed Spiritualist. He gave up writing and spent the last five years of his life traveling the world to spread the good news that life is continuous and that the dead only wait for our attention to make themselves known again.
These three elements, a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor, began to work in my imagination, and I knew I was on the track of an historical novel. In my researches the fantastic and the banal, the absurd and the tragic seemed woven into an intricate and radiant fabric, one spun from facts and fictions in much the same way everyday life spins out, one story generating another, a thread disappearing in one corner and reappearing surprisingly near the center.