Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best Kept Secrets

200711191653My 10-year-old daughter and I have really been enjoying Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best Kept Secrets by John Farndon, a colorful book filled with unexplained mysteries, bizarre anecdotes through the ages, great escapes, codes, optical illusions, hoaxes, and explanations of secret systems and complexes.

My daughter was fascinated by the cutaway drawing and description of the (now unused) underground military base in Cheyenne Mountain. And she is still offering up theories that might explain the fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste. The publisher of Do Not Open kindly gave me permission to include a PDF of the Mary Celeste section.


On the afternoon of December 5, 1872, the sailing ship Dei Gratia was gliding calmly across the Atlantic towards Portugal. The weather was fair, and Dei Gratia's captain, David Morehouse, was surprised to look out and see a ship he recognized as the Mary Celeste. This ship had left New York City a week before him, so it should have been far ahead. As he watched, Morehouse saw the Mary Celeste swing around suddenly in the wind as if out of control. This was very strange, for he knew the Mary Celeste's captain, Benjamin Briggs, was a good seaman. He tried hailing but there was only silence.

For two hours, Morehouse surveyed the Mary Celeste sailing west, all apparently fine except for its strange yawing to and fro. Eventually, Morehouse could watch no more, and sent his chief mate, Oliver Deveau, across in a small boat to the other ship. Climbing aboard, Deveau found the Mary Celeste absolutely empty. There was no sign of Captain Briggs, his wife Sarah, their two-year-old daughter, or the crew. Yet, aside from some water between the decks and a couple of hatch covers missing, the ship appeared in good condition. Where were they all? That question has intrigued people ever since…

After discovering the Mary Celeste was deserted, Morehouse put three men on board. In a sad mood, they sailed her on to Gibraltar. Immediately, an inquiry was launched to discover what had happened. Morehouse hoped at least to claim salvage for the Mary Celeste, but soon found himself in the dock–since the attorney just could not believe they had found the ship drifting unmanned. He was eventually cleared, but the inquiry came to no firm conclusion. So what did happen?

The Evidence

• Two hatches were open.

• The ship's clock was upside down and had stopped.

• The sextant (instrument for celestial navigation) and
chronometer (shipping timepiece) were missing.

• The Captain's bed was sodden and there was
water between the decks.

• Under the bed was the Captain's sword, with red stains.

• The lifeboat was missing, leaving a frayed rope.

• The cargo of 1,700 barrels of pure alcohol was intact,
except for nine empty barrels.

• On board, there was food to last six months.

• The last entry in the ship's log was about a week old.

The Theories


Theory: The crew became angry with Briggs'
leadership and murdered him and his family,
then escaped in the lifeboat.

Evidence: The red-stained sword, the missing
lifeboat, and the deserted ship.

Problems: Briggs was renowned for being a good
and fair captain. The stain on the sword turned out
to be rust and not blood. Even if there was a mutiny,
this does not explain why the crew would jump into
a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Drunken sailors

Theory: The crew murdered the captain and
his family to get at the alcohol in the cargo,
then escaped in the lifeboat.

Evidence: The stained sword and the nine empty
barrels, which had contained alcohol.

Problems: The cargo of alcohol was undrinkable
and, like the captain, the crew had an admirable
reputation. As we know, the stain on the sword was
rust, and the crew would have faced great danger
on a small lifeboat in the turbulent Atlantic.

Rogue wave

Theory: The entire crew was swept overboard
by a giant wave.

Evidence: The water between the decks.

Problems: It seems highly unlikely that a single
wave would have caught everyone. Even if it had,
you would expect a lot more items to be missing
than just the sextant and the compass.


Theory: The crew thought the ship was sinking,
so took to the lifeboat to escape. This was the
theory decided by the court hearing at the time.

Evidence: Water in the hold.

Problems: The ship's pump was working well
enough for the sailors from the Dei Gratia to
pump out the water and take the Mary Celeste
safely back to port.

Insurance scam

Theory: Briggs and Morehouse conspired
in a scam to get the insurance money.

Evidence: None.

Problems: The ship and its cargo would have to
be lost for there to be an insurance claim. Instead,
everybody on board was missing but the cargo
remained largely intact. So who was supposed
to claim the insurance, and for what?


Theory: They got ergot (a fungus) poisoning
from the rye bread they were eating. This drove them
insane and they left in the lifeboat.

Evidence: The bread on the Mary Celeste was rye
and is poisonous if made from ergot-infected grain.

Problems: All the bread found by the Dei Gratia
crew was fine. Even if they did go insane, why would
they want to flee together in the lifeboat?

The Bermuda Triangle

Theory: The crew was abducted by aliens
in the Bermuda Triangle.

Evidence: None.

Problems: The ship was sighted near Portugal
and so was nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.


Theory: Alcohol leaking from some of the barrels
exploded, frightening Briggs and his crew into
abandoning the ship temporarily. The lifeboat then
separated from the Mary Celeste during a heavy storm.

Evidence: The nine barrels may have exploded,
blowing off the hatch covers. The missing sextant
and chronometer would have been helpful in the
lifeboat. The frayed rope that trailed the Mary
Celeste could have been used to tie the lifeboat
to the ship. The water on board could be evidence
of bad weather. Recent scientific tests have
shown that alcohol can explode without a fire.

Problems: There was little evidence of an
explosion anywhere on the ship.

You've seen the evidence and you've read the theories, so what do you think happened on board the mysterious Mary Celeste?