From History Today:
The Mary Celeste: ‘A curiosity that has never been satisfied’
The true story behind the much-mythologised ship and its vanished crew.
In 1884, the ‘phenomenally successful’ literary journal Cornhill Magazine published, anonymously, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Purporting to ‘subjoin a few extracts’ from an article that appeared in the Gibraltar Gazette, it began:
In the month of December in the year 1873, the British ship Dei Gratia steered into Gibraltar, having in tow the derelict brigantine Marie Celeste, which had been picked up in latitude 38 degrees 40′, longitude 17 degrees 15′ W. There were several circumstances in connection with the condition and appearance of this abandoned vessel which excited considerable comment at the time, and aroused a curiosity which has never been satisfied.
The Gibraltar Gazette is fictional, Marie a variation on Mary, and the discovery takes place a year late, but otherwise, the above represents a fairly accurate summary of fact: on December 4th, 1872 a small cargo ship carrying 1700 barrels of alcohol bound for Genoa from New York was found by the Dei Gratia adrift in the Atlantic ocean. As is now well known, the Mary Celeste was completely abandoned. Speculation as to what happened to its crew has been a renewable source of debate ever since.
From hereon in, however Jephson’s statement on the fate of the ship and its crew enters the realm of fiction and, arguably, has stayed there ever since. It was the first work to be published in a major publication by Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as creator of Sherlock Holmes and victim of the Cottingley Fairies hoax. Most writers could only dream of creating such an legacy with their first notable work. Conan Doyle’s sensational solution to the mystery (the culprit is a mutilated stowaway on a cutthroat jihad against all white men) captured public attention to such an extent that the British and American governments were prompted to respond with formal denials and official investigations. In something approaching a self-fullfilling prophecy, the Statement created an interest in the Mary Celeste that has endured, unsatisfied, for well over 100 years becoming a genre in its own right.