Monday, August 11, 2014

Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

The story of the Mary Celeste has fascinated for nearly 150 years. It has given rise to much speculation, and any number of outlandish theories involving aliens, pirates, and the Bermuda Triangle. It also, as I discovered in this book, resulted in a trial in which the very worst of lawyering and prosecutorial overreach was on full display.

The author also his own highly plausible theory as to what happened.

On December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia spotted a ship. Something was amiss, because it was not behaving like a ship under control. It had few sails, sloppily hung, and didn’t seem to have rudder control. Upon investigation, they discovered that it was completely abandoned, yet without any signs as to how and why. Everything was still aboard the ship, including the foul weather gear and the sailors’ pipes. The hatches were all wide open. There was no storm damage or sign of foul play aboard. The captain, crew, and passengers were all vanished without a trace. The ship was the Mary Celeste, and the log’s last entry was a week prior to its discovery. 

The Mary Celeste

The crew of the Dei Gratia brought back the Mary Celeste at peril to themselves, and expected the usual salvage fee after a perfunctory trial. However, things quickly got out of hand, with the trial becoming an international sensation. Many suspected the crew of the Dei Gratia of foul play, despite the lack of evidence, and they finally, at length, were awarded a pittance for the salvage, after losing a great deal of time - and incurring a blot on their reputations. (No good deed goes unpunished…)

In all likelihood, a significant cause of the sensation was the resemblance of the case to a couple of legends, the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s poem, and the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which was turned into an opera by Richard Wagner not too long before the incident of the Mary Celeste.

The case had added poignancy, since the captain had taken his wife and baby daughter on the voyage. None of those aboard were ever seen again.

It was the actions of Frederick Solly Flood, the aged British Attorney General at Gibraltar, who would represent the Crown in the matter as if he were a prosecutor, that escalated the case far beyond what was warranted. His obsession with the case, which grew in strength and in absurdity as time passed, resulted in repeated inspections of the ship, increasingly outlandish theories, and a textbook example an out of control prosecutor.

Convinced that there must have been foul deeds, most likely an insurance fraud conspiracy, he refused to change this belief despite the growing evidence against him. The most ludicrous example of this centered around a sword found onboard. It was probably intended to be decorative and ceremonial. After all, the Mary Celeste was a smallish merchant ship, not a man-of-war. The sword probably never made it out of the scabbard on the wall until the investigation.

However, Flood was convinced that there were bloodstains on the sword, and that that was evidence of a fight. Never mind that there were certainly no signs of blood anywhere else on the ship. After much hay had been made about the sword, it was sent for chemical analysis, which showed with abundant clarity that the spots in question were, in fact, just rust.

Never mind the facts, though. Flood quickly changed his story to another scenario. The rust must have been caused when the sword was cleaned with lemon, in an attempt to “destroy and disguise the original marks of blood which were once there.” And thus do conspiracy theories get started.

The subsequent history of the Mary Celeste was interesting as well. After several more years operating as an economically marginal transport, it was intentionally wrecked in a real insurance fraud scheme. The fraud was poorly disguised, and the captain was arrested and tried. (He was acquitted, almost certainly because the crime was at that time capital, so juries rarely convicted.)  

Brian Hicks is no stranger to either historical subjects or maritime tales. He has written about other recovered wrecks and on other historical topics, both as a journalist and as an author.

For this book, he brings in information about the Mary Celeste from the time it was built in a Nova Scotia shipyard to the discovery of the wreck in 2001 by Clive Cussler’s NUMA organization. This includes significant biographical back story on the captain, Benjamin Briggs, and his family of ship captains. I found all of this to be fascinating, if painfully tragic. It was a reminder that seafaring has, throughout most of history, been a dangerous game, almost a Russian roulette of professions.

Hicks also brings in the full panoply of theories and legends. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a sensational story using the facts. So popular was the story that many of the “facts” that people remember about the case have turned out to have been invented in this story. Bela Lugosi starred in a lurid movie about the ship. Even Doctor Who got involved. Unsurprisingly, Daleks were responsible for the tragedy.

I won’t spoil the book by revealing Hicks’ theory, other than to say that it is at least plausible, and doesn’t require the intervention of unlikely events. Whether you agree or not, the case he makes is pretty good, even if there will never be complete certainty as to what happened. There is some dispute as to a few of the facts that his theory turns on. Unfortunately, there was no full transcript of the trial, only the notes taken by the judge, some of which were lost for decades. Thus, some of the facts that may have been helpful in retrospect are not preserved.

The author tells a good story, keeping the narrative interesting without indulging in sensationalism. The background information is all quite fascinating, and really adds to the whole.

For a bit more on the intentional wreck of the Mary Celeste, see this article.

Also, because I do stuff like this, here is the overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fans of Loony Tunes will recognize the first theme from “What’s Opera Doc?” Violinists everywhere will break out in cold sweats over the diminished arpeggios at the 8:52 mark. 

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