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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Mystery of the Mary Celeste

The haunting story of an abandoned ghost shop ship and its permanent impression on the esteemed author. 

arthur conan doyle and the ghost ship featured photo
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  • Engraving of the Mary Celeste, portrait of Arthur Conan DoylePhoto Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 4, 1872, a US merchant ship was found floating and abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean. The Captain, his wife and infant daughter, and the seven sailors who crewed the vessel were all missing. A British naval inquiry was inconclusive. Press interest quickly waned. The whole story might have been forgotten. But then a former naval surgeon decided to write a tale about the mysterious ship.

Immediately after Arthur Conan Doyle qualified from Edinburgh University Medical School, he signed up to go to sea as a ship’s medical officer. Eager for adventure his first voyage was aboard a Greenland whaler, the next on the steamer Mayumba, a cargo vessel that plied its trade up and down the coast of West Africa.

At some point during his voyages, the young doctor heard a story that would change his life. He would help turn it into one of the most enduring mysteries of all time—the tale of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste set sail from New York on November 7, 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy with a cargo of industrial alcohol. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, was a Massachusetts man of unimpeachable good character. He had brought with him his wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter. The crew had been carefully selected and comprised three Americans and four Germans, all sober, experienced, and capable sailors.

A month later the Mary Celeste was spotted by the crewmen of the Canadian merchant vessel, Dei Gratia drifting near the Azores, a cluster of Atlantic islands located some 870 miles west of Portugal. When Dei Gratia’s captain David Morehouse and his crew came alongside, they saw that the ship was deserted, its sails half-set and rigging in a state of disarray.

Boarding the Mary Celeste they found one of the ship’s pumps dismantled on the deck. The vessel’s only lifeboat was missing, but the crew’s possessions and the ship’s stock of food and water had been left behind. Mary Celeste was perfectly seaworthy, however. Her cargo was intact. Morehouse and his men reset the sails and, after checking the surrounding area for the missing lifeboat, towed the abandoned ship to their port of destination, Gibraltar. 

benjamin briggs and his family
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  • Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, and daughter Sophie

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Here a salvage inquiry was quickly set in motion. It was chaired by Gibraltar’s attorney-general, Frederick Solly-Flood. The investigation considered all the possibilities from the most likely (mutiny, piracy, insurance fraud) to the more far-fetched (submarine earthquake, waterspouts, attack by a giant squid) but drew no conclusion on any of them. The case was dismissed. Speculation about what might have happened to the missing crew and passengers filled British and American newspapers for a few days before interest fizzled out. Shipwrecks were so commonplace (the Dei Gratia sank off the coast of Wales in 1881, the Mayumba was lost in the Mediterranean in 1882), they were hardly news at all.

The Mary Celeste might have been entirely forgotten, had not the story of the abandoned ship fired the imagination of the 24-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle. The young doctor had literary ambitions. Back from the sea and living on the Sussex coast, he turned the tale of the abandoned American brigantine over in his mind. In 1883 he sat down and wrote the short story "J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement".  It purported to be a first-hand account of events aboard a U.S. merchant ship, the Marie Celeste.

J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement

J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle submitted his tale to The Cornhill Magazine, a fairly high-brow monthly journal that would publish work by Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. The magazine agreed to publish the doctor’s story anonymously. The young author was delighted. It was his first genuine step toward a career in writing.

Conan Doyle’s story of the Marie Celeste mixed elements of the tale of the Mary Celeste with his experiences aboard the steamship Mayumba off the coast of Liberia. A nation established in West Africa by US former slaves in the first half of the nineteenth century, Liberia had seen a huge influx of African-Americans following the Civil War.

In Habakuk Jephson’s account, the crew of the Marie Celeste, led by a vengeful former slave, mutiny, kill all the officers and passengers, and sail the ship to Africa where they disembark before allowing the empty vessel to drift away. Jephson—a white American—survives by various strokes of good fortune to tell his story.

The tale appeared in the January 1884 issue of The Cornhill Magazine. It caused an instant sensation, not least because of the way Conan Doyle had presented the story—just as he would those great tales of Sherlock Holmes—as a first-hand account of real events. Many readers were taken in, believing J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement to be true. The Boston Herald even reprinted it as a news item.

Frederick Solly-Flood, who had headed the Mary Celeste investigation in Gibraltar, issued a statement denouncing Conan Doyle’s story as “a fabrication from beginning to end”. The U.S. Consul to London, Horatio Sprague was outraged and called for The Cornhill Magazine to apologize and censure whoever had cooked up the falsehood.

the mary celeste
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  • The Mary Celeste

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The furor the magazine story generated brought the mystery of Marie Celeste to wider public attention. Over the coming decades the tale of the ghostly ship would be embellished (meals left uneaten on the tables in the galley, a pot of coffee still warm on the stove…) and repeated endlessly. It would become the subject of hundreds of books, films, and TV documentaries. Without Conan Doyle’s intervention, it is highly unlikely anybody today would have heard of the little brigantine with the missing crew.

Speculation as to the identity of the anonymous author of Jephson’s Statement were rife on the British literary scene. Some suggested it might be a lost work by Edgar Allan Poe, while many more pointed the finger at the author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. Finding his work attributed to these giants greatly boosted the confidence of the young Conan Doyle.

The author would go on to write much greater things than "J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement", but he was not quite done with the abandoned ship. In "The Case of the Sussex Vampire", Sherlock Holmes tells Watson of the Matilda Briggs, “a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet ready.” Sophia Matilda was the name of the infant daughter of Benjamin and Sarah Briggs—she was the little girl who disappeared with everyone else aboard the Mary Celeste in the winter of 1872.

the case-book of sherlock holmes

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

By Arthur Conan Doyle