Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

20 May 2006

It is a riddle that has fascinated us for more than 100 years – what really happened to the crew of the legendary ghost ship? Now one scientist claims to know. …

Attention … focused on the highly volatile cargo. It seemed highly possible that the leaking alcohol caught light, sending Captain Briggs into a panic and prompting the dreaded cry: ‘Abandon ship!’ It was a plausible explanation but has always been discounted because there was no sign of fire, or explosion. A blast of sufficient magnitude to persuade an experienced captain to take the last resort of abandoning ship would surely have left at least a few scorch marks on the wooden barrels, or in the hold.

Now, however, 21st century scientific techniques have been used to finally solve the 19th century mystery. An experiment, conducted by a scientist at UCL for a Channel 5 documentary which will be screened next week, shows that an explosion may indeed be the key to the fate of Captain Briggs, his family and crew.

Dr Andrea Sella [UCL Chemistry] built a replica of the hold of the Mary Celeste.

Using butane gas, he simulated an explosion caused by alcohol leaking from the ship’s cargo.

Instead of wooden barrels, he used cubes of paper. Setting light to the gas caused a huge blast, which sent a ball of flame upwards. Surely the paper cubes would be burned or blackened or the replica hold damaged.

Remarkably, neither happened.

“What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion,” says Dr Sella. “There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching.

“Given all the facts we have, this replicates conditions on board the Mary Celeste. The explosion would have been enough to blow open the hatches and would have been completely terrifying for everyone on board.

Such a massive explosion could have been triggered by a spark caused when two loose barrels rubbed together, or when a careless crew man, pipe in mouth, opened a hatch to ventilate the hold during the long crossing from New York to Italy. Records show that 300 gallons of alcohol had leaked – more than enough to create a terrifying explosion.

“It is the most compelling explanation,” says Dr Sella. “Of all those suggested, it fits the facts best and explains why they were so keen to get off the ship.” …

Adrian Lee, ‘The Express’