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Abandoned Ship

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Author Topic: Abandoned Ship  (Read 110 times)
Optimus Prime
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Posts: 1722

« on: December 24, 2007, 09:40:20 pm »

The story of the Mary Celeste might have drifted into history if Conan Doyle hadn't published "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" in 1884; his sensationalistic account, printed in Cornhill Magazine, set off waves of theorizing about the ship's fate. Even Attorney General Solly-Flood revisited the case, writing summaries of his interviews and notes. But the mystery remained unsolved. MacGregor picked up the trail in 2002. "There's so much nonsense written about this legend," she said. "I felt compelled to find the truth."

MacGregor's four previous investigative documentaries, including The Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause (2001), applied modern forensic techniques to historical questions. "There are obvious limitations for historic cases," she says. "But using the latest technology, you can come to a different conclusion."

For her Mary Celeste film, MacGregor began by asking what didn't happen. Speculation concerning sea monsters was easy to dismiss. The ship's condition—intact and with full cargo—seemed to rule out pirates. One theory bandied about in the 19th century held that crew members drank the alcohol onboard and mutinied; after interviewing crewmen's descendants, MacGregor deemed that scenario unlikely. Another theory assumed that alcohol vapors expanded in the Azores heat and blew off the main hatch, prompting those aboard to fear an imminent explosion. But MacGregor notes that the boarding party found the main hatch secured and did not report smelling any fumes. True, she says, nine of the 1,701 barrels in the hold were empty, but the empty nine had been recorded as being made of red oak, not white oak like the others. Red oak is known to be a more porous wood and therefore more likely to leak.

As for that homicidal sailor played by Lugosi in The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, he may have been drawn from two German crewmen, brothers Volkert and Boye Lorenzen, who fell under suspicion because none of their personal possessions were found on the abandoned ship. But a Lorenzen descendant told MacGregor that the pair had lost their gear in a shipwreck earlier in 1872. "They had no motive," MacGregor says.

After ruling out what didn't happen, MacGregor confronted the question of what might have.

Abandoning a ship in the open sea is the last thing a captain would order and a sailor would do. But is that what Captain Briggs ordered? If so, why?

His ship was seaworthy. "It wasn't flooded or horribly damaged," says Phil Richardson, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and an expert in derelict vessels, whom MacGregor enlisted in her investigation. "The discovery crew sailed it, so it was in really good shape."

Briggs' life before the Mary Celeste offered no clues, says MacGregor, who visited the captain's hometown of Marion, Massachusetts, and interviewed descendants of Arthur Briggs, the 7-year-old son the Briggses had left behind so he could attend school. MacGregor learned that the captain was experienced and respected in shipping circles. "There was never a question that he would do something irrational," she says.

Did Briggs, then, have a rational reason to abandon ship? MacGregor figured that if she could determine the precise spot from which Briggs, his family and crew abandoned ship, she might be able to shed light on why. She knew from the transcriptions of the Mary Celeste's log slate—where notations were made before they were transcribed into the log—that the ship was six miles from, and within sight of, the Azores island of Santa Maria on November 25; she knew from the testimony of the Dei Gratia crew that ten days later, the ship was some 400 miles east of the island. MacGregor asked Richardson "to work backward and create a path between these two points."

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