A chemist tests an idea about what happened to the Mary Celeste
On December 5, 1872, the British ship Dei Gratia was about 644 kilometers (400 miles) east of the Azores when it passed the Mary Celeste, dreaming aimlessly and without a crew.
Dei Gratia’s commander – David Morehouse – knew the ship had set sail for Italy eight days before him and should have arrived by now. He diverts his course to rescue and sends his crew aboard. What they found deepened the mystery. The ship had been abandoned, but the crew’s belongings remained on board. The ship had at least six months’ worth of food and water and 1,701 gallons of industrial alcohol on board, but the crew had apparently abandoned ship, taking the lifeboat and risking the high seas rather than stay on board. .
The few clues available and the fact that the crew did not show up later turned the Mary Celeste into a lingering mystery ripe for speculation. Explanations range from foul play to natural phenomena, with a few massive sea monsters thrown in for good measure.
There are suggestions that Morehouse’s crew might have attacked the ship themselves, although this does not account for how the slower ship caught up with the faster ship after an eight-day lead. A plausible theory – given that one of the vessel’s two pumps was taken apart and a small amount of water was found in the bottom of the vessel – is that with one pump out of order the captain could not -be not how much water he was carrying on board. When they encountered bad weather later, it might have caused the captain to order his crew to abandon ship, rather than risk it sinking.
However, there is another explanation which has been reinforced by a test on an aftershock to explain the sinking. The theory is that some of the alcohol exploded causing the captain to panic and give the order to board the lifeboat. It sounds simple, but the problem is that there was no sign of fire or explosion on the ship when it was found.
Dr Andrea Sella from the Department of Chemistry at University College London tested the idea using butane gas and paper cubes to simulate wooden barrels.
“What we created was a pressure wave type explosion,” Dr Sella said in a press release. “There was a dramatic surge of flames 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 the conditions aboard the Mary Celeste. The explosion would have been enough to blow the hatches and would have been completely terrifying to everyone on board.”
According to this theory, the explosion might have scared the captain enough to give the order to abandon ship and explain the lack of evidence of an explosion or fire.
“That’s the most compelling explanation,” Dr. Sella said. “Of all those suggested, this one fits the facts the best and explains why they were so keen to jump ship.”