Saturday 5 December 2015

Mary Celeste

Mary Celeste folks not Marie Celeste, the latter being the title of a similar story by Arthur Conan "Sherlock" Doyle.  Google crowd-sourcing for correct information fails here with Marie outnumbering Mary by about 8 : 1.  Goll-dang it to hell, would people please sort out the facts before copying somebody else's errors. Too many of us live in a happier but fictive world, playing quiddich rather than soccer.  We've seen this Google-propagation-error before with the names of the creators of the nerve gas Sarin, which is an acronym of the inventors: the R stands for Ritter not Rüdiger. The Blob has also touched on a resonant mystery about missing lighthouse-keepers on Flannan Isle. Eee but I do love an island. Mary Celeste talk is appropriate at the beginning of December because the brigantine was discovered adrift and abandoned in the middle of the Atlantic on 4th December 1872.  It's a bit of a mystery still and we shouldn't spend too much time on it because neither you nor I are in a position to obtain more evidence.

The Mary Celeste was found by the crew of the Dei Gratia in an untidy but serviceable state, amply provisioned and with sails set. The last entry in the ship's log was from 9 days earlier reporting her position at 37°01'N, 25°01'W about 700km from the position (38°20'N, 17°15'W) she was discovered in plain sight.  Half the tiny crew of Dei Gratia took charge of the abandonned vessel and a few days later they both sailed into Gibraltar, where a court of enquiry was held.  That court of enquiry has become notorious for its tendentious disregard for common sense in favour of sequential conspiracy theories of murder, fraud and mutiny.  There was a lot of ascertainment bias on the record. Stains on the captain's cutlass (found under his bunk) and on the ship's rail were deemed to be blood, although capable scientific analysis showed that this was not the case.  A fantasy was conjured up that the crew had got access to the cargo of denatured alcohol, gone on a drunken murderous rampage, killed the officers and escaped in the ship's boat.  Much was made of the fact that the captains of the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia were nodding acquaintances who had sailed from the same harbour in the USA.  Poor Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia, although he did finally secure a tidy penny from the salvage rights, found his name blackened in every port as the man who had committed a piratical act of murder and insurance fraud.

That was just the court of enquiry, the wider public have had the crew of the Mary Celeste disappearing sucked up to heaven in a water-spout, or slobbered off the deck by a giant squid Architeuthis dux or spirited off-planet for psycho-sexual experimentation by a UFO full of little green men.  When I say that neither you nor I are in a position to reveal any new evidence about the mystery, that's because we're just thickos.

In 2006, a chemist from University College London had an idea about the mystery and carried out a simulation which has the ring of possibility. After the squid and the bonking with Martians aboard the UFO nothing will ever have the ring of truth about the Mary Celeste. Dr Andrea Sella of the UCL Chemistry Department created a replica of the hold of a 19thC brigantine and filled it with containers of butane in lieu of methylated spirits. The hypothesis on test was that some of the cargo leaked and was ignited in a spectacular BLEVE that went up with a whoomph but left no residue of soot or charcoal. The butane did exactly that, but ethanol might behave differently, so it's rather flawed as an experiment. The captain and crew thought the ship was doomed and abandoned it in a hurry. Maybe, maybe not. The Mary Celeste did finally come to grief on a reef off Haiti the victim of a genuine insurance fraud. National Geographic goes in search of the wreck. Smithsonian tells us the True Story with "recently found and vital new evidence". There's that's your weekend entertainment sorted.

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