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The mystery of the Mary Celeste

This December, 150 years ago, an American-registered brigantine called Mary Celeste was found adrift and eerily deserted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The unexplained disappearance of the crew of this ghost ship has become one of the most intriguing and famous sea mysteries of all time.

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On 4 December 1872, 150 years ago, the ship Dei Gratia sailing in the Atlantic Ocean near the Azores spotted a brigantine strangely adrift. David Morehouse, captain of the Dei Gratia, suspected something was wrong and ordered his men to approach the brigantine. What he and his men found was a ghost ship. The Mary Celeste – that was the name they read on its stern – was seaworthy but dishevelled and deserted. The cargo was in the hold, the food in the stores, the crew’s possessions in their quarters, but there was not a soul onboard. Although the lifeboat was missing, the ship’s logbook was still in the mate’s cabin. Its last entry was 25 November. Morehouse and his men suspected that something extraordinary and eerie had happened.

Ominous rumblings in the hold

Morehouse and his men sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar where an investigation was carried out. It was ascertained that the Mary Celeste had left New York for Genoa, Italy, carrying a cargo of alcohol. On board were captain Benjamin Briggs, a very experienced seaman, his wife, Sarah, their two-year-old daughter, and a crew of seven. In a letter to her mother, Sarah had described the crew as capable, “if they continue as they have begun.” According to the ship’s logbook, the voyage across the Atlantic had encountered stormy weather, but nothing strange had been noted except for one thing: ominous rumbling and small explosions were heard coming from the hold.

Mutiny and murder?

The Attorney General of Gibraltar, Frederick Solly-Flood, who conducted the investigation on the Mary Celeste, found other details of greater interest. The inspection he ordered, found cuts on the bow possibly caused by swords and axes. There were also possible traces of blood on the rails as well as on captain Briggs’ sword, which was found under the bed in his cabin. Flood suspected that the crew had got drunk on the ship’s cargo of alcohol, had murdered the captain and his family and then had fled in the lifeboat. Or, he thought, the foul play had been premeditated, part of some mysterious conspiracy involving the head of the New York consortium that owned the Mary Celeste.

Pirates, explosions and monsters of the deep

Further investigation disproved the presence of blood and the traces of a fight – Flood’s theories were probably wrong. Maybe the Mary Celeste had been attacked by pirates, then, but why would they have left the valuable possessions of the captain and crew behind? Maybe captain Brigg had thought his ship was about to sink. After all, the hull was partially flooded, but it had not taken on enough water, some argued, to convince such an experienced captain to abandon ship. Maybe a giant squid or octopus had attacked the Mary Celeste dragging underwater every person onboard. But if that was true, why was the lifeboat missing? Perhaps the most credible theory was based on the ominous rumblings noted in the logbook. A cargo of alcohol could release explosive gases; maybe Briggs had smelled the fumes and, believing that the whole cargo was about to explode, had abandoned ship with his family and crew, hoping to reach land aboard the lifeboat.

From real mystery to literary legend

Further accounts added fabricated details to the story. The Los Angeles Times wrote that, when the Mary Celeste was found, “the dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold […] the log written up to the hour of her discovery.” Reports of alleged survivors also appeared in the papers. One claimed that the passengers of the Mary Celeste had been watching a swimming contest on an improvised platform; the platform had collapsed, everybody had fallen into the sea and had been eaten by sharks. In 1884 the mystery of the Mary Celeste was popularized by the short story “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”. Many readers believed this tale of intrigue and murder to be the real account of the events. On the contrary, it was a literary invention. Its author was a young ship doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who would later become famous as the author of the greatest fictional detective of all times: Sherlock Holmes. With Doyle’s short story, the mystery of the Mary Celeste, unresolved to this day, entered the realm of literary legend.
 

USEFUL LINKS

1) Read the full story of the Mary Celeste, from its maiden voyage to its final one:
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mary-Celeste
2) Watch this video that lists some of the theories regarding the Mary Celeste:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRIoHl1Uu3g
3) This site is dedicated to the Mary Celeste and contains interesting information:
http://www.maryceleste.net/about.htm
4) Watch this interesting video ‘Are ghost ships real?’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cURn__xlWXk
5) If you are interested in ghost ships, here’s an article on 15 of the most famous ones:
https://allthatsinteresting.com/ghost-ships
COMPREHENSION

1) Read the article and complete the sentences with the correct alternative.

1. David Morehouse suspected something was wrong with the Mary Celeste because
a. it was sailing too fast.
b. it was moving erratically.
c. it was sinking.

2. On board the Mary Celeste, the men of the Dei Gratia found
a. dinner ready on the table.
b. an empty hold.
c. everything in its place.

3. Sarah believed that the men on board the Mary Celeste were
a. a good crew.
b. unreliable.
c. not experienced seamen.

4. According to the ship’s booklog, the voyage from New York was
a. easy and uneventful.
b. difficult because of bad weather.
c. seriously threatened by mysterious explosions.

5. Fredrick Solly-Flood was interested in…
a. the strange rumblings mentioned in the logbook.
b. possible traces of foul play.
c. the tale of the survivors.

6. Fredrick Solly-Flood was convinced that captain Briggs
a. abandoned the Mary Celeste in a panic with his crew.
b. was killed by his men.
c. had killed his men.

7. It is unlikely that the Mary Celeste was attacked by pirates because
a. nothing was stolen.
b. there were no traces of a fight onboard.
c. the lifeboat was missing.

8. Most likely, the passengers of the Mary Celeste left in the lifeboat because
a. they were attacked by a giant squid.
b. the stormy weather had damaged the ship.
c. they believed the Mary Celeste was about to sink or explode.

9. The tales of alleged survivors were
a. supported by concrete evidence.
b. real.
c. invented.

10. “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” told
a. the real story of the Mary Celeste. 
b. a fictional tale of murder and intrigue.
c. the true account of a survivor of the Mary Celeste.


VOCABULARY 

2) Complete the sentences with the following words.

brigantine  *  adrift  *  stern  *  seaworthy  *  dishevelled  *  hold  *  eerie  *  ominous  *  bow  *  foul play  *  alleged

1. When a ship is in good enough condition to sail at sea, she is ……………………………....
2. A boat is ……………………………... when nobody is sailing her and she floats here and there, pushed by the waves and the wind.
3. A ……………………………... was a very popular two-masted sailing ship.
4. The cargo deck of a ship is called ……………………………....
5. The word ……………………………... is usually used to describe the untidy appearance of a person, but it can also be used to describe a messy place.
6. An event is ……………………………... if it mysterious and strange; it is ……………………………... if it seems to foreshadow something bad or evil.
7. If a testimony is ……………………………..., it means that it lacks proof; it is, therefore, unproven.
8. The rear end of a boat is called ……………………………....
9. The front part of a boat is called ……………………………....
10. A vicious criminal act, especially murder, can be described as ……………………………....


GRAMMAR – Past Perfect

3) Complete the sentences using the verbs provided. Use either the Past Simple or the Past Perfect.

1. 
When Briggs became the captain of the Mary Celeste, he ……………………………... (to be) a seaman for several years.
2. Briggs ……………………………... (to consider) retiring from the sea before becoming captain of the Mary Celeste.
3. The Dei Gratia ……………………………... (to depart) for Europe on 15 November; the Mary Celeste ……………………………... (to leave) New York eight days earlier.
4. Morehouse ……………………………... (to find) the Mary Celeste deserted. Her captain and crew ……………………………... (to disappear).
5. Most likely, captain Briggs and his crew ……………………………... (to abandon) their ship nine days before the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste.
6. Many believe that the disappearance of captain Briggs, his family and crew was caused by the stormy weather the Mary Celeste ……………………………... (to encounter) in the days leading up to 25 November.
7. Some thought the Mary Celeste was cursed: captain Briggs and his crew ……………………………... (to disappear) in 1872, while her first captain ……………………………... (to die) on her maiden voyage in 1861.
8. The evidence pointed against Fredrick Solly-Flood’s theories, but Flood ……………………………...  (to ignore) it: he ……………………………... (to make up) his mind.
9. When Arthur Conan Doyle ……………………………... (to publish) his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887, he ……………………………... already ……………………………... (to publish) “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”.
10. In 1935, the Actor Bela Lugosi ……………………………... (to star) in the film The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. Four years earlier he ……………………………... (to star) in Dracula in the titular role.


SHORT ESSAY

4) Is there a historical mystery, one that still doesn’t have a definite explanation, that you know and that intrigues you? Write about it. (60-80 words)

5) The American president Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”. What do you think he meant? How does this apply to life in general? (60-80 words)


DEBATE

6) Pair up with one of your classmates and look at the proposition below; one of you will argue in favour of it and one of you against it.

Proposition: We need mystery: it makes the world and our lives more interesting.

(Carlo Dellonte)
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

6 Commenti
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Roberta Buccioni

13 dicembre 2022 alle 14:46

I found it v. interesting

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13 dicembre 2022 alle 15:53 - in risposta a Roberta Buccioni

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Anna Rita Bove

13 dicembre 2022 alle 17:07

It was useful to improve the vocabulary

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13 dicembre 2022 alle 21:26 - in risposta a Anna Rita Bove

Thank you for your feedback! Keep on following us!

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VIVIEN IREDALE

13 dicembre 2022 alle 18:42

l am afraid l cannot download the solutions, though...

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14 dicembre 2022 alle 14:16 - in risposta a VIVIEN IREDALE

Thank you for your comment. You can find the solutions in the top right-hand corner of your desktop if you are using a computer, or at the bottom of the screen if you are using a mobile phone. To download them, you need to log in with your MyZanichelli account.

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VIVIEN IREDALE

14 dicembre 2022 alle 06:37

Goodmorning, the solutions are available, thank you

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claudia shyti

22 gennaio 2023 alle 15:22

i can’t see the solutions

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Redazione

22 gennaio 2023 alle 15:47 - in risposta a claudia shyti

Thank you for your comment. You can find the solutions in the top right-hand corner of your desktop if you are using a computer, or at the bottom of the screen if you are using a mobile phone. To download them, you need to log in with your MyZanichelli account.

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claudia shyti

23 gennaio 2023 alle 11:14

the message i have is this: Non hai le autorizzazioni per scaricare la risorsa

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25 gennaio 2023 alle 16:15 - in risposta a claudia shyti

We verified your MyZanichelli login information and discovered that you are unable to download the solutions because you have a student account. In order to download the solutions you must have a teacher account. We're sorry!

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