The American cargo ship Mary Celeste was discovered sailing near the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean, in 1872. Although the ship was unharmed and fully stocked, no trace of the crew or passengers was ever found.
Painting courtesy Parks Canada

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  • On December 4, 1872, the “ghost ship” Mary Celeste was discovered sailing near the Azores Islands, unharmed and with her cargo intact—but without any crew. The abandonment of the Mary Celeste and the fate of her crew remains one of history’s greatest maritime mysteries.
    The Mary Celeste had left New York City, New York, about a month earlier. The ship carried a cargo of industrial alcohol and was headed to Genoa, Italy. A crew of eight, plus the captain’s wife and son, were on board.  
    A British vessel spotted the Mary Celeste sailing erratically and investigated. They found the cargo mostly intact, instruments working, and all the crew and passengers’ valuable items still secure. The weather was good. The only unusual elements were one missing lifeboat, several broken barrels of alcohol, and a frayed rope trailing behind the ship.
    There are many theories surrounding the mystery of the Mary Celeste, ranging from pirates to mutiny. One of the strongest theories is that insecure barrels of alcohol broke, and the fumes helped create sparks that startled the crew. Thinking the ship may explode, the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste boarded the lifeboat, tied to the larger ship while the cargo hold “aired out” the fumes. With the lifeboat safely tied to the Mary Celeste, a storm may have hit. While the large, sturdy Mary Celeste survived the storm, the tiny lifeboat and single rope were much more vulnerable. No trace of the lifeboat or any survivor of the Mary Celeste has ever been found. 
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abandon Verb

    to desert or leave entirely.

    alcohol Noun

    chemical compound, usually ethanol or methanol, generated by fermentation and used for fuel, hygiene, medicine, and food.

    cargo Noun

    goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

    crew Noun

    workers or employees on a boat or ship.

    discover Verb

    to learn or understand something for the first time.

    erratic Adjective

    wandering or veering from a set course.

    explode Verb

    to expand with great speed, force, and noise.

    fate Noun

    predetermined course of events in the life of a person.

    fray Verb

    to wear away or unravel.

    fume Noun

    vapor from a substance that usually has an identifiable odor.

    harm Noun

    physical damage or injury.

    industrial Adjective

    having to do with factories or mechanical production.

    instrument Noun


    intact Adjective

    whole or complete.

    investigate Verb

    to study or examine in order to learn a series of facts.

    maritime Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    mutiny Verb

    to overthrow authority.

    mystery Noun

    unknown or secret thing.

    pirate Noun

    thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

    secure Verb

    to guarantee, or make safe and certain.

    spark Noun

    tiny, firey particle.

    storm Noun

    severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.

    survive Verb

    to live.

    trace Noun

    surviving mark or evidence.

    trail Noun


    vessel Noun

    craft for traveling on water, usually larger than a rowboat or skiff.

    vulnerable Adjective

    capable of being hurt.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather