Would Sherlock Holmes have been able to solve the mystery of the Mary Celeste? Had he been invented sooner, he might have given it a go. There’s an early story by Arthur Conan Doyle called ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, which appeared anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine in January 1884, three years before the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’. Jephson is a prototype Watson: both narrators are doctors (as Conan Doyle himself was); both have old war wounds that occasionally still trouble them (Watson received his in Afghanistan, Jephson during the American Civil War); both display a startling ineptitude for the art of deduction. Unlike Watson, however, Jephson purports to be a survivor from a ship called the Marie Celeste.
The ‘Statement’ is included as an appendix in Paul Begg’s Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea (Pearson, £19.99). The earliest fictional response to the mystery, Conan Doyle’s story is credited as the source of many of the common misconceptions about the deserted ship, beginning with how to spell its name. Begg also says that it was thanks to Conan Doyle that ‘in the popular mind . . . the galley table was littered with unfinished meals and mugs of lukewarm coffee, and that the aroma of fresh tobacco smoke still lingered in the captain’s cabin,’ though none of these details appears in the story. If Conan Doyle is responsible for what we think we know about the Mary Celeste, that’s partly because he made it acceptable, and even popular, to make up stories about it.
Very little is known about what actually happened: Begg devotes as much of his book to speculations as he does to the facts, which are broadly as follows. On the morning of Tuesday, 5 November 1872, the Mary Celeste sailed from New York, bound for Genoa with a cargo of 1700 barrels of alcohol. At around lunchtime on Thursday, 5 December, the ship was spotted by the crew of the Dei Gratia, who could see something was wrong from the state of the sails. Boarding it, they found the Mary Celeste completely deserted. It’s fairly certain that the crew abandoned ship in a lifeboat, but there’s broad disagreement as to why: perhaps they thought the alcohol in the hold was going to blow up; maybe they were becalmed; perhaps there was an earthquake; or a tornado. The last entry on the log slate had been made at 8 a.m. on 25 November, recording the ship’s position 378 miles from where it was found. A skeleton crew under the mate of the Dei Gratia took the ship to Gibraltar, where they hoped to claim salvage. Instead, they were met with suspicion: Frederick Solly Flood, the British attorney general for the colony, led an inquiry into possible foul play. The sailors were eventually acquitted, but rewarded with only a disappointing fraction of the value of the ship and its cargo.
There’s plenty of foul play in ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’. It’s a lurid tale, featuring a homicidal half-caste (or ‘quadroon’) from New Orleans called Septimius Goring, who has no fingers on his right hand, only a thumb (‘I have seen thousands slain in battle, and assisted at every conceivable surgical operation, but cannot recall any sight which gave me such a thrill of disgust as that great brown sponge-like hand with the single member protruding from it’). Goring hijacks the ship, bound from Boston to Lisbon, to sail instead to Africa, where he plans to rule over a ‘magnificent tribe of dwellers in the desert’. Having dedicated most of his life to killing white people, Goring murders each of the passengers and crew of the Marie Celeste in turn before disappearing into the Sahara. (Ten years later, Dracula would arrive in England on a deserted ship, having eaten everyone on board, and there’s something vampiric about Goring, with his ‘white fangs’ and ‘straight black hair’.)
Jephson is allowed to live only because he carries a talisman given to him by an old slave on the plantation where he convalesced after being wounded at Antietam. ‘When I attempted,’ Jephson says, ‘after the occurrence, to state my case to an English official, I was met with such offensive incredulity that I determined never again to expose myself to the chance of such an indignity.’ The story isn’t made any more plausible by Conan Doyle’s clunking attempts to establish the commonsensical reliability of his narrator: ‘As a medical man, I know that a nightmare is simply a vascular derangement of the cerebral hemispheres.’ It’s all too easy to sympathise with the sceptical official.
Solly Flood and the US consul in Gibraltar, Horatio Sprague, were more credulous. They weren’t so foolish as to believe that the ‘Statement’ was true, but they appear not to have realised that it was a work of fiction, thinking it instead to be a pernicious hoax: in a letter to the assistant secretary of state in Washington, Sprague calls it an ‘article’. And perhaps to describe those elements of Conan Doyle’s story that differ from the facts as ‘inaccurate’, as Begg does, is to make a similar mistake: so many details have been altered – the name of the ship, the names of its captain, crew and passengers, its port of departure, its destination, its owners, its cargo – that the changes seem to amount to a diligent attempt on Conan Doyle’s part to distinguish his story from the relatively obscure events on which it’s based.
In December 1884, shortly after – though probably unconnected to – the publication of ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, the Mary Celeste, which had changed hands several times over the intervening years, was run aground on a Haitian coral reef as part of an insurance scam – a fate altogether more definite than that of its crew twelve years previously, if less well-known. And, I suppose, more prosaic, though possibly only because no one appears to have written a story about it: perhaps someone should.