But on 4 Dec 1872, just short of a month after leaving port, (some reports give December 5, owing to a lack of standard time zones in the 19th century), at approximately 13:00, the helmsman of the Dei Gratia, John Johnson, sighted a ship about five miles off their port bow through his spyglass. The position of the Dei Gratia was approximately 38°20' N 17°15' W, some 600 miles west of Portugal.
Johnson’s keen, experienced eyes detected almost at once that there was something strangely wrong with the other vessel. She was yawing slightly, and her sails did not look right, being slightly torn. Johnson alerted his second officer, John Wright, who looked and had the same feelings about her. They informed the captain. As they moved closer, they saw the ship was the Mary Celeste. Captain Morehouse wondered why the Mary Celeste had not already reached Italy, as she had a head start on his own ship.
According to the account given by the crew of the Dei Gratia, they approached to 400 yards from the Mary Celeste and cautiously observed her for two hours. She was under sail, yet sailing erratically on a starboard tack and slowly heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. They concluded she was drifting after seeing no one at the wheel or even on deck, though the ship was flying no distress signal.
Aside from evidence that she had recently weathered a storm, she bore no clues as to why she had been abandoned: The main staysail was lying loose on the foreward-house, but the fore-sail and upper topsail had been blown from the yards and lost. The jib, fore topmast staysail and the fore lower topsail were set. The remaining sails were furled. Some of the running rigging was fouled, some had been blown away and parts of it were hanging over the sides. The main peak halyard, a stiff rope about 100 yards long used to hoist the outer end of the staff sail, was broken and most of it missing. The wheel was spinning free and the binnacle had been knocked over and broken. The main hatch to below decks was well-battened down and secure, but certain of the hatch covers had apparently been removed and were found discarded near the hatchways.
There was less than a foot of water in the galley and little of the six months' store of provisions had been spoilt. There was ample fresh water. The court record states, "The Galley was in bad state, the stove knocked out of its place, and the cooking utensils were strewn around. The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess. The captains bed was not fit to sleep in and had to be dried." The only dry clothes found were dry because they were in a watertight seaman's chest. Everything else was wet.
Missing from the ship was the chronometer, sextant, bill of lading, navigation book and a small yawl that had been lashed to the main hatch. A piece of railing running alongside had been removed to launch the boat. Charles Lurd, crew member of the Dei Gratia stated, "We found no boats on board." He could not say how many there should have been but felt sure there had been a boat at the main hatch from the fixing there.
While the cargo had not shifted, 9 barrels were found to be empty when it was finally unloaded in Genoa. Deveau stated he did not see any blood anywhere, although he saw a rusty sword in its sheath (likely iron citrate, the result of having been cleaned with lemon).
The most interesting find was the ship's log: The last entry was dated 24th November, when the Mary Celeste was only just passing the Azores. This meant the ship had sailed itself for over 400 miles on a perfectly-plotted course for the Mediterranean.
Deveau felt he could easily get the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar with a small crew. He had to argue with Captain Morehouse in order to get such a crew: Morehouse feared that sending a crew to pilot the Mary Celeste would result in both ships being undermanned, thus placing both in danger. Deveau prevailed and, on 13 Dec 1872, both the Mary Celeste and Dei Gratia arrived in Gibraltar.
Gibraltar, 13 Dec 1872, Board of Underwriters, New York: BRIG "MARY CELESTE" HERE DERELICK IMPORTANT SEND POWER ATTORNEY TO CLAIM HER FROM ADMIRALTY COURT. [SIGNED] HORATIO J. SPRAGUE
Gibraltar, 13th December 1872, American Counsul, Genoa: AMERICAN BRIG "MARY CELESTE" HERE DERELICT. IMPORTANT SEND BILL LADING CARGO TO CLAIM FROM ADMIRALTY COURT. [SIGNED] SPRAGUE, SOUNSUL
Gibraltar, 14 Dec 1872 ~ The Disaster Clerk of the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company is handed a copy of a cable from Captain David Reed Morehouse, master of the brigantine Dei Gratia: FOUND FOURTH AND BROUGHT HERE "MARY CELESTE" ABANDONED SEAWORTHY ADMIRALTY IMPOST NOTIFY ALL PARTIES TELEGRAPH OFFER OF SALVAGE.