Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

Benjamin Spooner Briggs
The Briggs family of Massachusetts had a long maritime connection. Benjamin Spooner Briggs spent most of his life at sea and was an experienced, hardy and able seaman. Because of his fairness and ability, he was respected by those who served under him.

Benjamin worked his way to eventually become a master mariner: He captained the brigantine Sea Foam, and in 1862 became master of the three-masted schooner Forest King. When he took command of the barque Arthur in 1865, he turned over command of the Forest King to his brother, Oliver Briggs, who was a frequent business partner and sailor.

Sophia Briggs

Briggs has been mentioned numerous times in conspiracy theories and fiction regarding the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, including the film The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935) starring Bela Lagosi (see it below). A fictionalized version of Captain Briggs was also seen in The Chase, a 1965 episode of Doctor Who, and was the protagonist of the 2006 computer game Limbo of the Lost.

In January 1884, Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle wrote J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, a fictionalized account of the disappearance of the Mary Celeste which appeared in Cornhill Magazine. Though Doyle changed the spelling of the ship to MARIE Celeste, the story had three effects: It confused people regarding the facts of the case; it refocused attention on this decade-old mystery; and it brought attention to the article's writer.

Movie ~ The Phantom Ship (1935)

Monday, July 26, 2010

History of the Mary Celeste

An 1861 painting of the Amazon
by an Unknown Artist
Possibly Honore Pellegrin
The keel of the Amazon was laid in 1860 by the shipbuilders of Joshua Dewis at the village of Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia. Sometime in May 1861 she glided down the ways, receiving her name, which she bore until 1868 when she was renamed Mary Celeste.

She was owned by a group of nine investors from Nova Scotia and was registered on 10 Jun 1861 at nearby Nova Scotia town of Parrsboro, the closest local port of registry. Her official number was 37,671.

In her first register, she was described as "brigantine rigged", having two masts, the foremast being square-rigged, and the mainmast, fore-and-aft or schooner-rigged. In the Atlantic Mutual Vessel Record she was described as a half-brig. She had a billet-head and a square stern. At that time she only had one deck. She was "carvel-built" of native wood such as birch, beech and maple up to light load-line; then spruce to the rails, with pine to finish the cabins. Her measurements were: length 99.3'; breadth 25.5'; depth 11.7'; gross tonnage 198.42 tons.

An Awkward Beginning

The Amazon's first trip began shortly after her registration and ended nine days later. Her first captain, Robert McLellan, son of one of the owners, contracted pneumonia after taking command and died 19 Jun 1861. John Nutting Parker, her next captain, struck a fishing boat and had to steer her back to the shipyard for repairs. At the shipyard, a fire broke out in the middle of the ship. Her first trans-Atlantic crossing was also disastrous for her next captain after she collided with another vessel in the English Channel near Dover, England.

After this awkward beginning, the brigantine had several profitable and uneventful years under her Nova Scotian owners. She travelled to the West Indies, Central America and South America, and transported a wide range of cargoes. In 1867, the ship ran aground during a storm off Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. After she was salvaged, she was sold for $1,750 to Richard Haines of New York, and was repaired at a cost of $8,825.03.

Registration Records

On 31 Dec 1868 she was formally transferred to American registry and her name changed to Mary Celeste. Register No. 485 was issued to Haines, described as "the only owner of the ship of vessel called the Mary Celeste". The new owners' intention was to take her across the Atlantic and make a profit trading with the Adriatic ports.

According to Register No. 339 dated 13 Oct 1869, another change took place in ownership, all of New York. The name of the master given as Walter S. Johnson:
  • James H. Winchester (six-eighths)
  • Sylvester Goodwin (one-eighth)
  • Daniel T. Samson (one-eighth)
On 11 Jan 1870 Register No. 16 was issued at New York with another change in ownership:
  • James H. Winchester (four-eights)
  • Sylvester Goodwin (one-eighth)
  • Daniel T. Samson (one-eighth)
  • Rufus W. Fowler (two-eights - designated as master)
On 29 Oct 1872, less than two weeks before the departure on her fateful passage, Register No. 22 was issued at New York replacing No. 16:
  • James H. Winchester (twelve twenty-fourths)
  • Sylvester Goodwin (two twenty-fourths)
  • Daniel T. Samson (two twenty-fourths)
  • Benjamin S. Briggs (eight twenty-fourths)
The vessel was described as follows: two decks (instead of one as before); two masts as before but her length increased to 103'; her breadth to 25.7'; her depth to 16.2'; and her capacity under tonnage deck to 271.79. According to the inspection record dated Oct 1872, these changes and repairs were noted: three-quarter poop extended over all; several new timbers; new transoms; part new knightheads, stern and stem; new bends and topsides and stern; patched with yellow metal. It was probably at this time that her topsail was divided for easier handling, into an upper and lower topsail. This is how she was rigged when the Dei Gratia found her.

The Crew

The seven-man crew serving under Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs consisted of the following men:

First Mate ~ Albert G. Richardson of Stockton Springs, ME. According to the crew list, signed up at New York, 4 Nov 1872 by H. E. Jenks, Deputy U.S. Shipping Commissioner. Richardson was 28 years of age, 5'8" tall, with light complexion, brown hair and blue eyes; wages $50. He was born in Charleston, MA to Theodore & Elizabeth Richardson and had a brother, Lyman, who was a sea captain. It appears he was married.

Second Mate ~ Andrew Gilling, age 25, was born in New York and was 5'8"; wages $35. It appears he was not married.

Steward & Cook ~ Edward Wm. Head, age 23, was born in New York and was described as 5'8" tall, with light complexion and hair; wages $40. Captain Winchester said of him that, "The steward was a white man who belonged to Williamsburg, where he was respected by all who knew him, and he had just married when the brig sailed." In the engagement book of the United States Sipping Company, under date 5 Nov 1872, his address is given as 45 Newell Street, Greenpoint (a section of Brooklyn). Wife's name was Emma J.

Four Germans serving as seamen. The address for all in the engagement book appears as 19 Thames St., New York:

Gottlieb Goodschaad (23) ~ 5'8" tall; light hair & complexion; $30 (also listed as Goodschall) 

Arian Martens (35) ~ 5'8" tall, light hair & complexion; $30
Boz Lorenzen (23) ~ 5'9" tall, light hair & complexion; $30Volkert Lorenzen (29) ~ 5'9" tall, light hair & complexion; $30

Reference to the character of the three members of the crew is made in a communication No. 142 dated 4 Apr 1873 from the United States Consul Sprague at Gibraltar to to the Department of State at Washington.

"I beg to enclose a copy of a communication which I have this day received from Prussia, asking for information regarding some of the missing crew of the derelict Mary Celeste. It is somewhat gratifying to learn three out of the five men composing the crew of the Mary Celeste were known to the writer of that communication as being peaceable and first-class sailors, as it further diminishes the possibility that any violence was committed on board of this vessel by her crew."

Following is a copy of the letter mentioned by Consul Sprague:

Dear Sir:

Please excuse me of writing these few lines of information regarding two sailors (brothers) belonging to the American Brig Mary Celeste, their mothers and their wives which to know in which condition he ship has been found, whether the boats were gone or not, whether the log book has been found on board or not, so as to find out on what day they left the ship, and further do they like to know whether any signs of disturbance have been found on board. I know three of the sailors personally and know them to be peaceable and first-class sailors. Please favor us with an answer and let us know your opinion why they left said Brig.

I remain, yours, truly T.A. Nickelsen,
direct Utersum, auf Fohr, Prussia via Hamburg

Note this letter does not refer to any of the sailors by name. In any case, the reference to "two sailors, brothers" likely applies to the Lorenzens, Volkert and Boz. During the testimony given at Gibraltar, mention is made that, "There were four berths in the four-castle with bedding, but only three sea-chests" with the explanation by Mate Deveau that, "often two sailors chum for one chest." It would be natural for the Lorenzen brothers to do this.

Further evidence as to the character of the crews comes from a letter written by Captain Briggs, just two days before his vessel left its East River pier, wherein he states, "We seem to have a very good Mate and Steward," and four days later (7 November) Mrs. Briggs writes to her husband's mother, "Benjamin thinks we have got a pretty peaceable set this time all around, if they continue as they have begun," adding, with characteristic Yankee caution, "Can't tell yet how smart they are."