LISTEN: The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery


The Mary Celeste, while touted as a Great Sea Mystery, is notably less so when you talk to people who know a lot about old sailing ships.

The Mary Celeste was carrying barrels of liquor in her hold. In those cases, the hold needs to be vented on a regular basis to prevent explosions. Her hold’s hatches were open when she was discovered and there was a line dragging behind the ship.

Very likely (and this was standard procedure) dangerously high fume levels were detected and everyone needed to evacuate - pronto - and the hatches were opened to vent the hold. The ship’s small boat would have been tied to the ship and everyone would have piled in until the emergency conditions were over.

It’s speculated that that small boat’s prow might have dug under a wave while being towed by the Mary Celeste. The small boat would have gone under, and all lives lost. Eventually, the rope towing the boat would have broken.

No real Great Mystery, if you ask me.


To add a small factoid that might help people understand the times: it used to be normal that most sailors did not know how to swim. The thinking was, if they went overboard it would most likely be in bad conditions and/or far from land, so knowing how to swim would merely prolong the agony of dying. This is why sailors would die even if their shipwreck was close to land.

Now that there are numerous ways to track ships and search for survivors – as well as life preservers, rafts, etc. – it doesn’t make sense anymore to be so helpless in one’s working environment.


Other little factoid that underscores sailors and fishers constant companion, Death. In Scotland the beautiful hand-knitted Aran wool sweaters come in many patterns. The various patterns are associated with different families or with clans and were meant for identification.

When a body was recovered long after going overboard, their features were usually so bloated as to make them unidentifiable. If they still had their sweaters on, there was a chance to figure out who they were.

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No less a Scot than Alice Starmore has proven this to be a myth. For one thing, “Aran” sweaters weren’t even invented until the 1920s. It’s a beautiful story, but that’s all it is – a story.


It turns out, after a little googling, that I can blame John Millington Synge for the seeds of the myth.

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I had always been under the impression that Aran sweaters were Irish as the Aran Islands they came from are off the coast of Ireland.

They’re Irish, but most likely by way of the USA and Greece (the first ones seem to have been made by an Irish person who lived in the USA for a while and saw the Greek folk sweaters Arans most resemble). I mentioned Starmore because she’s done extensive research into both Scottish and Irish knitting traditions, and has the bonus skill of being able to speak to people fluently in both Irish and Gaelic, skipping the translation awkwardness of discussing the knitting in a subject matter expert’s second language (ie: English).

As a lifelong knitter, one of my pet peeves is that the romantics got hold of knitting history before the historians did. :smile:

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TIL - both the myth and the reality. Love it when that happens. :smiley:

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Next you’ll tell me the documentary Man of Aran wasn’t accurate!

[note: Man of Aran wasn’t accurate]

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Heh, that story about the corpse-identifying patterns was told to me by the saleslady in the shop in northern Scotland where I purchased said Aran sweater.

lol I don’t know why that’s considered a sales point (although it totally is). I could see a random tourist going, “wait, so if I drown on the whale watching cruise while I’m wearing this thing, they’re gonna think I’m from here!”.

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