The Mary Celeste
December 4, 2003 4:40 AM   Subscribe

131 years ago today, the Mary Celeste, an American ship bound for Genoa, was found adrift in the Atlantic. Thus began of one of the most well known and loved of maritime mysteries, with numerous possible solutions offered.
posted by moonbird (23 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Weird, I've been calling it the Marie Celeste since forever.

I like the fact that a not-so-mysterious tale (they were in the lifeboat, it sank) grew so quickly into a mysterious one (pirates! ghosts! stuff like that!).
posted by jack_mo at 4:52 AM on December 4, 2003

The stories I remember reading as a kid involved finding half eaten meals on the table and pipes still smoking in ashtrays....I guess "half smoked pipe" became "still smoking pipe." Darn, seems much less compelling now.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:36 AM on December 4, 2003

I played a LARP about this once. I think the crew was captured by Aliens...or Vampires...or Elves. It was all very confusing...
posted by JonahBlack at 6:20 AM on December 4, 2003

Good Stuff! Nice post, Moonbird.
posted by shoepal at 7:02 AM on December 4, 2003

Thanks for the post la.
posted by johnnyboy at 7:27 AM on December 4, 2003

December 4, 2134 - "131 years ago today, the "American Democracy" was found adrift in the Atlantic. All hands had mysteriously abandoned the ship. Prior to the abandonment, it seems, the vessel had been outfitted with an autopilot which ran by means of a cash submission slot in the side of the device which would accept only large denomination bills.....

One explanation of the mysterious abandonment of the ship is that it's crew decided to flee in lifeboats - and brave possible death on the high seas - because of endemic boredom due to the fact the "Democracy" had become fully automated, dependant only on a steady campaign donation cash flow, and no longer required human intervention. Other explanations have invoked aliens, or the Bermuda Triangle......"
posted by troutfishing at 7:32 AM on December 4, 2003 [1 favorite]

And the 2003 Best Derail Award goes to...
posted by Cyrano at 7:37 AM on December 4, 2003

Can anyone tell me why the passenger and crew of a big ship would all get into a small lifeboat tied to it in the middle of a huge storm.

I'm no mariner, but that seems nonsensical....
posted by davehat at 7:43 AM on December 4, 2003

They were afraid of explosion as the kegs of alcohol were shaken open and there were alcoholic fumes in the hold.

Tragic mistake, though - there was no explosion, the rope anchoring the lifeboat to the ship snapped, and they died.
posted by orange swan at 8:52 AM on December 4, 2003

davehat ("Can anyone tell me why the passenger and crew of a big ship would all get into a small lifeboat tied to it ") -

I think it might have been the same sort of impulse which used to drive people to set new records - for most humans stuffed into telephone booths and volkswagens - or the fascination some have with the thrill of careening out of control down a hill in a shopping cart full of screaming idiots.
posted by troutfishing at 9:08 AM on December 4, 2003

This is a coincidence, alright. I found a collection of Doyle stories at an online book site last night; one of them was "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", the same tale mentioned in the article. It was certainly an imaginative adventure story, though its racial overtones have become somewhat awkward at a century's distance.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:51 AM on December 4, 2003

If you thought the ship was going to explode, why would you tie yourself to it?
posted by jacquilynne at 10:05 AM on December 4, 2003

The explosion would not have been THAT big, and if it were they could have cut the line and rowed away pretty quickly. I guess it was a situation where they were hedging their bets - they thought it best to get off the boat in case of fire, but they didn't want to be separated from the ship in case it didn't catch fire or in case any fire that did happen went out before causing the ship to sink. Unfortunately they had no luck - there was no fire and the rope broke.
posted by orange swan at 10:47 AM on December 4, 2003

Damn - orange swan is serious. I guess it has been solved. Shit. .....moving right along, how about that Sasquatch mystery?.....
posted by troutfishing at 1:12 PM on December 4, 2003

Yeah, but where do the Celeste frozen pizzas fit in with this scenario?
If you can't explain the pizzas, then the mystery is NOT solved.
posted by wendell at 1:21 PM on December 4, 2003

I think orange swan is a little more serious than is warranted. It's a great story, but it's one part evidence, nine parts extrapolation and novelistic charm. We'll never know what actually happened on the good ship Mary Celeste (and I too always thought it was Marie).

On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea what's happening on board the American Democracy.
posted by languagehat at 3:09 PM on December 4, 2003

"American Democracy - ocracy - ocracy - ocracy...." Hey ! Is anyone else in here?

I actually hope the Mary Celeste mystery remains unsolved. All the better to use for an around-the-campfire scary story.
posted by troutfishing at 9:09 PM on December 4, 2003

wendell - in the year 2134, the two tales - of the Mary Celeste, and the pizzas - will have merged.

"The Mary Celeste was found drifting at sea, abandoned by her crew ; but she carried a full cargo of perfectly preserved, still frozen and quite delicious frozen pizzas!"
posted by troutfishing at 9:16 PM on December 4, 2003

Of course no one can know - but "fear of explosion" seems like the most reasonable explanation, fits all the facts, and I think that's what probably happened.

But don't ask me to explain the frozen pizzas. What am I, psychic?
posted by orange swan at 6:57 AM on December 5, 2003

orange swan - It wouldn't matter if you were. Frozen pizzas are known to generate a localized field which blocks extra-sensory abilities, although the strength of this effect depends, to an extent, on the quality of the cheese.

Tombstone Frozen Pizzas are quite impenetrable.
posted by troutfishing at 8:20 AM on December 5, 2003

And that reminds me : In one of the little-known incidents of the Cold War, President Kennedy - upon learning of the extensive research into long-range "Psychic Spying" experiments being conducted in the Soviet Union at the time - ordered the construction of a special "safe room" in the White House, a room designed to be quite opaque to the Soviet psychic spies. This was accomplished by surrounding the room with a thin refrigerated liner-wall filled with frozen pizzas. The "Pizza-shield" room did not long survive the Kennedy administration though. Even before the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, delivered the coup de grace to the then archaic pizza technology, it had fallen out of demand as early as latter days of the Johnson Administration, when - per the advice of the brilliant and forward thinking Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara - newer psychic prophylactic methods which had been developed by the RAND corporation were introduced and so the "Pizza Room" was outclassed and supplanted by other types of cheaper and more effective frozen food-based devices which were portable enough to be lugged from room to room in the White House.

The Kennedy-era "pizza room" was always spartan, cold and dank - "This isn't about comfort, gentlemen", Kennedy would say, "It concerns the survival of Democracy itself." and, besides, the room always had a peculiar odor which could never be neutralized. Some found it nauseating, but in others it turned their thoughts towards food and so impaired their ability to concentrate on matters of national security. So, the room fell into disuse. Eventually it even ceased to exist, in a sense, for White House staffers took to raiding the specialized walls for the frozen pizzas - which had become a coveted late-night snack as they had inexplicably mellowed rather well through the long years, in the fashion of certain wines which benefit from aging. President Johnson has been credited with the first raids into the frozen pizza cache, and was reported to have said "I don't trust a man until I have his pecker in my pocket. And I don't feel like squeezing that pecker to get what I need until I've got a few frozen pizzas under my belt." Johnson, per the advice of White House physicians following Johnson's gall-bladder operation, stopped eating the pizzas (and especially fatty food in general) but the younger White House staffers with newer digestive tracts and intact gall bladders continued the practice, with the blessings of Johnson (ever the political horse trader) who reportedly boomed out, at a White House staff meeting when reports of unauthorized pizza-raiding surfaced, "Well, I really don't give a rat's ass who eats those pizzas! I can't do it any more - Eat 'em up boys!" The tradition become bipartisan during the following Nixon Administration ; Henry Kissinger recounts, in his memoirs, that Nixon had a perverse, vindictive fondness for consuming the pizzas - Nixon felt that in eating them, he was erasing to an extent the Kennedy legacy and so dealing Jack a posthumous payback for the 1960 election - with it's allegations of campaign impropriety on the part of the democrats.

Eventually, the last frozen pizza was eaten, the crumbs finished up by the resident mice, the refrigeration unit dismantled.....and so this curious institution passed away into the annals of White House legend and apocrypha and is now known only to an aging few whose numbers dwindle year by year.

It's sad, really.
posted by troutfishing at 9:15 AM on December 5, 2003 [15 favorites]

Oddly enough, the Pizza Room was paralleled by a room, hidden deep in the bowels of the Kremlin, whose walls were made of frozen vodka -- specifically, a rare whortleberry vodka that repelled psychic intrusion and whose entire production (once its properties were discovered by zek scientists hoping to get either a sentence reduction or an Order of Lenin, whichever was on offer that week) was commandeered by the Party. Stalin had the Vodka Room built as he became increasingly paranoid in the early '50s, and needless to say during his lifetime no one would have dared tamper with it. After he died, Malenkov didn't use the room but kept it strictly off limits (making good use of the rumor that Beria's ghost patrolled it with a Nagant that fired real bullets); Khrushchev, however, thought the anti-psychic powers would be useful, and after he took over eventually (having overcome his peasant fear of the Beria apparition) began using it for secret conclaves. Alas, the "Khrushchev thaw" worked on the frozen walls as well as the political situation, and as guards lost their fear of retribution they began melting bits of the walls when no one was looking (since it was forbidden for anyone other than high Party officials to bring alcohol into that part of the Kremlin). As Khrushchev encoutered more and more obstacles to his reform program, he began taking nips from the walls himself, and by the time of his overthrow in late '64 the room was in such bad shape it was officially decommissioned and the final remains consumed in a Rabelaisian orgy. None of this was suspected outside of the inner circle until after the fall of the Soviet Union and the admission of researchers into the Party archives, and as soon as the KGB (under its new alias FSB) regained power it closed off those files and banned all reference to them. Sooner or later, though, a book is bound to be published about the Vodka Room that played such a remarkable part in Cold War history, so remember -- you read it here first!
posted by languagehat at 1:31 PM on December 5, 2003 [1 favorite]

In the late 1950s, Dr Richard Phillips, a researcher at Poppleton Technical College (a founding member of the University of Poppleton) published his paper “Wheat Starch Granule Distribution. Amylose and Amylopectin Polymers in household comestibles” in the noted journal, The Custard, Gravy and Match-head Bindings Sentinel.

On the morning of September 13th 1960, Dr Phillips accepted a lift to work from a mysterious man driving what eyewitnesses described as a space age vehicle (later identified as an Austin 1100). He has never been seen in public since.

Around the same time, British and American secret services began project ULTRA, an investigation into para-psychological phenomena.

By the late 1960s, an extensive underground bunker system was being constructed in Corsham, Wiltshire. It was to be one of 15 “regional centres” in the event of nuclear war. Rumours began to spread that the layout of the complex was rather unorthodox. Eight of the other centres had already been completed to a standard neo-brutalist design regimen, but Corsham was to follow a new model.

Classified documents relating to the time were recently downgraded, as is standard practice for intelligence information dating back 30 years but, alas, they are not available online. The documents hint at the new thinking behind layouts for secret buildings given the perceived threat of Remote Viewing. It is here where some clues as to the later life of Dr Phillips are can be drawn.

The top 5 floors of the bunker have walls of standard build, 15ft of concrete sandwiched between alternating layers of lead, copper and steel of varying thickness. Rooms are divided into groups of “cells” each containing a similar set of facilities. However, the bottom 15 floors are radically different. Here documents specify a 20ft thick ceramic outer-wall and a 2in thick inner wall sandwiching a liquid held at a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Anecdotal reports from a former secret service agent reveals that for the better part of 40 years, the hallowed pages of The Custard, Gravy and Match-head Bindings Sentinel were used as a front for MI5 intelligence. Scattered among pages of technical reports such as “Cold-Water Swelling Or Dispersibility Of Arrowroot” and “Film Forming Properties of Complex Starches” lay highly sensitive coded messages.

Dr Phillip’s chance usage of the character string “….mouthfeel, lubricity and palate-coating are not unusually….” caused a great excitement among the boffins at Menwith Park, tasked with deciphering the journal. Once they had finished parsing volume LXXIV (November-December 1959), this phrase was decoded as “….para-psychological phenomena are severely hindered by...“. Initial excitement within intelligence circles soon became concern as it was discovered that the rest of the paper was just junk code and thusly, the material that held such properties remained unknown.

The two other decipherable messages in that 1959 edition related firstly to project ULTRA and lastly to specifications for the Corsham bunker. Herein lies a probable explanation for Dr Phillips disappearance. Close inspection of the plans for Corsham Bunker reveal it to be vase-like in cross section excepting that it is wider than it is high. There is evidence of a spout like area in the upper floors and a looping staircase unit that is handle-like in profile. An analysis of the chemical make up of the liquid suspended between the inner and outer walls reveals a mixture of monosaccharide glucose polymers, water, yeast extract and beef dripping.

This substance is more commonly known as gravy.

In a stunning cold-war intelligence mix-up, Corsham bunker, whose first 5 floors had already been completed, was re-modelled, from the 6th level down, in the form of a fully functioning gravy boat. All rooms from there down to the 20th floor were surrounded by 3ft of warm liquid under the misunderstanding that Bisto Gravy inhibited the remote viewing capabilities of Soviet spies.

Dr Phillips was undoubtedly involved in the development of the Corsham lower bunker project, but what happened to him after the mix-up was identified remains a mystery. It is assumed that he was permanently silenced. Corsham was re-built in adherence to the more conventional "stacked Pizza Box" construction. The wall cavities are filled with a material that remains classified to this very day.

As an interesting aside, Prof. Johnson P. Thwaite’s 1959 paper “Freeze/Thaw properties of processed cheese” was originally due to be published in volume LXXIV of The Custard, Gravy and Match-head Bindings Sentinel only to be removed shortly before publication due to a missing footnote. Dr Phillip’s paper was a last minute replacement.

Prof. Thwaites defected to Moscow in the early seventies, around the same time that the doors to the Whitehouse “Pizza Room” were closed for the last time. He had been an active double agent for the USSR for more than 17 years.
posted by davehat at 7:22 AM on December 8, 2003 [2 favorites]

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