In 1872, the crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared without a trace. Her story only got weirder from there.
But it wasn't so easy for the defense to explain a letter in the captain's hand, dated two months after the wreck, which the first mate also produced:
E. Boston, March 5, '85
I wood advise you not to know to much a bout cargo fer the shipers have put in their bill of Invoice to the adgestors and the protest and Log Book as that stand is all that I want. You will be cald over to the Insurance look out you do not get in the Roung track by knoing to much.
After days of testimony, now it was the jury who knew too much. They had to decide whether Parker's plot deserved a conviction on the maritime charge of barratry—deliberate destruction of a vessel—a crime then punishable by death.
After counts and recounts, the jury returned with a shocker: They’d deadlocked, 7-5, with the majority in favor of conviction. The five holdouts, it seemed, just couldn't bring themselves to send a man to the gallows over rotten fish and bad butter. Three years later, and perhaps with the abandoned prosecution of Capt. Parker in mind, a Massachusetts congressman worked to amend the barratry law so that it would no longer be a capital offense.
"The penalty of death would be simply shocking," he admitted to a House committee. "In many cases juries refused to convict, even when guilt was proved, as the only way to prevent a greater evil."
But the doomed ship seemed to carry its own sentence: Nearly everyone else indicted in the conspiracy went bust, and Capt. Parker died under obscure circumstances just three months after his trial. They might have taken heed of the fate of David Cartwright, a previous owner who had already lost a small fortune on the Mary Celeste. "Of all the unlucky vessels I ever heard of," he would recall, "she was the most unlucky."
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Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.