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4 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 4 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 4, 2021 at 6:06 am
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4 December 1872: Sailors spot a mysterious ghost ship

The abandoned Mary Celeste is discovered drifting in the Atlantic

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It was about one in the afternoon of Wednesday 4 December 1872, and the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia was making good time across the Atlantic. Then, as Captain Morehouse was coming on deck, the helmsman reported a ship some six miles away, moving very oddly.

For two hours Morehouse and his men watched the ship. They hailed her, but there was no reply. At last Morehouse sent his first and second mates in a small boat to find out what was going on.

As the mates approached the stricken vessel, they realised that they knew her. She was an American merchant ship, barely a decade old. Only a few weeks earlier both ships had been in New York Harbor, and their captains vaguely knew one another. This was Captain Benjamin Briggs’ ship, the Mary Celeste. But where were the crew?

As the two mates investigated, the mystery deepened. Contrary to myth, there were no untouched meals and no signs of a struggle. The sails were poorly set, some of the hatches were open and there was a little water in the hold, but the ship was otherwise in decent order. The captain’s cabin was slightly messy, and his papers were missing. So, tellingly, was the lifeboat. But the galley was tidy, and there were plenty of supplies. Above all, there were no signs of a fight, no hints of fire or disaster – nothing, in short, that would explain the disappearance of the entire crew.

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Now Morehouse escorted the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar for a salvage hearing. But still there were no answers. Some people said Captain Briggs had gone mad and slaughtered his crew; others suggested that Morehouse had done it. There was talk of a seaquake, an iceberg, or a gas explosion, prompting the crew to abandon ship. But the most inventive answer came in 1965, in an episode of Doctor Who. The crew, the programme suggested, had been frightened into jumping overboard by the appearance of Daleks. | Read more about the Mary Celeste and 16 more historical mysteries

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

4 December 1110
The Syrian port of Sidon was captured and sacked by the forces of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem and King Sigurd of Norway.
4 December 1259
The Treaty of Paris between Henry III of England and Louis IX of France. Henry acknowledged French overlordship of Normandy but kept Gascony and Guyenne, albeit as a vassal of the French king.
4 December 1732
The death of poet and dramatist John Gay.
4 December 1791
The first edition of The Observer, the world's first Sunday newspaper, was published. It was founded by WS Bourne who told his friends that the newspaper ""would obtain him a rapid fortune"". Within three years Bourne was £1,600 in debt.
4 December 1808
Napoleon's French army retakes the Spanish capital, Madrid, which had been back in the hands of the Spaniards following their victory at Bailen in July.

Browse more On this day in history

Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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