The Quenching of Salted Bones

This post is the first for The Northerner, a multisensory dinner performance series by Max La Rivière-Hedrick.

Art by lettering artist Candice Obayashi, in collaboration with Brian Scott

Looking through his sightglass, Capt. Morehouse of the British brigantine Dei Gratia could tell something was wrong, and he dispatched an emergency boarding party. In the distance, the Mary Celeste was yawing, under short canvas, eerily with no crew on deck. She was a ghost ship.

It was December 4, 1872, between the Azores and Portugal, towards the Strait of Gibraltar. The boarding party confirmed that the Mary Celeste crew was missing and "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess.” They discovered the ship had taken on three and a half feet of water, but in general was seaworthy. Her valuable cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol was intact, and there remained six months of food, fresh water, and supplies.

With sails flapping and rigging clacking, the boarding party found the crew’s personal belongings, rain gear, oiled boots, and smoking pipes next to their berths. The cabin skylight was open, and the working charts untouched. The rosewood harmonium, which must have belonged to the captain's wife, was dry and in perfect condition. They obviously had left in a hurry.

There are many theories that attempt to explain the ghost ship: explosion, seaquake, drunkenness, mutiny, piracy, gale-force wave, even sea monster. In 2007, The Smithsonian concluded after a thorough investigation involving a group of international experts that the explanation was, ultimately, “premature abandonment.”

We will never know what happened on the day the ship’s crew disappeared, but imagine if you could step onto the Mary Celeste. As you walk over the pine planks, hands running along cabin walls, you let her spirit talk to you, and she provides tantalizing hints if not outright answers.

We have identified a ship spirit that we want to coax into talking to us, and to you. We will pour boiling water over its salted bones, quenching the dry oak. We will use sound, scent, libation, and food to coerce her spirit out of suspension, to stir once more, to spill out tales of brotherhood, the Gold Rush, pirates, wool races, smugglers, Cape Horn, privateers, and transoceanic trade routes rich with opium, tea, coffee, and spice.

Her name is The Northerner. She was a majestic California clipper ship, and her bones were once upon a time salvaged and repurposed in the construction of a San Francisco warehouse: this is where it happens.