The history of the sea is littered with mysterious disappearances and abandoned ships. From the Mary Celeste to the likely fictional Man of Medan, these bizarre incidents have been whispered about by old sailors in taverns around the world. They add to the superstition surrounding the oceans, standing as “evidence” that strange forces exist out there in the endless and desolate waters of the globe. However, while legends tell of sea monsters and spirits, more human evils such as mutiny and piracy can often be blamed for many of the incidents. Into this world of mystery and criminality steps the Carroll A. Deering, a boat where the entire crew seemingly vanished into thin air.
It was on July 19, 1920, that the Carroll A. Deering, a five-masted commercial scooter, arrived at port in Newport News, Virginia. The ship was there to pick up a shipment of coal that it intended to transport to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The boat was in excellent condition and seemingly manned by a sturdy crew, the ship being constructed just the previous year in Bath, Maine. The vessel was a sleek and beautiful sight, being a fine example of a late working sail-powered vessel at 255-foot long, 44-foot wide and at a weight of 1,879 tons. The captain was William H. Merritt, a war hero who had been cited for bravery while saving another crew during the First World War. His son, Sewall, served at first mate. The crew itself consisted of ten men, mostly made up of Danes.
However, it wouldn’t be the Merrits who commanded the ship on her ill-fated voyage, with the captain falling ill soon after departing Newport News. Docking at Lewes, Delaware, both men were put ashore, and Captain Willis B. Wormell took command for the voyage. Charles B. McLellan came aboard as the first mate. The choices seemed unwise, with Wormell disliking the crew, a mutual feeling. He had a particular dislike for McLellan, who he believed to be incompetent and a troublemaker. McLellan, for his part, disliked the captain right back, even though his lack of discipline seemed to be a correct assessment of his character.
This ill-discipline reared its head on the return voyage from Rio. Making port in Barbados, a drunk McLellan began telling anyone who would listen that Captain Wormell was nearly blind, couldn’t navigate the ship and needed to stop interfering with his control of the men. After making threats against the captain, he was arrested by the local police. Quickly bailed out and forgiven as just drunken talk, the ship continued her journey home on January 9.
“I’ll get the captain before we get to Norfolk, I will.”
Charles B. McLellan
The ship was next sighted off the coast of North Carolina on January 28, hailing a lightship at Cape Lookout. The vessel would report being spoken to by a tall man with red hair who informed them that the ship had been caught in a storm at Cape Fear and had lost her anchors. The man was noted as having a foreign accent and seemed to be one of the Danes. The lightship’s keeper, Captain Jacobson, also pointed out that the crew were on the quarterdeck, an area usually out of bounds to ordinary seamen.
Later that day, the ship was spotted again, this time being on a course that would take them directly onto the Diamond Shoals. These shoals sit eight miles out from Cape Hatteras and are continually changing their form and depth, presenting a notorious obstacle to any sailor in the area. The ship ignored the Carroll A. Deering’s trajectory, presuming that the crew would become alerted by the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or the Diamond Shoals Lightship. They saw nobody on the decks.
At dawn on January 31, Surfman CP Brady was acting as a lookout at the US Coast Guard’s Cape Hatteras Station when he spotted that the Carroll A. Deering had come hard aground on the outer edge of the shoals, her sails still set. The ship would stay there for another four days, lousy weather battering the stricken vessel and ensuring that nobody could approach until February 4. Once onboard, it became clear that the ship had been abandoned, with the entire crew nowhere to be found.
Unlike the infamous Mary Celeste case, the vessel was far from untouched, with damage being recorded across the ship. The ship’s wheel was shattered. The binnacle box had been destroyed, and the rudder had been disengaged from its stock. The ship’s logs, navigation equipment and crew’s belongings were all gone, as were both lifeboats. Despite the comprehensiveness of the abandonment, it seemed that it may have been in more haste than it might appear, food being found mid-preparation in the galley.
The Coast Guard attempted to salvage the vessel and failed, the ship too far onto the bank in bad weather. Being a danger to other shipping, the decision was taken to sink the boat and dynamite was used to blow it to smithereens on March 4, 1921.
The US government immediately began an investigation into the circumstance surrounding the grounding of the vessel and disappearance of its crew, the size of the inquiry encompassing the departments of Commerce, Treasury, Justice, Navy, and State. Lawrence Ritchey, an assistant to the then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, was placed in charge of the investigation.
Ritchey investigated the logs of lightships in the area, attempting to piece together what transpired aboard the Carroll A. Deering between the last sighting of the vessel off Cape Lookout and its resting place on the Diamond Shoals. Despite many theories being presented, the investigation was closed in 1922 without finding any official conclusions.
The Weather Bureau was keen to push the theory that the boat had been struck by a hurricane, with such winds known to have hit the area immediately before the incident taking place. However, the Carroll A. Deering was found to have been travelling away from these storms at the time. The condition of the vessel also didn’t indicate that there was an immediate emergency, the crew having time to take their personal belongings before abandoning ship. However, the Weather Bureau pointed out that nine boats had been hunk in the area, including presumably the SS Hewitt, a steel-hulled bulk freighter that vanished at the same time that the Carroll A. Deering ran aground.
The SS Hewitt is often glossed over in retellings of the Carroll A. Deering tale, yet seems essential. Hewitt was a 387-foot long steel bulk freighter out of Boston and was described at the time as one of the largest bulk cargo carriers constructed in the United States.” Sailing under the command of Captain Hans Jakob Hansen, the vessel had left port in Texas carrying a cargo of sulphur and was bound for Portland in Maine, stopping in Boston. The ship made regular contact up to January 25, reporting all was well. After that, the ship vanished. Despite seemingly having a functioning radio, nothing was ever heard again from the Hewitt. The vessel was in the same area as the Carroll A. Deering. Despite the presence as mentioned earlier of hurricanes, the ship was sailing away from bad weather just like the Deering had been. The theory of poor weather is mostly discounted.
With both ships seemingly struck by tragedy in the same area, there was some speculation that they might have been involved in a collision, yet the condition of the Carroll A. Deering ruled this out. However, the Coast Guard in Atlantic City reported the sound and flash of an explosion approximately 20 miles offshore during the night of February 3, linking the event to the disappearance of the Hewitt.
With natural causes seemingly eliminated for the Deering, attention turned to other theories suggesting foul play. These include piracy, mutiny and smuggling.
In April of 1921, a local fisherman by the name of Christopher Columbus Gray claimed that he had found a message in a bottle relating to the case. The note was found at Buxton Beach in North Carolina and stated that the crew of the Carroll A. Deering had been captured by unknown assailants. After handing it over to authorities, investigators were told by Herbert Bates’ widow that the note had indeed been written by Bates, the ship’s engineer. The bottle, meanwhile, had come from Brazil. It seemed authentic.
“DEERING CAPTURED BY OIL BURNING BOAT SOMETHING LIKE CHASER. TAKING OFF EVERYTHING HANDCUFFING CREW. CREW HIDING ALL OVER SHIP NO CHANCE TO MAKE ESCAPE. FINDER PLEASE NOTIFY HEADQUARTERS DEERING.”
Text of the note found by Christopher Columbus Gray
Bates was said to be possibly the only man on board to have enjoyed a positive relationship with Captain Wormell, which makes a deception on his part seem unlikely. The Cape Lookout lightship meanwhile confirmed that they had seen a mysterious steamer that had refused their hails around the time of the Carroll A. Deering incident. Some have linked this to the SS Hewitt. Despite the evidence pointing toward the bottle being genuine, however, handwriting experts soon came to believe that the entire message was a hoax. Gray eventually admitted that he had created the statement and bottle, hoping to generate enough publicity that he might gain employment at the Cape Hatteras Light Station. Despite his confession, it seemed an awfully well-done fraud.
The fake message in the bottle took little away from the theories of foul play, with Captain OW Parker of the United States Marine Shipping Board believing that piracy was responsible. Parker thought that pirates were behind several disappearances in the area and said that “Piracy without a doubt still exists as it has since the days of the Phoenicians”. Despite the claims, there was little evidence behind his assertions.
However, while pirates are traditionally associated with the 17th century and the Golden Age of Piracy, there were still incidents of the crime in living memory. In 1908, for example, the daring and notorious American criminal Dan Seavey had hijacked the schooner Nellie Johnson in Michigan. Seavey came aboard the boat with plenty of alcohol, getting the crew drunk before tossing them overboard. Seavey then sailed the Nellie Johnson to Chicago and sold the cargo.
A related theory suggests that the boat had been the victim of an alcohol smuggling ring. With prohibition in effect in the US, there were fortunes to be made smuggling alcohol into the country, the restrictions creating a widespread problem with organised crime. Rum smugglers were known to exist in the Bahamas where the Carroll A. Deering had made port. A vessel of that size would have been useful to such a ring in transporting their wares, all be it conspicuous. Once captured, the ship had run aground, and those on board had been forced to abandon the seizure. Much like the theory of outright piracy, the story entertains but has little weight behind it.
Possibly the most popular theory behind the disappearance of the crew has been an onboard mutiny. Relations between Captain Wormell and his first mate, McLellan, had broken down in the Bahamas and Wormell disliked most of the crew. Captain Jacobson’s account of being hailed by a Dane at Cape Lookout points to the fact that captain was not in charge of the vessel at that point, as does the fact that those on board were seemingly in restricted areas of the ship. Equally, several pairs of boots were found in the captain’s cabin from different men, suggesting that the room had been used by others besides the captain. Also, while the ship’s map had been marked in Wormell’s hand until January 23, afterwards it was done by somebody else. Having abandoned the vessel, the crew could then have been lost at sea in the bad weather. It seems unlikely that the crew would have all successfully managed to stay off the radar for life and no lifeboats were ever recovered from nearby beaches.
Like the other theories, there is no hard evidence for this, despite it being favoured amongst many of those tasked with investigating at the time, including Senator Frederick Hale who stated that the Carroll A. Deering was “a plain case of mutiny”. Standing against the concept of mutiny is the fact that when the Deering was boarded, the US Coast Guard found that the distress signals had been lit, something that a mutinous crew were unlikely to do. Equally, the ship had no need to pass the lightship, with other courses open to whoever was in command of the vessel.
The disappearance of the Deering has also been linked to the paranormal and the classic Bermuda Triangle legends, with Charles Fort correlating the vanishing to mysterious phenomena in his 1931 book Lo!. However, despite recent tales that try and link the incident to others in the area, the Diamond Shoals sit comfortably outside the traditional scope of the Bermuda Triangle, as does Cape Lookout where the last sighting of the crew alive took place.
While there are many theories, some more exotic than others, one last possibility remains that may, in fact, fit many of the points. That being the crew simply abandoned ship. With the Captain’s eyesight said to be failing and, at 198lbs and 66 years of age, overweight and ageing, it is possible that he became unwell enough to be forced to give up his command, or, equally, that he was gravely wounded in the storm that apparently lost the ship her anchors. Taking on more responsibilities, an inexperienced crew headed toward the Shoals. Lighting the distress signals, they were forced to abandon the boat and subsequently swept back out to sea in bad weather. Some have even suggested that the crew faced a double dose of tragedy and were rescued by the SS Hewitt, perishing in a tragic sulphur explosion. However, if this was indeed the case, then it seems unlikely that the redheaded Dane would have failed to mention the ailing captain to the Cape Lookout lightship. The radio silence before the suspected Hewitt explosion has also not been explained.
The ocean is an ideal location for crime, with the endless depths and vast distances providing a perfect cover for those wishing to hide evidence and make a secret getaway. Tales of pirates and smugglers fire the imagination. With no evidence to support any theory, the mystery of the Carroll A. Deering has become one of the most famous unsolved mysteries in the lore of the sea. The mysterious vanishing of other ships in the area, however, is suggestive that there may have been outside forces at work. Yet, equally, the danger of the sea can never be discounted. Such vanishings could exist as mere coincidence, the likelihood of accidents and simple lousy luck being just as likely as anything criminal, and we can only continue to speculate as to what transpired with either the Hewitt or Deering over those few days nearly a hundred years ago.
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