At dawn on January 31st, 1921, from the lookout perch at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cape Hatteras Station, Surfman C. P. Brady peered out at the morning fog and spied a dark shape out on the shallow waters of Diamond Shoals, that collection of ever changing sandbars just off the coast, which, together with the other shoals off the Outer Banks, was known for claiming ships and earned the area the sobriquet “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” But there had also been another name among native tribes for this particular island now called Hatteras, a name listeners should recognize; it had once been called Croatoan by its inhabitants.
This morning, Surfman Brady squinted into the mists, unsure if his eyes were playing tricks on him in the crepuscular light and the morning’s brumous haze. But as the soupy mist receded, there could be no mistaking it. Somehow, in the night, a schooner had bottomed out on a sandbar of the Diamond Shoals despite the clear warning of the nearby Cape Hatteras Light, atop the black and white spiral stripes of its lighthouse tower. And what’s more, she looked to be a magnificent vessel, 255 feet from stem to stern, all told, with five grand masts and all its sails set. It must have been quite the sight, a relic from a bygone era appearing out of the fog of the past.
When the news of the shipwreck went out from the Coast Guard station, it was acted on by local boatmen, for there were many in that region who stood ready at a moment’s notice to plunge into the choppy waters of the Cape when a ship had run aground. First, there was the Lifesaving Service, which had stations seven miles apart up and down the coasts of the Outers Banks and had men marching the beaches on constant watch for ships in distress, none of which sentries had managed to spy the five-masted schooner out on the shoals. Then there were the wreckers, those who would have sought to salvage anything aboard the schooner before the waves that had scuttled it battered it to pieces. This was, after all, not far south of Nag’s Head, where as I discussed in my episode on Theodosia Burr, there was a long tradition of wreckers or bankers who would lure ships ashore and strip them of goods. Those still at the family business in the 1920s, of course, were of a decidedly less piratical bent, but they’d still make all haste to a ship that had foundered on the shoals. The seas, however, proved too rough for any of these lifesavers and wreckers and even for the Coast Guard cutters that were eventually dispatched to the wreck, and none could approach any closer than a quarter mile to the ship.
When finally, days later, on the 4th of February, the tugboat Rescue captained by James Carlson was able to board the schooner, it had been so battered by the sea that it was taking on water, its fore and aft decks rolling independently of one another with each crash of the waves. They made a search of her and found no one aboard, unless one counted the starved and mewling ship’s cat—or cats according to some versions. As in the stories of the Mary Celeste, a meal had been prepared; there were ribs in a pan, pea soup in a pot and coffee on the stove. Unlike that other ghost ship, though, there were clear signs of the ship’s abandonment. The ladder was hanging over the side and its lifeboats were gone—there had been a dory and a motorized yawl, and their falls had been simply cut as if to abandon the ship in haste. Moreover, all the crew’s belongings had been taken, as had the nautical instruments—her sextant and chronometer and telescope—and the ship’s papers. Oddly, in the head, or the toilet area, Captain Carlson found the ship’s charts strewn about, and elsewhere, he found the steering equipment disabled—the wheel had been shattered, the rudder disengaged from its stock, and the binnacle box staved in and broken. A sledge hammer leaned ominously near at hand, but Carlson could not tell if it had been utilized as an instrument of sabotage or a tool of repair. Further evidence also suggested the schooner had not been in working order even before it had foundered on the shoal, for both of its anchors were gone, and strangely, it seemed that the ship had simultaneously been sailing with her running lights and her emergency lights lit, as all were burned out. The latter, two red lights situated high up in the rigging, were signals meant to indicate an out-of-control vessel.
In the days after Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue was finally able to board the schooner, wreckers salvaged what they could for auction, which wasn’t much—some sails that could still be reused, some furniture. As it continued to be battered against the shoal by the relentless ocean, it was eventually declared to be a menace to the navigation of other ships. So an order was given to dynamite her, and most sources say that is what was done. At least one version gives a far more dramatic ending, however, asserting that even as the Coast Guard cutters put out to sea with the explosives to carry out these orders, a sudden storm whipped up and finally shattered the ghost ship. Either way, whether by man or by nature, she was certainly reduced to a patch of debris and timbers floating far and wide to wash ashore up and down the Outer Banks. And somewhere among that flotsam could likely be seen the transom, which as it drifted away still bore the schooner’s name and origin: Carroll A. Deering, Bath.
The five-masted schooner had been the largest and the last ship ever constructed by G. G. Deering Company in Maine—the finest accomplishment of the 99 ships Gardiner Deering built, and thus he had named it after his own son. And she was something of a ghost from the moment she was christened, as the days of wooden sailing vessels were dwindling when she was launched in 1919.
Designed to carry coal at a capacity of 3,500 tons, this she had done well until in late 1920, with a hold packed with coal bound for Rio de Janeiro, her captain became ill and the crew of the Carroll A. Deering was obliged to accept a substitute captain, an able old salt named Willis Wormell, on what would prove to be its final voyage. And it was the daughter of this new captain, one Lula Wormell, who would later demand a federal investigation of what had happened to the 10-strong crew of the Carroll A. Deering, as she was certain that if the crew had simply abandoned the ship on Diamond Shoals, they would have easily found help from the Coast Guard on shore and Captain Willis Wormell would have reunited with his family shortly thereafter.
The investigation uncovered some strange and foreboding details when looking into their journey. It turned out that, during a stay in Barbados en route to Norfolk, Virginia, after delivering their shipment of coal in Rio, Captain Wormell found another Maine sea captain who happened to be in port, one G. W. Bunker, and spent a day speaking with him, expressing some grave concerns over the crew he had found himself leading. He considered them unruly, especially his first mate, Charles McLellan. Meanwhile, McLellan had been enjoying the local rum and gotten deep into his cups, whereupon he found himself jailed and awaiting Captain Wormell to post his bail. This the captain did, but not before McLellan had supposedly been overheard making threats against the captain, swearing at one point that he would “get the old man” before they reached Norfolk.
After weathering several extremely stormy weeks on the Atlantic, the Deering was next sighted by a lightship 90 miles south of Hatteras. According to the captain of that lightship, one James Steel, the Deering’s crew appeared to be milling about on the quarterdeck, where crewmen were not typically allowed. A tall and thin red-haired man who did not speak or act like an officer addressed the lightship with a Scandinavian accent through a loudspeaker, claiming the vessel had lost its anchors south of Cape Fear near the Frying Pan Shoals while attempting to wait out a windstorm, and asked that the owners of the ship, G. G. Deering Company in Bath, Maine, be informed. The next afternoon, another vessel spotted the Deering plying waters on a course that would take it right onto the Diamond Shoals. These eyewitnesses, however, saw no one on her decks and simply disregarded the schooner, assuming her crew would eventually spot the Cape Hatteras Light or the Diamond Shoal Lightship and thereby avoid foundering on a sandbar.
But of course, they didn’t. And these piecemeal reports of the schooner’s final voyage, stitched together, appeared to point to one explanation: mutiny. And in support of this theory, there were some few other tantalizing details reported by Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue. It seems that there had been handwritten notes in Captain Wormell’s own hand in the margins of some of the recovered maps that had been dated up until the 23rd of January, 1921, after which the marginalia had been scrawled in another hand. Moreover, in the captain’s quarters, Carlson noted that the spare bed had been slept in, and he discovered three pairs of boots there, none of which belonged to Captain Wormell. These details along with the report of the men loitering on the quarterdeck, which was usually reserved only for the captain, and the fact that a red-haired Scandinavian man had addressed the lightship as if he were the captain, led many to assume that perhaps McLellan had made good on his threat, or that perhaps his mutiny had been quelled but not before it had claimed all those of high position on the vessel, as there were indeed Scandinavians aboard: six Danes, all sailors, and one Finn who served as boatswain. Perhaps the survivors of the shipwreck had all fled the Deering in fear of imprisonment.
However, the federal investigation, spearheaded by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, turned up some further items of interest as well. No sign of the lifeboats had ever been found, nor any wreckage or corpses. Nearby ports were all put on alert for any surviving crew members, but despite some false alarms, none ever turned up. As there was no way the men would have been able to run off with these boats carried over their heads, that meant either the ocean had swallowed them entire, survivors and all, or they had purposely sunk the lifeboats to cover their tracks. The only other possibility was that the boats, and perhaps the crew as well, had been taken up by another vessel. And indeed, as it turned out, another ship, the SS Hewitt, an oil steamer of the Union Sulphur Company, had disappeared off the Carolina coast around the same time. This has since led to speculation that the whole affair might be an early case of anomalous phenomena related to the Bermuda Triangle, suggesting that both of these ships met with unexplainable fates while in the northernmost waters of that mysterious patch of ocean, but at the time, these details pointed to a far more prosaic if no less unbelievable explanation: piracy. Unbelievable, I say, because this was far from the age in which piracy was common; it was the roaring 20s, not the 18th century.
Nevertheless, some information appeared that seemed to support this notion. For example, another ship, the Cyclops, had earlier disappeared in the area, further giving credence to the idea that pirates had been preying on ships in those waters. And shortly after James Steel, the captain of the lightship south of Hatteras, had encountered the Deering and spoken to the red-haired man on its quarterdeck, he spied an oil steamer and hailed it, thinking its crew could pass on the red-haired man’s distress message since his own wireless communications equipment was not in working order. This steamer, however, did not respond, and Steel, his interest piqued, examined the vessel and found he could not see its name displayed. He then blew his whistle, and contrary to maritime law, the steamer simply ignored him and changed its course. Could this have been the Hewitt, piloted by the pirates who had taken her?
Adherents of the piracy theory did not have to wait long for a smoking gun to tilt the case in their favor, for in April, an area fisherman named Christopher Columbus Gray discovered a message in a bottle while combing a beach north of Cape Hatteras. The fisherman turned it over to the Coast Guard, and the federal investigation then confirmed that the bottle was of a kind manufactured in Brazil, and the paper on which the note had been written matched a type commonly made in Norway. Moreover, those who knew the crew of the Deering identified the script as matching the handwriting of an engineer aboard the Deering—indeed the only member of the crew that Captain Wormell considered a stalwart friend—as it followed his unusual habit of capitalizing words mid-sentence. The message read: “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 head Qtrs Of Deering.”
The press, getting wind of the investigation, took the piracy theory and ran with it. The New York Times admitted it was a remote possibility but nevertheless a valid one, and the Washington Post took the matter much further, adding the intriguing angle, based on the message in Gray’s bottle, that said pirates had a torpedo-boat chaser or perhaps even a submarine obtained from a foreign government after World War One. These pirates, according to speculation, could be smugglers of bootleg alcohol, rogue Germans still fighting the war out of some African port, or Russian Bolsheviks looking to carry their spoils back to their fledgling Soviet Fatherland! The bootleggers theory was an especially popular one, this being the Prohibition era, as the Deering had come through rum-soaked Barbados. And the Deering’s hold would have been able to carry something like a million dollars’ worth of contraband alcohol, thereby making the vessel extremely valuable to booze runners. However, the idea that Bolshevists were preying on American ships off the coast of the Carolinas gained traction as well. Other ships that had gone missing in that general time frame were compiled in a list as victims of these supposed pirates, and it was pointed out that some of the cargo on ships reported missing was material denied the Communist regime under terms of embargo. Then a raid on a New York Communist front group turned up papers calling on revolutionaries to steal American vessels and cross the Atlantic to bring them to Russia, and rumors of ships appearing in Russian ports with blacked-out names began to circulate.
Of course, all of this should be considered in the context of the Red Scare, which was in full swing after the strikes, bombings and riots of 1919. Other news outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, and actual experts on nautical risks like meteorologists and Lloyd’s of London tended to downplay the idea that pirates were involved at all. Pirates would not have kidnapped the crew and abandoned the vessel, as the vessel itself or its cargo would have been their prize, and they certainly wouldn’t have needed the lifeboats, having presumably boarded the schooner from their own boats, so that was another mark in favor of the mutiny theory or the rather bland theory that the crew simple ran aground and then drowned in rough seas when they abandoned the schooner. Other theories suggested freak weather catastrophes that compelled the crew to abandon ship long before running aground or that the Deering had struck a floating mine left in the water from WWI. However, it seems unlikely they would not have reefed their sails during such inclement weather, and reports indicate the ship was intact on its sandbar and did not start taking on water until it had suffered days of crashing waves there, which would rule out the floating mine suggestion. Still other theories pointed to tropical disease and mass suicide, but these were even more far-fetched and couldn’t account for the lost lifeboats or the crew’s missing belongings.
And what of the message in a bottle? In August, a federal agent got close with the discoverer of the note, Christopher Columbus Gray, and coaxed from him an admission that he had forged the note as a hoax. At first, Gray evaded arrest, but later, rather stupidly accepting an invitation to start employment at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he was captured and confessed again to the imposture, explaining that he believed the renown from finding the message might land him a coveted job in the lighthouse.
One by one, these tall tales seemed to collapse beneath the weight of their own supposition, as the majority of the 10 missing ships presumed to be victims of pirates were thereafter blamed on an especially severe hurricane season. The federal investigation officially petered out in 1922, but no one theory remains a clear and certain answer. Did the ship lose its anchors and steering equipment in a storm and run out of control into the shoal? If so, why had they prepared and set out a meal before abandoning ship? And what happened to them afterward? Were their boats overwhelmed by waves?
Or had there been a mutiny against Captain Wormell led by First Mate McLellan? If so, how did they come to lose their anchors? Or was it perhaps both mutiny and foul weather that befell the ship? And then, what about the SS Hewitt? It is thought that this steam vessel would surely have survived any foul weather in the area. Does anything other than being boarded by pirates explain the disappearance of the Hewitt? Christopher Columbus Gray admitted to forging the message in a bottle, but that itself still seems mysterious, for how did this Carolina fisherman get the Brazilian bottle and Norwegian paper? Nor does he appear to have explained how he was able to effect such a convincing imitation of the engineer’s handwriting—or was that just a coincidental likeness or confirmation bias on the part of those who identified the writing? And even without the note, could not some act of piracy still be a viable explanation, at least in part? Couldn’t it be both, somehow? Or all? Could not the Deering have suffered a mutiny and then encountered disastrous weather, whereupon they encountered pirates who had earlier taken the Hewitt and then took the Deering as well? Perhaps it was these pirates who, discovering the schooner beyond repair, aimed it for the shoals and abandoned it for their true prize, the Hewitt.
If this were the 19th century, it might easily be assumed that the wreckers and bankers of the region had hung lamps from their horses’ necks to fool the ship’s crew into thinking they were entering safe harbor, only to founder themselves and be boarded and murdered. But this was the 20th century, and the Coast Guard was stationed nearby, and besides, there was no sign of violence aboard and nothing had been taken from the ship for salvage.
If pirates don’t float your boat, so to speak, would you rather look for some far more unexplainable explanation? Did the vanishing of the Hewitt and the disappearance of the Carroll Deering’s crew have something to do with that nexus of mysterious happenings, the Bermuda Triangle? Or perhaps to you this bears too striking a resemblance to the disappearance from that same neighborhood of over a hundred colonists at Roanoke some 330 years earlier. Perhaps, if Captain Carlson’s men had had examined the ghost ship just a little more closely before abandoning it a second time to the merciless sea, they might have glimpsed a mysterious word carved into one of the schooner’s five masts and recognized it as the ancient name of the island off whose shore it had foundered: Croatoan.
Thanks for listening to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. My principal source for this episode was Hatteras Island: Keeper of the Outer Banks by Ray McAllister and the non-fiction novel Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering by Bland Simpson, which I highly recommend and which you can find a link to on the website’s reading list.