Carroll A. Deering was a five-masted commercial schooner that was found run aground off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in 1921. Her crew was nowhere to be found. The Deering is one of the most written-about maritime mysteries in history, with claims that she was a victim of the Bermuda Triangle, although the evidence points towards a mutiny or possibly piracy.
The Carroll A. Deering was built in Bath, Maine, in 1919 by the G.G. Deering Company for commercial use. The owner of the company named the ship after his son. One of the last large commercial sailing vessels, the ship was designed to carry cargo and had been in service for a year when she began her final voyage to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Deering’s last voyage
On July 19, 1920, the Deering sailing from Puerto Rico arrived at Newport News, to pick up a cargo of coal for delivery to Rio de Janeiro. The ship was captained by William H. Merritt. Merritt was a hero of World War I who had been cited for bravery under fire for saving his entire crew when his previous command, the Deering-built five-masted Schooner Dorothy B. Barrett, was sunk by the German submarine U-117 off Cape May, New Jersey in 1918. Merritt’s son, Sewall, was his first mate and he had a ten-man crew made up entirely of Scandinavians (mostly Danes). On August 26, 1920, the Deering cleared the Virginia Capes bound for Rio, but Captain Merritt soon fell seriously ill and the Deering turned back and put into the port of Lewes, Delaware, to drop off Merritt along with his son. The Deering Company hastily recruited Captain Willis. B. Wormell, a retired 66-year-old veteran sea captain, to replace him on the voyage to Brazil. Charles B. McLellan was hired on as first mate.
The Deering with Wormell in command set sail for Rio on September 8, 1920, arriving there and delivering her cargo without incident. Wormell gave his crew leave and met with a Captain Goodwin, an old friend who captained another cargo vessel that was docked in Rio. Wormell spoke of his crew with disdain, though he claimed to trust the engineer, Herbert Bates, whom Goodwin was acquainted with as well. The Deering left Rio on December 2, 1920, and stopped for supplies in Barbados. First Mate McLellan got drunk in town and complained to Captain Hugh Norton of the Snow that he could not discipline the crew without Wormell interfering, and that he had to do all the navigation owing to Wormell’s poor eyesight. Later Captain Norton, his first mate and another captain were in the Continental Café and heard McLellan say, “I’ll get the captain before we get to Norfolk, I will.” McLellan was arrested in a drunken state, but on January 9 Wormell forgave him, bailed him out of jail, and set sail for Hampton Roads.
The ship was next sighted by the Cape Lookout lightship off North Carolina on January 28, 1921, when the Deering hailed it. The lightship’s keeper, Captain Jacobson, reported that a tall thin man with reddish hair and a foreign accent speaking through a megaphone told him the vessel had lost her anchors in a storm off Cape Fear and asked that the ship’s owners, the G.G. Deering Company, be notified. Jacobson took note of this, but his radio was out, so he was unable to report it. He also noticed that the crew seemed to be “milling around” on the quarterdeck of the ship, an area where they were usually not allowed. The following afternoon, the crew of another vessel transiting the area spotted the Deering sailing a course that would take it directly onto the Diamond Shoals. They, however, saw no one on her decks and didn’t attempt to hail the schooner, assuming her crew would spot the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or the Diamond Shoals Lightship and change course to avoid fetching up on the shoals.
On January 31, 1921, the Deering was sighted at dawn by surfman C.P. Brady who was on lookout duty at the Coast Guard station at Cape Hatteras. The vessel was hard aground with all sails set on the outer edge of Diamond Shoals. These shoals that extend offshore from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina have been notorious as a common site of shipwrecks for centuries, are known as “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. Rescue ships were unable to approach the vessel owing to bad weather. The ship was not boarded until February 4, after being battered by the surf for several days, and it became clear that the schooner had been completely abandoned. Her steering equipment was found to be damaged, with the wheel shattered the binnacle box stove in, and the rudder disengaged from its stock. The ship’s log and navigation equipment were gone, along with the crew’s personal effects and the ship’s two lifeboats were gone as well. In the vessel’s galley it appeared that certain foodstuffs were being prepared for the next day’s meal at the time of the abandonment. The Coast Guard cutter Manning attempted to salvage the Deering, but found this impossible. The vessel was declared a hazard to navigation and scuttled, using dynamite, on March 4 to prevent her from becoming a danger to other vessels.
A portion of her bow later drifted ashore on Ocracoke island. Wooden timbers from the wreck also washed ashore on Hatteras Island, and were used by local residents to build houses.
The U.S. government launched an extensive investigation into the disappearance of the crew of the Deering. Five departments of the government—Commerce, Treasury, Justice, Navy, and State—looked into the case. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, was intrigued by the fact that several other vessels of various nationalities—most notably the sulfur freighter Hewitt—had also disappeared in roughly the same area. Although most of these vessels were later revealed to have been sailing in the vicinity of a series of particularly powerful hurricanes, the Hewitt and Deering were proven to have been sailing away from the area of the storm at the time. Hoover’s assistant, Lawrence Ritchey, was placed in charge of the investigation. Ritchey tried to chart what happened to the vessel between her last sighting at Cape Lookout and her running aground at Diamond Shoals by reading the log books of the Coast Guard lightships stationed in those areas.
The investigation remained largely fruitless. When an Italian inquiry into the disappearance of the vessel Monte San Michele confirmed that there had been strong hurricanes in the vicinity, most of the conspiracy theories were dropped and mutiny was generally accepted as the explanation for the Deering incident.
The investigation was closed in late 1922 without an official finding on the incident.
There were a number of popular theories about the incident. It seemed at first that an external force was responsible for the disappearance of the crew.
On April 11, 1921, a local fisherman named Christopher Columbus Gray claimed to have found a message in a bottle floating in the waters off Buxton Beach, North Carolina; he swiftly turned it over to the authorities. The text of the message was as follows:
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.
The handwriting in the letter was identified as that of the ship’s engineer, Bates, by the widow of Captain Wormell, and the bottle was proven to have been manufactured in Brazil. This, along with a sighting of a “mysterious” steamer that arrived at the Cape Lookout lightship in the wake of the Deering, suggested hostile action. The captain of the lightship had attempted to hail the steamer to get her crew to relay the message from the Deering but she failed to respond and he could not make out her name.
The message also raised skepticism: if a crew member did manage to get hold of paper, pen, and bottle and write a letter, why would he request that the company be notified, as opposed to the police or Coast Guard? However after further questioning by federal agents Christopher Gray later admitted the letter had been forged. Gray apparently forged the note in hopes that the publicity he would garner from finding it would help him secure employment at the Cape Hatteras Light station.
The following theories were considered by the U.S. government in its investigation:
Hurricanes: The U.S. government, particularly the Weather Bureau, strongly advocated a series of powerful hurricanes known to have been raging in the Atlantic as the cause of the disappearances. As mentioned above, however, both the Deering and the Hewitt were heading away from the path of these storms. In any case, several authors, including Larry Kusche and Richard Winer, have pointed out that the state of the ship indicates an orderly rather than panicked evacuation.
Piracy: Captain O.W. Parker of the United States Marine Shipping Board certainly believed piracy responsible; he stated that, in his opinion, “Piracy without a doubt still exists as it has since the days of the Phoenicians”. Captain Wormell’s widow was a particularly strong advocate of this theory. It was believed that a group of pirates were responsible for the various disappearances; however, no real evidence of this theory emerged, and no suspected pirates were ever caught.
Russian/Communist Piracy: During a police raid on the headquarters of the United Russian Workers Party (a Communist front group) in New York City, officers found papers that called on members of the organization to seize American ships and sail them to the Soviet Union. These papers indicated that a Communist plot was afoot, and was circumstantially linked to several shipboard strikes the previous year. This was widely believed in regard to the Deering at the time, particularly by hardline anti-communists in the government. Although an intriguing suggestion, no definitive proof that any of these activities were actually carried out has surfaced.
Rum Runners: A similar theory to the above speculates that a group of liquor smugglers working out of the Bahamas stole the ship to use as a rum-running vessel (this was during the Prohibition era). The Deering was large enough, according to Richard Winer’s Ghost Ships, to carry roughly a million dollars’ worth of liquor in her hold. On the other hand, it is doubtful that such a conspicuous, easily identifiable and comparatively slow vessel would constitute a choice target for smugglers.
Mutiny: Wormell’s known conflict with his first mate and derisive comments towards his crew while in Rio de Janeiro suggested that something may have been amiss between the captain and his men on the voyage. Captain Jacobson at Cape Lookout certainly thought it odd; the man who hailed his vessel was definitely not Captain Wormell, and he was not an officer by all accounts. Senator Frederick Hale of Maine advocated this theory, stating it was “a plain case of mutiny”. Discontent with the captain could certainly have caused a mutiny of the crew, but once again, nothing definitive has ever been proven.
Perhaps inevitably, a more outlandish type of explanation became popular within a few decades of the incident:
Paranormal Explanation: The disappearance of the ship’s crew has been cited by innumerable authors dealing with anomalous phenomena and the supernatural. Charles Fort, in his book Lo! (1931), first mentioned this vessel in a “mysterious” context, and many subsequent chroniclers of sea mysteries have followed suit. Since this vessel sailed in the area generally considered to be part of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, the disappearance of the crew has often been tied to this fact. However it should be noted that the ship’s resting place (Diamond Shoals) and her last known point of sighting and communication (Cape Lookout) are several hundred miles away from the area generally known as the Bermuda Triangle.
No official explanation for the disappearance of the crew of the Carroll A. Deering was ever offered, though all of the concrete evidence suggests mutiny. The case is a favorite of paranormal and Bermuda Triangle hobbyists and has gained a reputation as one of the truly great maritime mysteries. It is also possible that the Deering’s crew simply abandoned ship after the vessel grounded on Diamond Shoals and, unable to row to shore, were swept out to sea and to certain death in their small open lifeboats.
When the Coast Guard boarded the Deering they found that distress signals, two red lights high in the rigging, had been lit. The steamer Hewitt that was known to be in the area could have sighted the distress signals and taken the crew of the Deering aboard. The Hewitt was later lost with all hands so it is possible that the Deering crew may have gone down with her.
The ship’s bell and capstan from the Carrol A. Deering are on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.