The Strange Case Of The
Carroll A. Deering
By James Donahue
It was on Jan. 31, 1921
that a passing ship reported an unidentified five-masted schooner hard aground on Diamond Shoals, North Carolina.
The Coast Guard responded
and found that the ill-fated ship was the Carroll A. Deering, its sails still set, food in the state of preparation in the
galley, but there was no trace of the ship’s 11-member crew. And thus began a story that has become one of the great
mysteries of the sea.
Not only does the Deering
story compare to another famous mystery ship, the Mary Celeste, found adrift without a crew off the coast of France, but there are implications of a Bermuda Triangle kind
It seems that at the
time the Deering’s crew mysteriously disappeared, marine investigators discovered that nine other ships also disappeared
without a trace in that same area at about the same time.
The information went
all the way to the White House and prompted President Herbert Hoover to order a special investigation. In spite of efforts
by top government investigators, not only by the United States
but by nations where many of the lost ships originated, the fate of the Deering’s crew and the nine missing ships, was
Those lost ships were
identified as follows:
--The S.S. Hewitt, Captain
Hans Jacob Hansen, with a crew of 42, carrying sulphur from Sabine, Texas to Portland, Maine. It was last heard from on Jan. 25. The
ship’s course and speed would have put it in the same area as the Deering.
--The steamship Monte
San Micelle of Italy, on route from the United
States to Europe.
--The steamship Esperanza
de Larrinaga of Spain, also traveling from the U.S.
--The tanker Ottawa, Captain Williams and a crew of 33, disappeared after sailing from Norfolk
for Manchester, England,
on Feb. 2 with 3,600 tons of reduced Mexican fuel oil.
--Cargo ship Steinsund.
--Italian cargo ship
--Norwegian cargo ship
--Danish bark Albun.
All of these vessels
vanished in late January or early February. The last heard from any of them was a radio message between the Ottawa and another ship, the Dorington Court,
on Feb. 6, 1921.
The incident made headlines
at the time. A New York Times story on June 23 suggested that the ships were all victims of modern day pirates.
The pirate story had
its origins from a story by Christopher Columbus Gray who reported on April 11 that he found a note in a bottle at Buxton Beach, North Carolina. The note
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 headquarters Deering.”
that the bottle was manufactured at Rio de Jenario, and the handwriting matched the handwriting of Herbert Bates, the Deering’s
engineer. It thus was considered an authentic note from the crew of the Deering. This prompted an order by the president for
the Navy to search for the oil burning boat that attacked the Deering.
In the end, Christopher
Gray confessed that he wrote the note and that the whole affair was a hoax.
Also it was learned that
there was a severe hurricane sweeping the Atlantic in February, 1921, and that all of the
missing ships probably steamed right into the storm. But this does not explain what happened to the crew of the Deering.
An investigation aboard
the wreck before the Deering broke up in storms revealed some interesting clues. Authorities said there was evidence that
the captain of the Deering, Willis B. Wormell, may have been murdered in a mutiny aboard ship and that someone else was keeping
the ship’s log. While the log was missing, there was a distinct change in the handwriting found on a wall map marking
the progress of the Deering beginning on January 23.
Also, it was learned
that Wormell confided in another captain, an old friend he met while in Rio de Jenario, that his first mate, identified as
Charles B. McLellan, was a trouble maker. McLellan had been hired on at the last minute as a replacement when the original
mate was forced to leave the ship to attend his sick father.
When the Deering stopped
at Barbados for supplies, McLellan went
ashore, got drunk, and was locked up in the local jail. Captain Wormell managed to get him out of jail in time to sail. But
authorities said there was obvious bad blood between the two men, and during a heated argument, McLellan threatened Wormell.
Thus McLellan became
a possible instigator in the mutiny theory. This could not be proven, since none of the crew members, including McLellan,
were ever found.
Whatever happened, the
crew had time to pack personal belongings before leaving the ship. Also the ship’s papers, chronometer, log and all
navigating instruments, including the ship’s clock were gone.
That food was found in
mid-preparation in the galley suggested that an event occurred that caused the crew to make a hasty departure, however.
In the captain’s
cabin was found evidence that as many as three men shared the room before the end. The spare bed was slept in. And there were
three different sets of boots in the room.
The ship’s anchors
were missing, but in their place were found make-shift anchors. Red lights had been run up the mast, signaling that she was
a derelict or out of control. But why? The Deering was found on the shoal, but with all sails set. It was clear that the ship
was not weathering a storm when it struck.