Carroll A. Deering


Carroll A. Deering

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 of event.


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 never learned.


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. to Europe.


--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 Florino.


--Norwegian cargo ship Svartskog.


--Danish bark Albun.


--Steamship Yute


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.”


Investigation revealed 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.


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