"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Case of the Vanishing Crew

"Carroll A. Deering," January 1921

Although the “Mary Celeste” and her disappearing crew is arguably the most famous mystery of the sea, maritime history is full of similar cases that are at least as baffling as the one surrounding that ill-fated ship. One of the more controversial examples is the strange fate of the schooner “Carroll A. Deering.”  On September 8, 1920, the five-masted schooner sailed from Boston, carrying a load of coal to its destination in Buenos Aires.  The ship arrived in Rio without incident, and after a brief holiday on shore, the crew set out for Portland, Maine.  Instead, however, the ship sailed straight into The Weird.

The mystery first came to light on the early morning of January 31, 1921. Watchmen at South Carolina’s Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station saw the ship under full sail, ramming itself against Diamond Shoals. A Coast Guard crew went to investigate, but discovered no sign anyone was aboard.

It was a week before the seas calmed enough for the ship to be boarded. The only sign of life was a caged parrot below deck. Both the lifeboats, as well as two of the anchors, were missing. The “Deering" seemed to have been abandoned suddenly and in a great hurry.  A meal for the crew had been left in mid-preparation.  The steering equipment and binnacle were all destroyed, apparently deliberately. In the rigging were found two red lights, an internationally recognized distress signal. The “Deering’s” papers, log, and chronometer were all gone, as well as the crew members' belongings and the ship’s clock.

The room of Captain Willis B. Wormell was in a chaotic condition. Several different footprints on the floor indicated other men had been using the cabin. There was also an extra bed in the room.  The captain’s trunk, as well as other personal effects, were missing. The evidence all indicated that for whatever reason, Wormell had not been in command of the ship when it was abandoned.

This fact became even more ominous when it came to light that Wormell had expressed dissatisfaction with his crew. When the “Deering” had been discharging cargo in Rio, the captain told a friend that his first mate, Charles McLellan, was “worthless, incompetent,” and that the crew in general was an unruly lot too fond of the bottle. The only man onboard he could trust, he said, was his engineer, Herbert Bates. It was reported that there had been an argument between Wormell and McLellan, after which the first mate had threatened to “get the old man.”

On January 9, the ship set out from Barbados to Norfolk Virginia, for what would prove to be her final journey. The last “normal” sighting of the ship was on January 23, when she passed the lighthouse at Cape Fear, North Carolina.

A violent storm arose on the 27th. Two days later, the “Deering” was seen approaching the Cape Lookout lightship, just outside of Diamond Shoals. The lightship's captain, Thomas Jacobson, noted that the schooner’s crew was assembled on the quarterdeck, which was highly unusual. One of the crew used a megaphone to shout to the lightship that they had lost both their anchors, and wanted to have that reported ashore.

This only added to Jacobson’s unease. The man was definitely not the captain, who would ordinarily perform this duty—in fact, he did not look like an officer at all. His identity has never been positively determined.

An hour after the “Deering” went on its way, a strange vessel was seen going in the same direction. It refused to stop when hailed by Jacobson. The name of this ship, and the reason why it ignored the lightship’s attempts to stop it, remain unknown. It is also anyone’s guess what, if anything, this mystery ship had to do with the ominous disappearance of the “Deering” crew.

Evidence found aboard the ship indicated that the “Deering” had been abandoned on the evening of the 29th or 30th. A chart found aboard showed that the captain only marked their course until January 23rd. After that date, an unknown hand took over the task.

So, what happened to the captain and crew? Clearly, Wormell was not in charge for about a week before it was beached, but why? Had he fallen ill? Died from an accident or natural causes? Was he the victim of a mutiny?

No one could say. What made this mystery all the eerier was the fact that it seemed to set off a whole rash of disappearances off the Atlantic coast. Shortly after the “Deering” crew vanished, the “S.S. Hewitt” vanished and was never seen again. It had last been seen on January 30th, not far away from the “Deering.” Some reports suggest the ship exploded at sea, but that does not seem to have ever been established. The fate of the “Hewitt” and her crew remains unknown.

The list of missing ships kept growing. By June of that year, the “New York Times” reported that a dozen additional vessels had inexplicably disappeared.

The only possible clue to the “Deering” mystery came on April 26th, when a Christopher Columbus Gray discovered a bottle with a message in it washed up on the North Carolina coast. It 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 of Deering.” Several handwriting experts asserted the note matched the handwriting of Herbert Bates, the engineer Wormell had called the only trustworthy member of his crew.

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover became disturbed enough over this rash of disappearing ships to order an official investigation. All that resulted from this government inquiry was the announcement that Mr. Gray confessed to forging the message he claimed to have found. It was never explained how Gray could have gotten samples of Bates’ handwriting and copied it well enough to fool experts in the field.

To date, the mystery of the “Deering” crew—not to mention those of the other lost ships—remains unsolved. Piracy? The “Deering” contained no cargo, or anything else worth stealing. Rum-runners? Again, what reason would they have to take the ship? Aside from the lack of any valuables aboard, the “Deering” itself was too large and slow to make it a practical vessel for smugglers. Did the ship fall victim to one of the series of hurricanes that took place in the area? The “Deering” (like the “Hewitt”) had been sailing away from the path of these storms, and the ship showed no indication of having been hit with such severe weather.

Mutiny is assumed to be the most likely answer. Bates and at least some other crewmen would have supported the captain, but there may have been enough bad actors on the ship to stage a successful takeover. It is virtually certain that, for whatever reason, Wormell had not been in charge of his ship for a few days before it was beached.

However, local Coast Guardsmen were highly skeptical of the theory that the men of the "Deering" had mutinied and abandoned ship.  The coast, they declared, was far too rough for lifeboat landings. The captain of the Cape Hatteras station suggested that the crew "abandoned her after taking everything of value and ran her up on the Shoals intentionally." Why would they do this? He couldn't say. And even if there had been mutineers on the “Deering,” where did they, and the rest of the crew, go?

In his book “Invisible Horizons,” Vincent Gaddis offered a lurid explanation for the “Deering” mystery. He theorized that the captain and a crew member got into a fight, which ended with Wormell’s murder. The killer then quickly disposed of all the other weaponry on the ship, leaving him the only armed member of the ship. He, and possibly some accomplices, occupied the captain’s cabin. As the ship lost its anchors during the recent storm, it would have to be towed into port, thus necessitating the message to the lightship.

Then, Gaddis suggested, the killer threatened the rest of the crew to keep silent about the captain’s death. He ordered them to gather on the quarterdeck, so he could keep an eye on them, keeping his gun aimed on the sailors all the while.

When the “Deering” was out of sight of the lightship, the killer made his move to escape. He threw overboard the captain’s belongings, the ship’s papers and logbook, and whatever other evidence of trouble he could find. Then, he ordered both lifeboats to be lowered. He ordered the rest of the crew into one of them, and as they sailed off, he shot holes in their boat, leaving them all to drown.

He tossed into the sea all of the crew’s belongings, so it would look as if they left the ship voluntarily. Then he smashed the steering equipment and set out in the remaining lifeboat, but the same gales that beached his ship quickly swamped the little boat. He died, taking the secrets of the “Carroll A. Deering” with him.

This story hardly answers all our questions about the tragedy—it seems implausible that one man could have so utterly taken over an entire crew, and it does not explain why not even a single body was ever found—but no one has come up with a better solution.

The “Carroll A. Deering” was deemed too badly wrecked to be worth salvaging. In March of 1921, it was stripped of its equipment, towed away, and dynamited into bits, leaving nothing but an unsettling legend behind her.


  1. [Part 1]

    The state of the captain’s cabin, the chart and the appearance of the man who hailed the lightship all suggest a mutiny.

    Pirates might have seized the ship and then abandoned it once they discovered that it wasn’t carrying anything of value and they might have killed the crew to ensure that nobody could alert the authorities to their presence. But such brazen piracy close to the coast of the United States in 1921 seems a bit unlikely. Also, they had no reason to keep the ship for several days after capturing it. If they had any thought of wrecking it to conceal what had happened it would have made more sense to scuttle the ship far out at sea rather than bring it nearer to the coast where there was a greater risk of attracting unwanted attention.

    The mutineers must have left in the lifeboats. They had time to collect their belongings and all the portable valuables on board so they were not forced to leave suddenly as a result of some emergency. They probably threw the ship’s log and papers overboard before they went in order to destroy any evidence of the captain’s suspicions and any proof of who was actually on board at the time. Pirates would not have needed to do that. However, the fact that somebody had started preparing a meal and then abandoned it half-way through does suggest that the mutineers had not planned to leave the ship at that time. Therefore, they did so in response to something unexpected.

    This event was probably the destruction of the binnacle and steering gear by somebody who wanted to prevent the ship from reaching land. While the “Deering” was far out at sea the mutineers couldn’t afford to kill any member of the crew who had skills that were vital to the continued operation of the ship, such as Bates the engineer, but once they were sufficiently close to the coast they would almost certainly dispose of anybody they didn’t trust. The saboteur would therefore have been a desperate man with nothing to lose, and if the captain was right about his crew’s fondness for drink then they may have become quite careless about keeping potential rebels under control.

  2. [Part 2]

    The fact that the crew were assembled on the quarterdeck as the “Deering” approached the lightship does suggest that they didn’t all support the mutiny and that the ringleaders wanted to keep everyone else where they could see them. They may have been particularly concerned that somebody might manage to send a signal to the lightship. However, it’s extremely unlikely that a single person could have taken control of the whole ship as Gaddis suggests.

    It is likely that they intended to wreck the ship on some remote part of the coast and then quietly disappear rather than risk sailing into a port where their explanations for what had happened to all the missing crew members might not be believed. Therefore, they may have hoped that when the wreck was found the authorities would be more likely to assume that it was an accident if the ship was known to have lost its anchors. They took the risk of approaching the lightship in order to establish a cover story.

    There are two possible explanations for the red lights in the rigging. One is that they were put up by the crew member(s) who destroyed the binnacle and steering gear, and who definitely would have wanted to attract the attention of other ships. The second possibility is that the mutineers initially put up a distress signal after the ship became uncontrollable and then decided to go in the lifeboats because it would be too difficult to explain their situation to any potential rescuers without arousing suspicion.

    The strange vessel reported by the lightship was probably not involved in this story. The crew may well have been doing something illegal, but if the mutineers had planned a rendezvous with accomplices on another ship it would have happened far away from the coast and any potential witnesses.

  3. [Part 3]

    The message in a bottle found by Gray was probably concocted by the mutineers as a new cover story once they decided to leave the ship. As experienced mariners, they would have known that the currents would take it towards land, and the message would then provide an explanation for how the ship had ended up deserted and robbed of anything of value. It’s impossible to tell whether Bates wrote it under duress or whether he sided with the mutineers. It’s also unclear why Gray then confessed to forging it, but he may have been under pressure from officials who wanted to quash any rumours of pirate ships operating with impunity near to the coast of the United States, which would have been an embarrassment to the government.

    So, what happened to the mutineers? It’s possible that they did escape, but since they were forced to abandon ship in an area where the coast was too rough to make a landing it’s more likely that they paid for their crime with their lives.

  4. Thanks for writing this article! The Carroll A. Deering has always been one of my favorite "supernatural" stories. Even if you remove the more ridiculous theories about the Bermuda Triangle, it's still fascinating.

  5. That section of coast was notorious for wreckers until well into the 20th century. It's how many of the fishing communities on the Outer Banks got by in the off season.(Look up how Nag's Head got it's name) You lure ships close to the shoals by leading a mule, goat, or pony across the dunes with a lantern around it's neck, mimicking fishing boats close to shore and wait for the inevitable. Do in the survivors, bury them behind the first dune, and take whatever can be used or sold. It was the fate of most shipwreck survivors for centuries, death, enforced labor, or a ransom/reward if you looked like you had it at home.

    It's one of the reasons the USA set up lifesaving stations along remote sections of coast starting the 19th cen. They provided a steady income to the isolated coastal communities where they were built so they wouldn't go back to wrecking.

    Hurricane season ends in November. The storm the Deering was likely a Nor'Easter plowing it's way up the coast.


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