On the morning of January 31, 1921, the Carroll A. Deering was spotted off the shore of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The five-masted commercial schooner had last made contact with land two days before, when Captain Jacobson of the Cape Lookout Lightship fielded a call from the ship.
He reported speaking with a thin, red-haired man with a foreign accent, who claimed that the ship had lost its anchors, and its crew was milling about the deck in an unusual fashion.
Due to inclement weather, the ship was unreachable for another several days after it was seen on the sandbar, and when rescue crews finally boarded the ship on February 4, it was completely empty. Though all of the crew’s belongings, the ship’s log and navigation devices, and the lifeboats were gone, it appeared that a meal was being prepared at the time of the crew’s disappearance. The only sign of life left on the ship was a few cats.
Here’s what’s known about the Deering:
It was a cargo ship that departed from Norfolk, Virginia, on September 8, 1920, reaching its South-American destination in Rio De Janiero by late November. After delivering the ship’s freight, the crew stayed in Rio another several days before heading back for North America on December 2.
During a stopover in Barbados on January 9 to pick up supplies, Hugh Norton – a captain from another ship–overheard First Mate Charles B. McLellan tell of growing frustrations with the captain of the Deering, Captain W. B. Wormell. According to McLellan, the captain had poor eyesight and little ability to lead the crew.
Wormell had been a last-minute replacement for the original captain, William M. Merritt. Before the Deering set sail, Merritt became extremely ill, delaying the ship in Delaware for nearly two weeks. It turned out Captain Merritt’s son, S. E. Merritt, had been the intended first mate. But he decided to stay with his father to help him recover, so McLellan became his last-minute fill-in – and Wormell became captain.
Captain Wormell had his own doubts about the crew, which he confided to a trusted friend. His concerns were founded: Before leaving Barbados, McLellan was arrested for threatening Wormell’s life. Luckily for McLellan, the Captain forgave him and bailed him out of jail. Afterward, the ship and her crew continued northward towards home. But they never made it; their ship found drifting off shore in North Carolina just a few weeks later.
When the Coast Guard came to rescue the Deering, they boarded the ship in an attempt to look for clues. A few strange things stood out: The captains quarters had foot prints from three different pairs of boots, meaning a handful of people had been in and out of his personal chamber. There was an extra bed in the room, and it had been recently slept in. On his desk there was a map charting the ship’s movements; it was marked in the captain’s handwriting up until January 23 – then another person with completely different writing had taken over tracking the ship’s course.
Over time, there have been plenty of theories as to just what happened in the days between January 29 and January 31, 1921.
The most widely held view is that there was a mutiny aboard the ship, after which the crew fled with the lifeboats. This theory is based largely on the testimony of Captain Norton in Barbados about the tension between crew and Captain, as well as the unnatural state of the crew on deck when spotted by Captain Jacobson. However, others claim that there is no way lifeboats could have made it to shore, plus no bodies were recovered from the area.
Alternative theories include pirate hijacking (the captain’s widow thought this was the true cause), Prohibition-era rum runners overtaking the ship, and even paranormal activity – they were sailing through the Bermuda Triangle, after all.
At one point, the government thought they had found the true cause of the Deering disappearance after a man named Christopher Gray said he discovered a message in a bottle on a North Carolina beach. 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 HEADQUARTERS DEERING.
Gray later confessed he had forged the message after applying for a job at the Cape Lookout Lightship, where the Deering had last been seen. Gray thought solving the mystery would help him land the job, but it ended up landing him in federal custody.
Now, more than 90 years later, the mystery still remains, and the truth about the Carroll A. Deering and her vanishing crew may never be known.
Photos: State Library Victoria / Flickr (CC)