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Black and white image of a five masted ship in the water.
"Thinks Pirates Seized Ship," The Rock Island Argus and Daily Union (Rock Island, IL), July 1, 1921.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Ghost Ship Carroll A. Deering’s Crew

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“Like a ‘Flying Dutchman,’ the five-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering loomed through the mists about Diamond Shoals today, all sails set, but un-manned.” –The Washington Herald, February 3, 1921.

In late January, 1921, all occupants of the schooner Carroll A. Deering disappeared somewhere in the waters along the North Carolina coast. The ship was still in good condition when it was spotted from Cape Hatteras on January 31, 1921, before it was torn apart on the Diamond Shoals. When the ship was boarded by the Coast Guard after it ran aground, the sails were set, food had been prepared but was untouched, and everything seemed in order. But what happened to the captain and crew? The life boats were gone and there was no sign of the twelve men who had been aboard, heading north from Barbados to Norfolk, Virginia. Were they taken by pirates, Russian spies, or was it a mystery of the Bermuda Triangle? Debates ran through the pages of newspapers, and yet to this day, no one knows the true story.


On January 29th, the Deering passed by the Cape Lookout Lightship. Someone on board shouted across that they had lost both anchors, but otherwise there was no sign of distress. But when the ship was spotted two days later by the Coast Guard at Cape Hatteras, the ship was abandoned. Why would the crew of a perfectly good vessel abandon ship? “That there had been trouble among the crew, a fight perhaps and mutiny, is the latest theory,” mused the Evening Star on February 4th. And yet, wouldn’t a mutinous crew take over the ship rather than abandon it?

A month after the coast guard began investigating the Carroll A. Deering, a new theory was formed related to the disappearance of another vessel, the Hewitt, around the same time. The Hewitt was making its way from Sabine, Texas, to Portland, Maine, carrying a cargo of sulfur when it sent its last message on January 25th off the coast of Florida. When the vessel never arrived in Boston where it was expected on January 29th, a search began. The Hewitt and her crew had also disappeared without a trace. Could the two ships have collided? It was a possibility, but as the New-York Tribune noted, “the lack of oars, life preservers or other floating wreckage is instanced as an argument against this theory.” Fifty-eight men were now lost.

The top half of a newspaper page with several images and headlines. A large, bold headline covers the top reading Ghost Ship Met Foul Play, U.S. Charges.
“Ghost Ship Met Foul Play, U.S. Charges,” Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 21, 1921.

In April 1921 a message in a bottle found by a man on the North Carolina coast seemed to give the answer to the mystery. “Deering captured by oil-burning boat,” the note read. The State Department began an investigation into the Deering and several other missing ships, and it was suspected that the Deering had been captured by pirates. Then newspapers began reporting the possibility of a Bolshevik plot to steal the ships, cargo and crews and somehow whisk them all away to Russian ports.

A map shows the coast around Florida and up the Eastern United States with dotted lines and arrows showing different routes and a large question mark in the ocean.
“Postal Card Only Clew [sic] to ‘Vanishing Ships’,” Indiana Daily Times (Indianapolis, IN), June 24, 1921.
By September, however, it was discovered that the message found in the bottle, the only real evidence of what may have happened to the Deering’s crew, was in fact written by the man who supposedly found it. Mr. Christopher Columbus Gray faked the note in the hopes that he could discredit the staff at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and take someone’s job, it was reported. The hoax had prompted investigations by the U.S. Navy, Treasury, State Department, Department of Commerce, and Department of Justice. Without the note, however, the investigations fizzled out and ended without an official explanation.

Another Mysterious Disappearance

As speculation sailed through the pages of newspapers and government investigations, comparisons were made to other mysterious nautical disappearances. Still within recent memory for many was the disappearance three years earlier of the USS Cyclops along with all passengers and crew—nearly 300 people had gone missing. The Cyclops had a similar route to the Deering—departure from Brazil, a stop in Barbados, and then up the U.S. coast. Could it have been sunk by a German ship as a part of hostilities in the First World War? Again, no evidence was ever found to provide us with answers.

Black and white image of a large ship on the water.
“U.S. Collier Cyclops,” The Evening Herald (Klamath Falls, OR), June 3, 1918.

Bermuda Triangle or Newspaper Bunk?

What did the Carroll A. Deering, USS Cyclops and the Hewitt have in common? In addition to the missing people, they all passed over that mysterious stretch of ocean known as the Bermuda Triangle. Myths about the Bermuda Triangle wouldn’t start until some forty years later, but the ghost ship Carroll A. Deering is still discussed as one of its many mysteries.

So did the crew disappear in a supernatural event over the notorious waters? According to Coast Guard Captain R. L.  Gaskill, “[t]here is no mystery at all in the disappearance of the crew of the four mast schooner Carrol A. Deering.” The veteran Captain was one of the first to spot the Deering heading into shore on January 31, 1921, and called the tales of piracy “so much newspaper bunk.” Capt. Gaskill provided a perfectly logical explanation. Faced with a ship stuck on the outer sandbar of the Diamond Shoals, 90 mile an hour winds, and waves like mountains, the crew had to make a quick decision to either stay with the ship and risk being stranded, or try to take the life boats to shore. With the life boats all gone, Capt. Gaskill had no doubt, “[i]n such a sea as this the crew of the Deering manned their life boats and tried to make shore nine miles away.” But no life boat could survive in those waters.

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