Carroll A. Deering: 1920’s Ghost Ship

Welcome! Our first Weird Wednesday post focuses on a famous ghost ship, the Carroll A. Deering.

The Deering was a large cargo schooner that took its final voyage 100 years ago, in 1920-21, sailing from Boston to Rio de Janeiro with a load of coal.

The original captain of the Deering, William H. Merritt, fell ill at the beginning of the voyage in August, 1920. The Deering turned back and put him ashore in Delaware, and hastily hired a new captain, Willis B. Wormell. Merritt’s First Mate had been his son, who chose to go ashore with his father, and so a new Mate was also hired: Charles B. McLellan.

Unfortunately, Wormell and McLellan did not get along well, and before the return trip to the US, McLellan was heard to threaten Wormell’s life. McLellan was thrown into jail for being drunk, but Wormell bailed him out and the Deering set off for home. The ship would arrive. The crew would not.

In January of 1921, the Deering made contact with the Cape Lookout Lightship off the coast of North Carolina. [The above photo was taken by the lightship.] The man who hailed the lightship was not the captain, and the lightship crew noted that, strangely, the men of the Deering were out on the quarterdeck, which was an area usually reserved for the captain. The Deering said that it had lost its anchors but reported nothing else amiss.

The following afternoon, another ship sighted the Deering heading for a dangerous area called the Diamond Shoals. They saw no one aboard, but assumed that the ship was under guidance and would not wreck on the shoals. But on Jan 31, 1921, the Deering was found aground on the Diamond Shoals with its sails still set. The ship had clearly been abandoned; the life boats and navigational aids were missing. The ship was damaged, but it is not known if that had occurred before its abandonment or not. It seemed the crew had left in a hurry, as food preparations appeared to have been underway. But no trace of the crew has ever been found.

Obviously, the most logical theory is mutiny, which would explain why the captain seemed to be missing before the rest of the crew was, and why the crew was taking liberties on the ship. But even if that was the case, what happened to the crew after that remains a mystery. If they tried to flee the ship to escape a mutiny charge, they apparently never made it to land anywhere else.

If the Deering was damaged while at sea, the crew might have thought that they would have a better chance of reaching shore in life boats. If that was the case then it is ironic that the Deering did make land, while the life boats never did. It is possible that the crew was rescued by another ship in the area, the Hewitt, but the Hewitt went down with all hands soon after. If the Deering crew had been aboard, they would have been lost as well.

And now: some ghostly writing prompts!

*Too bad we don’t all have 9 lives. There is a rumor that the only living soul found on board the Deering was a six-toed cat, which later sired a population of six-toed cats in North Carolina that exist to this day. One could go the horror route with this, or else tell the tale of a brave cat who unfortunately discovers that even with six toes, he can’t sail a ship by himself. 

*Creepy cottagecore. The Deering was deemed a hazard to shipping and was dynamited in March, 1921. When wreckage washed ashore, locals used the boards to build houses on Hatteras Island. Perhaps using the wood from a ghost ship to build houses might lead to some sort of horror story plot?

*Last-minute cast changes. A captain falling gravely ill just after the voyage starts could lead to a plot where someone wanted to either get rid of the captain or to have a new captain or mate on board for some reason. Personal vendetta? Plot to mutiny or steal the ship or its cargo? The first captain having a dream that the ship was doomed and escaping while he could?

*Bermuda Triangle? Bermuda Triangle. While North Carolina is clearly outside of the affected area, the Deering did sail through the Triangle on its ill-fated return trip. Possible Bermuda Triangle phenomena include time travel, meetings with denizens of Atlantis, and aliens.

*What is that thing? Other possible paranormal explanations: sea monsters; the bad luck of a run-in with another ghost ship like the Flying Dutchman; or the ship secretly transporting something paranormally dangerous, like a piece of an alien craft, dead bodies, or dead bodies which unfortunately turn out not to be entirely dead (vampires, zombies, etc).

*A run of bad luck. Those on board a doomed ship might have invited a curse as the result of unwise decisions, whether that be mutiny, murder, or just generally running afoul of sea superstitions. If the crew themselves were cursed, or if they carried a cursed item with them, this could explain why a ship which picked up the crew also went down itself.

Whatever your favorite theory, I hope you’ve enjoyed spending your Weird Wednesday on the Carroll A. Deering. Have a safe trip back, everyone!

Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

If you like mysterious tales of the sea, you can read my story “The Lifeboat” in Seaside Gothic, Issue 4. Cousins looking to scatter their grandfather’s ashes make an unsettling discovery in a sea cave.

Sign up for my free monthly newsletter and never miss a blog post! Or subscribe by RSS