by Spencer Howard
On January 31, 1921, a five-masted schooner was spotted aground on Diamond Shoal, off the coast of North Carolina, with sails set but no sign of the crew. Due to high seas, the Coast Guard was unable to identify or board the ship until February 4. When finally boarded, the ship was determined to be the Carroll A. Deering, owned by the G.G. Deering Company of Bath, Maine, which had been returning in ballast having recently delivered a load of coal to Rio de Janeiro. Other than three half-starved cats no one was found on board, and it was unclear what had happened to the crew. The ship’s log and navigation equipment were gone, the crew’s personal effects, the two main anchors and the ship’s motor boat and dory were missing as well. In the ship’s galley food was found as if in preparation for the next day’s meal.
What little of value aboard was salvaged and sold, and the wreck was dynamited to prevent it from becoming a hazard to other ships. The mystery took a bizarre turn several weeks later when a local resident, Christopher Columbus Gray, found a bottle on the shore with a note in it that seemed to indicate the Deering had been attacked by pirates. The daughter of the missing captain, accompanied by her pastor and another former captain of the ship, approached Sen. Frederick Hale of Maine to request a concerted Federal investigation into the incident.
Five government departments looked into the case. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, (whose department included the Bureau of Lighthouses) was concerned that several other vessels had also disappeared in the same area. Though most of the missing ships were later found to have sailed in the vicinity of a series of strong hurricanes, the Deering had been sailing away from the storms at the time. Hoover’s assistant, Lawrence Ritchey, was placed in charge of the investigation.
Various theories were proposed, including piracy, mutiny, or an attempted hijacking by Soviet agents. Evidence was scant and expert witnesses disagreed on the likelihood of the different scenarios. Handwriting experts drew wildly divergent conclusions about the “bottle note,” but eventually Larry Richey made Gray confess to having forged the note himself. Richey and Hoover concluded that a mutiny was the most likely scenario, but kept the case open in case additional evidence was found. The mystery is unsolved to this day.
Richey’s files on the investigation, including one-of-a-kind correspondence, reports and photographs, are preserved in the Lawrence Richey Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum. This intriguing story of the Carroll A. Deering was featured on an episode of “Mysteries at the Museum,” (Travel Channel).