The Mysterious Ghost Ships Flying Dutchman, Mary Celeste, and Carroll A. Deering

This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 7. You can listen to it on YouTube, Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.

A painting of the Flying Dutchman

Nautical Lore Background

There is something about life at sea that makes folks a little superstitious. Maybe it’s the precarity of being at mercy of the wind and the waves and the storms and the currents. Maybe it’s just the type of person that an ocean life attracts. Maybe it’s the fact that sailing is one of the world’s oldest professions. Whatever the reason, sailors are known to have a certain fondness for myth and legend.

One of the most popular type of sea stories is that of the ghost ship, or phantom ship, depending on who you ask. There are some ships that may not be real at all, ones that have no evidence of ever existing, spotted simply aw glowing apparitions cresting over the waves. Some ghost ships are certainly real. They’ve been found drifting and fully searched only to find no crew or passengers. One ghost ship even made it into the Oval Office in the form of the President’s desk. Whether the crews were washed overboard, escaped in lifeboats, were killed by enemies, attacked each other in mutinies, or fell victim to a pirates curse or supernatural force, today we’re going to discuss some of the most mysterious cases.

A painting of a white ship coming up to a darker ship
A painting of the Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

One of the most well-known mythological ghost ships is the Flying Dutchman, seen across popular culture in everything from SpongeBob to Scooby Doo to Pirates of the Caribbean. The Flying Dutchman is a mysterious ship with a ghostly glow that sailors have reported spotting for hundreds of years. Seeing it can be considered an omen of doom. Although if any sailors saw the Dutchman and went to watery grave, we would never have heard about it.

The most common version of the legend states that the ship is captained by a crew who is doomed to never make port, to never reach land, doomed to wander the seas for eternity. It likely originated during the 18th century and it takes place during the height of Dutch East India Company.

The first printed stories of the Dutchman originated in 1790 and 1795, telling the tale of a Dutch man-of-war ship that was trying to reach the shore in the Cape of Good Hope during a huge storm. Although the crew begged the Captain to turn back, he vowed that he would keep sailing around the horn if it took him until the end of time. Well, according to this story, he should have chosen his words more carefully, because the Devil heard him and cursed him to sail forever. His only hope to break the curse would be to find a woman who loved him so much that she would swear her life to the Captain. Every seven years, the devil would allow him to come ashore to look for her.

In 1803, a written account first brought up the idea of the crew being cursed for some terrible crime, writing,

“The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence … and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.”

Some legends actually point out a real man as the captain of the ship, East India Company captain Bernard Fokke, who’s voyages were so fast, that there were grumbles among other sailors that he had made a deal with the Devil. Sightings of the ship continued being reported throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

King George the fifth and his brother Prince Albert Victor reported seeing the ship off the shore of Australia, writing,

“At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her … At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.”

The scientific explanation for the Dutchman is often the idea of the Fanta Morgana mirage. This occurs when rays of light passing through different temperatures can make an image appear on the horizon. It’s often seen at sea, in the Arctic, and in deserts. It can make the image of a ship appear, but it will also show the same ship upside down on top of the right-side up ship. The name comes from the idea that these phantom ships are illusions created by the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who you may know from the Magic Treehouse book series or the legends of King Arthur.

A scenic ocean town with green hills in the background
Chaleur Bay (Photo credit: Wikivoyages)

A similar case to the Dutchman is the Fireship of Baie des Chaleurs or the Chaleur phantom. This type of ghost light is seen near New Brunswick, Canada. Some believe this flash of light comes from natural gas from beneath the sea, or from marsh gas drifting over the water, as one geologist hypothesized. People who have seen it believe that it takes the form of tall three-mast sailing ship on fire. There are several legends of what caused the ghost ship to first appear.

One story tells of woman who was killed by pirates and cursed them with the phrase,

“For as long as the world is, may you burn on the bay.”

Another legend is that the burning ship was Catholic revenge for a sailor who had been murdered by his own crewmates.

Another tale tells of a Portuguese sea captain who arrived at Heron Island and began to kidnap and enslave the native Mi’kmaq people. The Mi’kmaq then tortured the captain and his brother in an act of revenge. As their ship burned, the men jumped into the sea and promised to haunt the bay for 1,000 years. One woman, a Mrs. Pettigrew, reported in 1878 that she was standing on her porch when a sailor came to her asking for treatment for burns. When she looked back at him, he appeared with no legs. There were also rumors of the bodies of both Portuguese sailors and Mi’kmaq natives washing up onshore.

Purple electricity shoots through a black sky
St. Elmo’s Fire

St. Elmo’s fire is a well-documented ocean light phenomenon where sharp metal objects can expel an electrical discharge when there’s a strong electrical field in the air like that created by a lightning storm. Unlike the light of the Chaleur phantom, this glowing light created on the masts of shifts was often regarded as a good omen by sailors, because it showed that St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, was with them.

The hissing, fizzing, blue-violet light can also appear on airplanes, chimneys, church spires, and even the horns of bulls. It’s been observed by Julius Ceasar, Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Ferdinand Magellen, and shows up in Moby Dick, and the Adventures of Rintintin.

A painting of an old sailing ship
A painting of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste

Background

The Mary Celeste is one of the most famous ghost ships of history and unlike the Flying Dutchman it is well-recorded to actually have existed. The ship was originally built in Nova Scotia to carry cargo under the name Amazon in 1861. She had a bit of a troubled history. On her maiden voyage her captain became severely ill and then died when they returned to port.

She also ran into fishing equipment off the coast of Maine, and later collided with a smaller English ship and sank it. In 1867, the ship was ran ashore during a storm and was abandoned by the crew as a wreck, but she was picked up by a Canadian businessman and sold to an American sailor named Richard W. Haines from New York, who paid $1,750 for it and spent $8,825 restoring it.

Haines re-registered the ship under the name Mary Celeste in 1868, so they fixed that ship pretty fast, considering it took my college two years to fix a hole outside my apartment building. She may have been named for the illegitimate daughter of astronomer Galileo. But unfortunately, Haines may have gone a touch over-budget, as the ship was seized by creditors just a year later. She underwent several more years of refurbishment and was given a new captain, who would be her last, Captain Benjamin Briggs.

A bearded man poses for a black and white portrait
Captain Benjamin Briggs

Briggs was born in Wareham, Massachusetts on April 24th, 1835. He was one of five sons of another sea captain, Nathan Briggs, and four out of five of the kids eventually became sailors, with Benjamin and one of his brothers also becoming captains. He was a strong Christian.

In 1862, when he was 27, he married a cousin (it was a different time) named Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, and they had two children. Their son Arthur was born in 1865, and their daughter Sophia was born in 1870. Briggs had been considering retiring with his brother Oliver, but instead they both invested into two more ships. Oliver’s ship was the Julia A. Hallock, and Benjamin’s was the Mary Celeste. And yeah, if you can’t guess already, Briggs probably should have just retired.

Last Voyage

In October of 1872, Benjamin Briggs decided to take the Mary Celeste on her first trip after her refurbishment, and the destination was Genoa, Italy. His wife Sarah, and baby Sophia came with him, while Arthur was left with his grandmother to continue school. Benjamin reportedly chose his crew very carefully, and they were later described as “peaceable and first-class sailors”. There was a first and second mate, a steward, and four general seamen.

In October of 1872, the Mary Celeste was loaded with 1,701 barrels (an oddly specific number) of alcohol, but the crew wouldn’t be popping corks on this trip, as all of this alcohol was denatured, which means it was mixed with chemicals to make it poisonous or otherwise unpleasant for drinking. This type of alcohol would later lead to blindness and death when people got desperate during prohibition, but that’s a different story.

A young boy and a woman in late 1800s clothing posing for a photo portrait
Sarah and Arthur Briggs

The Briggs couple wrote several letters to the Captain’s mother with their son in the days before they left while they were delayed by poor weather. Captain Briggs wrote, “our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage”. Sarah wrote,

“Tell Arthur I make great dependence on the letters I shall get from him, and will try to remember anything that happens on the voyage which he would be pleased to hear.”

Nearby in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Canadian ship Dei Gratia, was also preparing to go to Genoa as well to deliver petroleum. The Dei Gratia captain, David Morehouse, and Benjamin Briggs likely knew each other, and one story even states they had dinner together the night before the Mary Celeste left, although this is unlikely. They were traveling roughly the same route at the same time.

Found Adrift

Then came December 4th, 1872. Captain Morehouse came to the deck of the Dei Gratia while they were halfway between the Azore islands and mainland Portugal, and the helmsman ran to tell the captain that there was another ship about 6 miles or 9.7 kilometers away, moving erratically towards them. The crew grew concerned about it’s strange movements, and then even more so when the ship came closer and there was no crew seen on deck.

Two sailors from the Dei Gratia went over to the mystery ship to investigate, and soon discovered it was the Mary Celeste by the name written on the back. No one was on the ship. The sails were partially missing and the rigging was damaged. Loose rope was hanging over the side of the ship and several hatches were open. The only lifeboat was missing. The glass cover over the ship’s compass was broken and the rest of the navigational equipment was missing. Charts had been thrown around.

When the men dropped down into the hold of the ship, they found about three and a half feet or one meter of water, which was strange but not incredibly concerning for such a large ship. One of the two pumps in the hold had been disassembled. On deck, they found a makeshift sounding rod on the deck, which is used for measuring water levels in the hold.

The ship’s log was usually filled in daily, but when the men found it in the mate’s cabin, the last entry was from nine days earlier. It listed their position as being 400 nautical miles, or 740 kilometers away from where the ship was found. The cabins had gotten wet, but there were no damage or major signs of chaos. Some scattered items were found in Briggs’ cabin, and his navigation instruments were missing, along with most of the ship’s records. But the cargo was still there, although several barrels were empty, and there was still six months of food and water.

The two sailors from the Dei Gratia returned to their own ship and reported back to Captain Morehouse. He decided to send half his crew of eight men to pilot the ship in 600 miles or 1,100 km to Gibraltar with the Dei Gratia following. They reached the coast on December 12 and Morehouse wrote to his wife,

“I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe. I shall be well paid for the Mary Celeste.”

The authorities immediately impounded the ship so that salvage hearings could be conducted. This was a type of court proceeding to determine what had happened to a salvaged ship and who would receive a reward.

A bearded man in a suit posing for a black and white photo
Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia

Theories

The Attorney General of Gibraltar was a man named Frederick Solly-Flood who was described by a historian as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ”. The two sailors who had investigated the Mary Celeste first gave testimony that convinced flood that there had been foul play and that it involved the alcohol cargo. Flood ordered an investigation of the ship.

The investigators found cuts on the bow of the ship that they believed were caused by sharp instruments and a deep cut, possibly from an axe, and stains on the railings that could be blood. There was also possible blood on a sword found in Captain Brigg’s cabin. There was no damage on the hull that suggested it had hit anything.

Flood believed that all of this evidence led to a theory of human responsibility. He sent his final report to London with the narrative that the four general crew members had gotten drunk on the alcohol, murdered the Briggs family and the first and second mate, cut the ship themselves to make it seem like it had hit something, and fled in a lifeboat.

He also believed that captain Morehouse had changed the ship log about where the Mary Celeste was last reported to be farther away, not believing it was possible for it to travel so far with no crew. But one major issue with this theory is the fact that the alcohol was undrinkable. Another issue was that the stains on the sword and wood were later revealed to not be blood. A later report from the US Navy decided that the marks on the ship were damage from the ocean, not a mad drunken crew.

Also, if it had been a mutiny, why had the crew left their personal belongings and all of the food and water supplies? They would have likely left in the lifeboat, but what happened to them after that? So if it wasn’t a drunken crew committing mutiny, what did happen to the Mary Celeste’s crew? There are a few different theories.

One theory that popped up in 1931 proposes that Captain Morehouse laid in wait for the Mary Celeste and then invited the crew onto the Dei Gratia where they killed them. But it would have been very difficult if not impossible for Dei Gratia to get ahead of Mary Celeste, as they left eight days later.

Some people believed that Briggs and Morehouse conspired together to abandon the ship and get the salvage money. But the fact they knew each other well before this incident is disputed, and it would be odd for Captain Briggs to abandon his son Arthur if he was starting a new life somewhere. The fact that the disappearing crew was bound to draw international attention would also not make sense for a scam.

Others blame the great scourge of the sea: pirates. There were pirates active near Morocco during this time, but if pirates had attacked the Mary Celeste, why would leave behind all of the captain and crew’s possessions and most of the cargo?

A 1925 historian, John Gilbert Lockhart, proposed that Captain Briggs killed everyone on the ship and himself in a religious mental break. He later apologized to Brigg’s descendants and withdrew the story.

A newspaper clipping with the headline Sea’s Greatest Mystery Has Never Been Solved
A news clipping

Scientific Explanations

Several people have turned to scientific explanations for the mystery. It’s possible that there could have been a waterspout, which is a huge spinning column of air over the ocean or large lakes and seas that can suck up water and basically become a water tornado. That could explain the damage to the sails and rigging and the water found in the hold. It’s possible that Briggs and the crew were confused by the strange phenomena and got an incorrect reading from the homemade measuring stick that was found on deck that led them to think the ship was sinking.

Another natural explanation could have become becalmed, which means it stopped moving because the wind died down. The ship could have drifted towards a nearby rift and the crew thought it may hit it, so they got into the lifeboat. If the wind then picked back up, the Mary Celeste could have been blow back out to sea and the lifeboat sunk. But against this theory is the fact that not all the sails were open and being used.

Probably the strongest theory is that of a seaquake and potential explosion. If there had been a strong earthquake on the sea bed could have damaged the alcohol and released dangerous fumes. The fact that some of the hatches were open showed that it was possible the crew was airing out the cargo hold or inspecting it for damage.

There had been previous cases of ships carrying alcohol exploding. Captain Brigg’s cousin, Oliver Cobb, believed in this theory, and thought that leaking alcohol could have caused rumbling sounds and noxious smells that would have concerned the crew. The trailing lines could show that Briggs had improperly tied up the lifeboat to the ship and they had drifted away.

The missing lifeboat is certainly key to most theories. Some people have suggested that the crew may have boarded the lifeboat because something dangerous happened on board and they were waiting for it to be over. The dragging ropes led to the idea that they may have tied themselves to the main ship, but it was possible it came loose. However, it would be strange that they would tie themselves to a sinking or otherwise dangerous boat. A historian wrote,

“If the Mary Celeste had blown her timbers, she would still have been a better bet for survival than the ship’s boat. If this is what happened, Briggs behaved like a fool; worse, a frightened one.”

This theory has been criticized because there was no damage from an explosion. But in 2006, a chemistry professor from University College, London, named Andrea Sella conducted an experiment with Channel Five news. He built a model of the Mary Celeste’s hold and created an explosion with butane gas. There was a large blast and ball of flame but no visible damage. Sella stated,

“What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion. There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching.”

In 2002, there was another modern reconstruction done by documentary filmmaker Anne MacGregor. “There’s so much nonsense written about this legend,” she told Smithsonian Magazine. “I felt compelled to find the truth.” She refuted the ideas of sea monsters or large storms because there was not significant enough damage, and she also did not believe the explosion theory because the hatch was intact and the Dei Gratia sailors did not report the smell of alcohol fumes.

The nine empty barrels were made of red oak instead of white oak, which was more susceptible to the alcohol leaking out, instead of turning to noxious gas. She also refuted the idea of a crazy crewmember like that in the movie, as that legend was likely based on two German brothers in the crew, Volkert and Boye Lorenzen, whose personal belongings were not found on the ship like the others but when she interviewed their descendants, she was told that their things had been washed away. MacGregor also couldn’t determine any motive that they would have for murdering their crewmates.

An oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute couldn’t find any major damage that would have prevented the ship from sailing. And descendants of Captain Brigg’s surviving son told her that he was well trusted, and showed no sign of madness.

She found that in her re-made Mary Celeste one of the key pieces of navigational equipment, the chronometer, was faulty, and may have put them severely off course, much closer to where it had been found near the Dei Gratia. Captain Briggs may have tried to sail closer to the Azore Islands. MacGregor and the oceanographer agreed that if the crew left the ship, they likely did it on the day the last log was written, nine days before it was found, because they were in sight of land.

Now as for the disassembled pump, MacGregor believes that the pump may have become clogged from the coal dust from the ship’s previous trip and debris from the recent refurbishment, leaving the crew unable to pump out water from the hold. Because it was full of cargo, the pump was broken, and the sounding rod they were using to measure was homemade, the crew may have thought there was more water there than there was. MacGregor said she would be continuing her research and said of her experience,

“I have been touched by the story, as I hope other people will be.”

Fictional Accounts

There’s also been many fictional accounts. The Los Angeles Times reported the story with fictionalized details in 1883, writing,

“Every sail was set, the tiller was lashed fast, not a rope was out of place. … The fire was burning in the galley. The dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold … the log written up to the hour of her discovery.”

There was a 1935 movie that went with the evil sailor theory.

An illustration of a man pointing a gun at another man, who is seated. Another woman sits across from him
An illustration from Conan Doyle’s book

Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes series, wrote a fabricated story of the Mary Celeste called “J. Habakkuk Jephson’s Statement”. The ship in the story was carrying passengers, was called the Marie Celeste, was sailing from Boston to Lisbon, and Captain Briggs was renamed J.W. Tibbs. In Conan Doyle’s story, it’s a survivor’s account from an American passenger named Jephson. Jephson is a Union veteran who received a safety charm from an elderly African-American woman years earlier which he takes with him on this sea voyage.

There are two other passengers, including a mixed-race man named Septimus Goring. A week into the journey, the captain’s wife and baby go missing. The next day, the captain is found shot dead, and they believe he took his own life in his grief. When the ship lands, they find out it was not in Portugal as they intended, but in Africa. They believe the navigation equipment was tampered with, and decide to continue on to Portugal.

But before they can leave, a group of Africans row out to the ship and link up with Septimus Goring and the black crewmembers, who kill all the white crew and passengers except for Jephson, because he has the magic charm. Goring tells Jephson that he hates all white people and was enacting his revenge for slavery, but he releases Jephson because of the talisman and sets him adrift where he is recused. Conan Doyle meant for this racially problematic story to be taken as fiction, but some people did believe that it was at least partially true.

The Strand Magazine printed another fictional survivor account in 1913 from a man named Abel Fosdyk. He claimed that he was a last minute addition to the crew and that while they were at sea, Captain Briggs, who he calls Griggs, had a raised platform built for his wife and daughter to have a better view of the surroundings. Then one day, Briggs and the first mate wanted to settle a casual debate about how well someone could swim with clothes on, and they both exchanged clothes and jumped into the sea.

Brigg’s wife and child, and several of the crew members went up to the platform to watch, when the first mate was attacked by a shark. As he cried out, the rest of the crew ran up to the platform to see and it collapsed, throwing everyone into the ocean to be attacked by the sharks. Fosdyk stated that he lived because he fell on top of debris and floated to Africa, and did not reveal the story until he was on his deathbed.

Unlike Conan Doyle’s story, this one was intended to be taken as fact, but Fosdyk was not a recorded passenger and there were several big errors in his account, like saying Brigg’s daughter was seven instead of two years old, saying the crew was English instead of American and German and that there were thirteen of them instead of seven, misnaming several people, and having an ignorance of nautical language. There was also no evidence of the damage that Fosdyk described.

There was another false survivor’s account in the 1920s about a man named John Pemberton that involved a murder plot in collaboration with Dei Gratia but it also had major errors and no supporting evidence. In 1924, the Daily Express published another widely believed false story from the ship’s alleged boatswain officer, who said the Brigg’s crew found a different abandoned ship filled with gold and silver, and they stole the money, abandoned the Mary Celeste, and fled to Spain.

And of course, there are always paranormal suggestions. Could the crew have been abducted by aliens?

But this theory started to go around under the idea when people were spreading the idea that the ship had been found in perfect condition, with food still on the table, and the log filled out. The damage, the lack of log reports for eleven days, and the missing lifeboat mean that either the crew abandoned ship, or these aliens were pretty messy.

In 1904, there was a suggestion that the crew of the Mary Celeste had plucked off the ship by a giant squid, but it’s unlikely that it could have taken all of them, the lifeboat, and the navigation equipment.

The Mary Celeste was later released from custody and its owner put together a local crew to take it to it’s original destination of Genoa. The crew of the Dei Gratia was given a salvage payment of £1,700, which was one-fifth of its total value, and a lot lower than they had hoped, basically because they were still considered suspicious.

After the ship was released from Gibraltar, it sailed for twelve more years but was eventually purposefully run aground in Haiti in an attempted insurance fraud. In 2001, an author and adventurer named Clive Cussler claimed to find the wreck of the ship, but analysis showed that the ship had gone under at least a decade after the Mary Celeste. The final resting place of the ship and its crew remains unknown.

A large old-fashioned ship
The Carroll A. Deering

The Carroll A. Deering

Background

In 1921, hundreds of miles away in the Bermuda Triangle, another ghost ship ran aground with no crew to be found. This one is known by some as “the ghost ship of the Outer Banks”. The G.G. Deering Company built the cargo ship in 1919 in Bath, Maine, and it was named for the owner’s son, Carroll A. Deering. It was 255 feet long, with five huge masts, and could carry 3,500 tons. It had several successful voyages that year until July 19th, 1920 when it began it’s final trip.

The Deering set out from Puerto Rico to bring coal to Rio de Janeiro. The captain was supposed to be William H. Merritt, and his last name really fit the man, because he was a World War I hero who had saved the entire crew of the ship Dorothy B. Barrett when it sank from a German submarine in 1918.

An older man in all white dress clothes and a captain’s hat
Captain Willis Wormell

This was also a family expedition, as his son Sewall was the first mate. There were ten other crew members who were all from Scandinavia, mostly Denmark.

But when the ship left a stop in Newport News, Virginia on August 26th, they were forced to turn around and drop off Captain Merritt, who had become ill. His son stayed in Virginia with him, and the previously retired 66-year-old man named Willis B. Wormell was found as a replacement. Another man, Charles B. McLellan, was found to replace Sewall as first mate.

Journey

The Deering arrived in Rio and delivered their coal. While they were there, Captain Wormell let his crew take leave, and he met with another captain that he was friends with, Captain Goodwin, who happened to be in Rio as well. Captain Wormell told Goodwin that he disliked the entire crew, except for Herbert Bates, the ship’s engineer, who Goodwin also knew.

They left Rio on December 2nd, and made a stop in Barbados for supplies. Captain Wormell talked to another friend, Captain Norton, (I don’t know if all sea captains know each other, or what), but Wormell told Norton that he was frustrated with the crew, especially first mate McLellan. He said McLellan was “habitually drunk while ashore” and treated the rest of the crew badly. Badly enough for them to mutiny? Well, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, McLellan got very, very drunk and also started complaining to poor Captain Norton, who just wanted to hang out at the bar. McLellan said that he was angry about Captain Wormell not allowing him to discipline the crew. He also said that Captain Wormell had poor eyesight and it was damaging their navigation abilities. Captain Norton, the man McLellan was complaining to, would also later report that he and two witnesses had heard McLellan say,

“I’ll get the captain before we get to Norfolk, I will.”

He was arrested for drunkeness, but Captain Wormell bailed him out of jail, which I don’t know if it was out of the goodness of his heart or because McLellan truly was doing all the navigation, but either way the crew set sail for Virginia on January 9th, 1921.

On January 28th, the Cape Lookout lightship, which is a ship that works as a lighthouse, and which despite growing up in Massachusetts I did not know existed until today, spotted the Deering off the coast of North Carolina. The Captain of the lightship, Captain Jacobson, reported that a tall, thin, red-headed man called to him through a megaphone and told him that the ship had lost both its anchors in a storm.

He asked Jacobson to notify the G.G. Deering Company. Jacobson noticed that the man speaking had a foreign accent, so it was not the captain or the first mate. He tried to report the missing anchors, but his radio was not working. He also would report that the crew of the ship were “milling around” the quarterdeck, where they usually were not allowed.

On January 29th, another ship saw the Deering off-course, headed towards an area with the friendly nickname “the Graveyard of the Atlantic”. The Diamond Shoals were an area of eight miles, or 13 km, of sandbars off the coast of North Carolina that are constantly shifting. They’re responsible for at least 600 shipwrecks. The Deering was going straight towards, but the crew of the other ship didn’t see any crew on deck and assumed that they would see the nearby lighthouses and turn around.

A shipwreck on a beach
Wreckage of the Deering

Found by Coast Guard

Then on January 31st, a Coast Guard lookout, C.P. Brady, on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina spotted the Deering. It had run aground on the Diamond Shoals. All of its sails were still open. Rescue ships were called, but the weather was bad, and they couldn’t reach it until February 4th. When a tugboat crew did go aboard, they found the wheel shattered and the rudder damaged. A sledgehammer was nearby.

Water was filling the ship through the damaged parts. Like in the Mary Celeste case, the navigation equipment was missing, but in this case all of the crew’s belongings and the log was missing as well. The anchors were gone as the mysterious red-head had reported. The two lifeboats and life rafts were also gone, and the ladder of the ship was hanging down. Strangely, food was out in the galley, or kitchen, of the ship, in the middle of being prepared for the next day, and it sounded pretty good actually. The menu was ribs, pea soup, and coffee.

The Coast Guard couldn’t salvage the ship, so they destroyed it with dynamite on March 4th. Parts of the ship washed up on the island and were used to build houses.

Theories

The U.S. government became very interested in the case of the Deering. The Commerce, Treasury, Justice, State departments and the Navy were all involved in investigating the disappearance. Future President Herbert Hoover was in charge of the Commerce Department at the time, and he was fascinated by the fact that not only did the Deering disappear, but multiple other ships from different countries disappeared in the same area.

They realized that most of them had been in the path of several strong hurricanes, which could definitely explain that, but the Deering and one other ship, the Hewitt, were not. In 1922, the investigation was closed, with no official explanation to what happened to either ship.

But of course, there are plenty of rumors.

On April 11th, 1921, a fisherman with the interesting name Christopher Columbus Gray turned over what he claimed was a message in a bottle that he found off the coast of North Carolina on Buxton 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.”

Which, if I was writing a note in a bottle for help, I’d try to make it a little clearer than that, but of course, most of the crew was Danish. Right off the bat, a message in a bottle seems more like a creative prank than a real clue, but there are several reasons to think it could be credible. Captain Wormell’s widow said that the handwriting on the note was that of the trusted engineer, Bates. When examined, the bottle was determined to be manufactured in Brazil.

Also, a steamship like the one described in the message was spotted off the Cape Lookout at the time that the lightkeeper Captain had tried to signal to. He got no response, and couldn’t make out the ship name, adding to it’s mystery. But later examination of the writing by the federal government supported the idea that it was forged, and when Gray was questioned, he said that he forged it hoping the publicity would help get him a job at the lighthouse.

The U.S. Marine Shipping Board, as well as Captain Wormell’s wife, pushed forward the idea of piracy. The fact that the Hewitt had also gone missing at the same time may lead one to believe there was foul play involved, although they would have to be some fairly efficient pirates to hit both ships at one and dispose of their entire crews. Some thought that rum-runners from the Bahamas had stolen the ship to carry millions of dollars of alcohol on the ship because this was the age of Prohibition. But the ship was slow, and clearly identifiable, so it would have been an odd choice.

A big break in this case actually came when police in New York City raided the headquarters of the United Russian Workers Party. There they found papers detailing a plan to steal American ships and sailing to the Soviet Union. This theory was particularly popular among the more anti-Communist government officials, of which there were many.

There were several other theories, some more plausible than others. The Weather Bureau had told the government investigative team that the ship could have been lost to several large hurricanes in the area. But the Deering and the Hewitt had been headed in the opposite direction of the storms, and the ship did not have the kind of damage one would expect if that had happened.

Of course, there’s always mutiny, which is suggested in almost every ghost ship case. Mutiny is to ghost ships as peanut butter is to jelly. In this case, the fact that the first mate had explicitly stated that he basically wanted to commit mutiny was definitely some evidence, as well as the fact that Captain Wormell had said he wasn’t getting along with the Scandinavian crew.

Newspaper article with headline Dauntless Daughter of Missing Skipper To Solve Most Baffling Sea Mystery
An article about the daughter of a crewmember investigating the case

Also, the man that spoke to the lookout was clearly not the captain or the officer. Senator Frederick Hale from Maine stated straight out that the Deering was “a plain case of mutiny”.

This is the theory that makes the most sense to me personally with no expertise at all, but the question remains of what happened to the crew after the mutiny happened. Did they get swamped by waves in the lifeboat? Drift in the path of the hurricanes?

And because of the location, there’s always the curse of the Bermuda Triangle, where they did sail, although they ended up hundreds of miles away eventually when the Deering hit the Diamond Shoals.

Interestingly, when the Coast Guard did reach the ship, two distress lights had been lit. It’s possible that if something happened on board, they could have been picked up by the Hewitt, which also fully disappeared. It’s also possible, but unlikely that the crew was still on board when the Deering hit the shoals and had been swept out to sea when they left in the lifeboats.

Today you can visit the bell and capstan at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

A photo of a small fishing boat packed with supplies
A North Korean ghost ship

North Korean ghost ships

Interestingly, in modern times, dozens of ghost ships appear on the shores of Japan every single year. They likely come from North Korean fishermen. Fishing itself is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world today.

Fishing is one of North Korea’s biggest exports today to China, and they specialize in king crab, squid, and sandfish. Many of the boats are owned by the North Korean army. The winter is a peak for the ghost ships to appear, partially because of wind currents bringing the ships to Japan, and partially because the conditions are more severe for the crews.

Some people believe that the empty ships may be from failed defectors. But it’s much more common for North Koreans to flee south, where there’s a shared language and cultural history. Most of the defectors who have rarely arrived in Japan by boat have drifted there by accident.

The connections that the ships have with the North Korean army have led some to speculate that they’re being used to transport spies to Japan. But journalists also do not believe that’s the case, because it would be much easier and safer for any spies to enter on a commercial flight or boat with fake documents.

Some ships have arrived with the crew still onboard, but no longer alive, sometimes just skeletons, which shows that the boats have been drifting for months or years. For both these and the empty ghost ships, the vessels are usually old, without modern navigation equipment or engines. If they drifted off course in the harsh winter, they generally don’t carry extra food, which is hard to come by in North Korea.

Part of the reason that there seems to be an increase in the ghost ships appearing is likely also because of the dark fleet. Chinese fishermen with significantly more resources have been illegally fishing in North Korean waters in violation of the United Nations rules and in what experts have called,

“This is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s waters.”

Because of this, North Korean fishermen have been forced farther out and to go out for longer. Ships have also been found as far north as Russia. Unclaimed bodies in Japan are cremated and brought to a Buddhist shrine. The ghost ships are destroyed.

An old painting of a large ship looming over a smaller ship with a shocked crew
A painting of a ghost ship

Sources:

Sources include:
https://www.history.com/news/what-happened-to-the-mary-celeste

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-mystery-of-the-mary-celeste

https://yesterday.uktv.co.uk/blogs/article/5-theories-what-happened-mary-celeste/

https://allthatsinteresting.com/mary-celeste

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/

https://www.legendsofamerica.com/deering-ghost-ship/

https://www.southernliving.com/culture/carroll-a-deering-ghost-ship-of-the-outer-banks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_ghost_ships

https://www.npr.org/2011/10/06/141123770/the-story-of-the-flying-dutchman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carroll_A._Deering

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Celeste

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Dutchman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_ship

Further Reading:

https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/details/show/the-true-story-of-the-mary-celeste

--

--

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.