While looking into the history of Maine-built schooners, I came across a reference to the Carroll A. Deering. This five-masted schooner is considered to be one of the most intriguing mysteries in maritime history. Whoa! I’ve got to look into this!

The 3,500-ton schooner was built in Bath in 1919 by G.G. Deering Company and put into commercial use. Named for the company owner’s son, it was launched April 4, 1919, as a coal carrier. The vessel measured 255 feet long and 44 feet wide.

Capt. William M. Merritt was master, and son S.E. Merritt first mate. Bound for Rio de Janeiro, Merritt became ill and left the ship, along with his son, to take care of him. This was somewhat unusual and then it was learned Merritt and son had not liked their crew, six Danes, all sailors, and one Finn who served as boatswain.

Willis Wormell was brought aboard as replacement captain, and Charles McLellan as first mate. The ship reached Brazil and deposited its cargo of coal, then made its way to Barbados. Sources say it was in ballast.

While in Barbados, before continuing to Norfolk, Va., Wormell told G.W. Bunker, another Maine sea captain who happened to be in port, that he was quite concerned with the crew, especially McLellan. Apparently the first mate had gotten drunk, been jailed and publicly threatened Wormell, who then bailed him out so the ship could continue its voyage.

On Jan. 9, 1921, Carroll A. Deering departed Bridgetown, Barbados and by Jan. 29 had passed the Frying Pan Shoals lightship off Cape Fear, just before 5 p.m. There, it was spotted by lightship keeper, Thomas Jacobsen. The schooner hailed the lightship, and someone onboard reported they had lost their two anchors in a storm.

The one who had spoken was a tall, thin red-haired man who hailed Jacobsen through a loudspeaker. The sailor had a thick Scandinavian accent. Jacobsen later testified the schooner crew appeared to be suspiciously "milling around" on deck, where they were not usually stationed and that the man who spoke had not seemed to act or speak like a regular ship’s officer. The suspicious lightship keeper took a photo of the ship.

Soon after the Carrol A. Deering had passed, Jacobsen spotted a mysterious steamer in its wake. That vessel did not slow or identify itself but sped away when he tried to contact it. They even lowered some canvas over their stern to keep its name from being seen.

Two days later at dawn Jan. 31, surfman C.P. Brady, a member of Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station, was on duty when he spotted the Carrol A. Deering abandoned on Diamond Shoals. The vessel was hard aground on the outer edge of the shoals with all sails set and no lifeboats. Rescue boats could only get within a quarter mile of it in the heavy surf.

The ship was not boarded until Feb. 4, after being battered by surf for several days. It was found completely abandoned. Steering equipment was discovered damaged, its wheel shattered, binnacle box stove in, and rudder disengaged from the stock.

The log and navigation equipment were gone, as were the crew’s belongings. The two lifeboats, motor lifeboat and dory, were also missing. A ladder had been left hanging over the side, suggesting use of the lifeboats. In the galley, food was found set out for the next meal, when abandonment occurred. Searchers did find three cats.

They tried to tow the ship, but ultimately, the schooner was declared a hazard. On March 4, Carroll A. Deering was intentionally destroyed by dynamite and sunk. Part of its bow drifted ashore onto Ocracoke Island. Wooden timbers from the wreck washed ashore on Hatteras Island and were used by locals for construction material.

So, what had happened? It was Capt. Wormell’s daughter who demanded a federal investigation into what befell the 10-man crew. Five departments of U.S. federal government agencies got involved in the mystery, including State, Treasury, Justice, Navy and Commerce, which was led by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Wormell’s altercation with McLellan brought up the possibility of mutiny.

Between the Merritts' not liking the crew and Wormell’s troubles, authorities focused on a crew uprising. But nothing concrete came of this line of thinking. Rumors swirled but nothing could be proven. McLellan may have reappeared later in Portland, Ore., as an AB seaman looking for work, but then disappeared as authorities investigated. So did two Danes from the crew, at least two with identical names who were tracked on other vessels in other parts of the world, but they, too, disappeared before being questioned.

Piracy was next considered, especially after April 11, when a local fisherman named Christopher Gray said he had found a message in a bottle off Buxton Beach, N.C. The text 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."

The handwriting was thought by Capt. Wormell’s widow to be from the ship's engineer, a man named Bates, and the bottle was found to have been manufactured in Brazil, one of Carrol A. Deering’s ports of call. But Gray later admitted it was a forgery, after having been "coaxed" by a federal agent … whatever that means! Still, how did this fisherman get a Brazilian bottle and Norwegian paper? And how was he able to make the writing look enough like the engineer’s handwriting to convince the captain’s wife?

Rumrunners were next considered since Prohibition was in full swing. Bootleggers were known to frequent Barbados, where Carroll A. Deering spent time. The schooner had been in ballast, so it would have had plenty of room to carry contraband alcohol. A rendezvous off the Carolina coast may have gone wrong, or the crew decided to go with the bootleggers.

There was even a Russian communist angle. It was pointed out cargo on other ships reported missing had contained material denied the Communist regime under terms of the current U.S. embargo. A Palmer-led raid on a New York communist cell produced evidence calling on revolutionaries to board and steal American ships at sea. Rumors of vessels suddenly arriving in Russian ports with blacked-out names made people think about that mysterious steamer which had been spotted just after the schooner.

Others suggested it was likely the freak weather in the area which may have caused the crew to abandon ship, long before it ran aground. Most agreed it had been an especially severe hurricane season.

Another suggestion was that it may have been paranormal activity. Perhaps the crew had abandoned ship and been taken up by another vessel which then disappeared. The oil steamer SS Hewitt of the Union Sulphur Company had gone missing off the Carolina coast at the same time. This region does make up part of the well-known Bermuda Triangle and may account for both ships meeting with inexplicable fates.

Investigators finally closed the case in late 1922, with no official finding at all! Pieces of the ship have been preserved and displayed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, N.C. When I contacted them, they were very helpful with information and photos.

It is an interesting mystery. The Maine-built Carroll A. Deering has since become a favorite of paranormal and Bermuda Triangle hobbyists. What do you think happened?

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.