Chance can be a fine thing.
The darker recesses of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library would never top my mental list of likely sources of really interesting material, but, leafing through the catalogue of the Lawrence Richey papers held there yesterday, I stumbled across a name I hadn’t heard in quite a while: that of the Carroll A. Deering.
The Deering was an elegant five-masted schooner that went aground on Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina, back in January 1921, and her name still crops up frequently in the literature of mysteries of the sea. At the time of her stranding, she was on the return leg of a voyage from her home port in Virginia to Brazil, and, as was the case with the Mary Celeste, to which she has often been compared, she seems to have been, at least until going aground on the shoals, in a sound, sailable condition despite a recent brush with foul weather. To make matters more intriguing, the first men to board the wreck found an evening meal sitting, uneaten, on the stove. The Deering‘s crew of 11 men were nowhere to be seen (and neither were the ship’s boats, another thing this ghost ship has in common with the Mary Celeste). None of them were ever seen alive again.
The Deering stuck in my mind for two reasons: the wonderful, archetypal detail that the only living things on board the ship were a pair of cats, and the commentary of Lawrence Kusche, whose sceptical The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved concluded its account of the mystery with the observation: “The story… is unique in maritime history, and it can truly be said that the more that is learned about it, the more mysterious it becomes.” That’s high praise indeed from an author who ably demolishes most of the dafter accretions of myth that make up the legend of the Bermuda Triangle and who could scarcely be described to be a mystery monger.
To understand how the Carroll A. Deering found her way into a Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, a thousand miles from the sea, one needs to know something of Larry Richey. He was the sort of eminence grise who slips frustratingly beneath history’s radar. Famous in his day, he nowadays eludes even the Dictionary of American Biography; even a Google search turns up remarkably few mentions of him. But three-quarters of a century ago, he was Herbert Hoover’s confidential secretary at a time when the future President was Secretary for Commerce, and that’s how he came to investigate the stranding of the Deering.
Richey’s story was that of the young immigrant boy made good. His family came from Italy, and he himself had been born Ricci, and had anglicised his name to get ahead. He had several qualities that made him invaluable to Hoover, not least dogged loyalty to his boss, but the real reason he was selected to take charge of the Deering investigation was his skill as a detective. Richey’s first job, from the ages of 16 to 24, was as a Secret Service agent, a career that involved him in some hazardous work tracking down murderous gangs of counterfeiters in New York. He was as well qualified as anyone in the Department of Commerce to lead what proved to be a challenging investigation.
Of course, government departments rarely concern themselves overmuch with simple strandings. Washington was interested in the Deering‘s fate largely because the ghost ship ran aground at the height of the first great “Red Scare” in America. The civil war in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the Whites had only recently been resolved in the former’s favour, and the fear that revolution would spread into the western world was very real. Rumours of Red agents and Communist infiltration were rife, and one of the many stories doing the rounds at the time suggested that the infant Soviet government in Russia was attempting to build its merchant marine by having its agents hijack ships at sea. According to competing theories, the Deering might have been stopped and boarded by Red pirates, or have fallen victim to a mutiny led by Communist sympathisers among the crew.
Larry Richey spent several months gathering information about the loss of the ship from five different government agencies, and that is what gives this unique archive its real value. The pages of his bulging Deering file contain reports from the fledgling FBI, papers submitted by the Coast Guard, and notes on Richey’s own on-the-spot investigations in Carolina. Among the possible explanations for the ghost ship’s loss considered by the former Secret Service man were storms, insurance fraud and the activities of rum-runners, as well as the more frightening possibilities of mutiny and piracy.
Richey’s most notable contribution to finding a solution to the mystery was his demolition of the most peculiar piece of evidence advanced by proponents of the Red Scare theory. Soon after the Deering ran aground, a beachcomber by the name of Christopher Columbus Grey handed in a message in a bottle that he claimed to have found washed up on the shore. Uncorked, it was found to 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.” Several handwriting experts identified the writing as that of the Deering‘s chief engineer, but Richey was able to show that the note had been written by Grey himself, and that the man’s motive had been to land himself a job at the local coast guard station.
In the end, though, even Lawrence Richey never solved the Deering mystery. The evidence, he felt, pointed to mutiny, the ship’s captain had complained early in the voyage that his crew were an ill-disciplined bunch of malcontents, and when the schooner was last sighted her skipper was nowhere to be seen and the men were observed lounging on the quarterdeck, an area normally reserved for officers. What had happened to them thereafter remains a puzzle; they had, Richey supposed, left in the Deering‘s boats, and the fact that several heavy trunks of gear were missing suggested that they had not gone in haste. Perhaps, it was hypothesised, they had had confederates after all; another ship, the steamer Hewitt, known to have been in the area of Diamond Shoals when the Deering ran aground. Had she taken off the crew? If so, where was she now? Had she fallen victim to one of the hurricanes then sweeping down the Atlantic coast? Or was she even now sitting in a Russian port, repainted and disguised under another name?
The Richey archive on the Deering has languished, largely unseen and unread, for more than half a century now. It was mined by the unfortunately-named Bland Simpson for his recent book on the mystery, Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals, but Simpson has chosen to cast some valuable primary research as an unreferenced “non-fiction novel”, sadly rendering his book largely useless to other researchers. The story deserves to be explored again, in a more rigorous way. Few if any government archives on unsolved mysteries are quite so comprehensive or complete.