September 2014

Editor’s note: The Observer is printing historic news sto­ries about Ocracoke in each issue. Last month’s issue in­cluded a report of “mysterious ships” off the island in 1921. Philip Howard discussed this in one of his recent blog posts on Ocracoke Island Journal here. We offer this from Kevin Duffus.

In the course of my re­search, I’ve encountered sto­ries like this that appeared in major newspapers in the 1920s, not the least of which were the New York Times and the Raleigh News & Ob­server.

For some reason, journalis­tic standards of the time and readers’ appetites resulted in numerous “unexplained” sto­ries of mysteries, ghost ships, found pirate treasures, etc. This seems like one of them.

Common sense and a knowledge of merchant ship­ping leads me to believe that these stories are dubious–as in partly or mostly fiction. J ust because it was reported, it doesn’t mean it actually hap­pened.

I can offer you a few dozen examples of newspaper re­porting from that time based on entirely fictional informa­tion, eyewitness accounts of things people thought they saw, or didn’t see at all.

Sometimes mariners made up things in order to cover up something else, such as be­ing drunk, fights among crew, members, or delays arriving at port.

Let’s examine the report: “…a craft somewhat resem­bling a tanker with no name visible. Islanders watched the vessel’s mysterious actions for some time. They failed either to identify her or ascer­tain her purpose in loitering in the vicinity. The stranger seemed to be in no distress. Reported efforts to commu­nicate with her failed. The master appeared to be intent upon keeping the craft’s iden­tify secret.”

This was during the time of Prohibition. There was a cer­tain amount of suspicion and intrigue along the American coast during those years.

So, if there was some valid­ity to these observations, the mystery ship could have been a rum-runner but it was un­likely to be a tanker.

A “tanker” in 1921 would have been a large ship, per­haps 400 feet or more in length. A tanker would abso­lutely not be a rum-runner. Coastal rum-runners were small, high speed boats, most­ly private yachts.

Now, it would be entirely plausible for a tanker to have hove to off the coast if it were experiencing mechanical problems that required repair while stopped or drifting.

A master or captain of a tanker would not likely re­spond to efforts to commu­nicate by local fishermen or other small boats.

As far as drawing any conclusions as to “the disap­pearance of a score of ships, several of which are sup­posed to have been sunk off Hatteras,” there is absolutely no evidence, nor reason to believe, that scores of ships disappeared off Hatteras for no other reason that they were wrecked in storms.

My research, and the re­search of David Stick, reveals no such unexplained disap­pearances of ships off Cape Hatteras.

The Morning Oregonian story is full of unlikely facts, including the possibility that a ship could circle a large freighter underway at sea.

Again, I say dubious be­cause these types of stories sold papers in 1921.

Historian Kevin Duffus is the author of Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: An Illustrat­ed Guide, as well as several other books on Outer Banks history available in island


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