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