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US Coast Guard Series - The Mystery of the John Dwight

June 30, 2020

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

The Mystery of the John Dwight
The heavy fog began to dissipate as the morning’s first rays of daylight began to flicker across the waters off of Nashawena Island. A lone Coastguardsman, Felix Ploufee, at the Cuttyhunk Coast Guard Station scanned the horizon. He watched as a few small fishing smacks began to put out for their routine dawn patrol. As the fog continued to lift, he spotted a steamer at anchor. As he scanned the steamer, he noted a distress flag flapping slowly from her forward mast. The steamer’s lifeboat davits appeared to have been swung out and the falls dangled freely. Ploufee tried to see if any small b

 

oats were in the vicinity. Nothing was within sight. As he adjusted his binoculars it appeared the steamer was sinking by the stern. He hurriedly sounded the alarm. Fellow Coastguardsmen roused to action and they put out in their rescue boat. Despite their efforts, a strong current undermined their initial efforts. To reach the stricken steamer, the men would have to go an alternate route. Time was critical if they were to effect a rescue.
A few moments before the Coastguardsman spotted the stricken steamer, Daniel Vincent, on Menemsha Creek, heard the shrill report of a ship’s whistle. As he scanned the scene, he noted the steamer. The crew, he contemplated, must have been able to flee the sinking vessel. At the same time, the Dorchester, bound for Boston, also spotted the steamer. The pilot noted the davits of the steamer but as he monitored the strange craft, he did not see any activity aboard. He then spotted a small boat with three men aboard heading toward Cuttyhunk.  He continued on his voyage making note of the steamer and what appeared to be the crew effecting their escape from their doomed ship.
The sinking steamer also caught the eye of the Coastguardsmen at the Gay Head Coast Guard Station. Like their brethren at the Cuttyhunk Coast Guard Station, the Coastguardsmen from the Gay Head Coast Guard Station set out in one of their boats to investigate. Unfortunately, after the engine of the rescue boat failed, the band of lifesavers were forced to row. Through the lifting fog, the Coastguardsmen continued toward the sinking steamer.  
As the crews neared the sinking steamer, they watched it slowly careen over and slip into the murky depths of the Long Island Sound. By the time they reached the area, only flotsam was spotted – barrels, ship’s furniture, and an old ice box. The Coastguardsmen maneuvered their boats to investigate. As the men pulled one of the barrels into the boat, the markings offered an innocuous cargo – flour. The inquisitive Coastguardsmen, now three years into the heady days of rum running decided to confirm the contents. Upon opening, the Coastguardsmen reached in and pulled out straw wrapped bottles of Frontenac India Pale Ale, Montreal.  The Coastguardsmen scanned the horizon. There was no sight of any of the crew or the lifeboats. The mystery of the sunken steamer had only just begun. They continued on their search.  
The steamer had left Newport, Rhode Island two days earlier, on April 4th, 1923. Aboard the John Dwight were a total of ten men.  The steamer had been in Newport since the previous January but in the week prior to its evening departure, a quiet and reserve group of men had slinked aboard to serve as her crew. Captain Malcom John Carmichael, of Jersey City, New Jersey had also appeared and provided documents indicating he was the managing captain of the steamer. The other captain, under the auspices of serving as the navigating captain that reported to the aged steamer was John King of Brooklyn, New York. The two captains and their crew of eight men set out for New York under a suspicious shroud of secrecy and under the cover of darkness.
The John Dwight had been built in 1896 by Rodermund & Company in Tomkins Cove, New York. She was one hundred and twenty-two feet in length with a beam of twenty-seven feet, three inches and a draft of seven feet. She was capable of cruising at ten knots. In 1898, in support of the Spanish-American War, she was purchased by the United States Navy for twenty-five thousand dollars and renamed the U.S.S. Pawnee. Serving as a harbor tug, she was homeported at the New York Navy Yard for the duration of her time of military service. In the post-World War 1 sell off of naval vessels, she was sold to Seabury & DeZafra of New York City on July 25, 1922. Nine months later, with her original name of John Dwight returned, she was about to steam into the unknown.
On Thursday, April 5th, 1923, Captain Walter Loveridge was on his daily route delivering the mail between Cuttyhunk and New Bedford when he came upon the anchored John Dwight a mile or so north of Quick’s Hole in Buzzards Bay. Loveridge maneuvered alongside. As he neared, several men who appeared to be enjoying the spring sun retreated from sight. Loveridge hailed the steamer. Suddenly an unknown man poked his head out of one of the steamer’s hatches. “Are you in trouble?” hailed Captain Loveridge. The man replied nonchalantly but politely. “We are having a little engine trouble but will be all right in a few minutes. Thank you.” Loveridge, satisfied that he had done his maritime duty, steered back to his original course. The steamer and more specifically the actions of the men on deck who appeared to not want to be seen raised his suspicions. When he arrived in New Bedford, he mentioned that he thought that the vessel might be operating as a rum runner.
Loveridge’s suspicion would prove prophetically accurate. As the Coastguardsmen continued their search for the captains and crew of the now sunken steamer, local fishermen offered their assistance in the search and subsequent recovery of the rum runner’s cargo from the surface of the sound. As the sun set on the waters of the Vineyard Sound, there was no trace of the captains and crewmen. The Coastguardsmen returned to their respective stations with plans to recommence the search the following morning.
Local fishermen, the following morning, made a grisly discovery. Approximately ten miles from the sunken steamer, seven lifeless bodies, all wearing life preservers, were found floating in the shallows. Nearby, the fishermen also discovered a dinghy with an additional dead man.  The back of his skull was crushed and his brow deeply bruised. The corpse was adrift in a pool of crimson blood in the small dinghy. Upon further investigation, a cheese knife was also located.  The man was later identified as Harry F. King, the son of one of the steamer’s captains. The dead were recovered by the fishermen and taken in for examination by the coroner.  The coroner’s report indicated that the men all died from drowning though some reports indicated their bodies were peppered with bruises and cuts indicative of a vicious melee.   All of the men were quickly identified by relatives and interred. ned. Captains King and Carmichael were not among those recovered. It appeared that the two men simply vanished.  
The fate of the John Dwight and her crew’s final hours have never been explained. Various theories abounded amongst federal and state investigators as well as amateur sleuths. One of the most popular theories was that the steamer had been involved in a collision and had sunk as a result. Divers sent to the bottom to investigate however found no evidence of such an incident and no other vessels were reported in the vicinity at the time of the sinking with the exception of the rescue craft from the Coast Guard stations and the Dorchester. Others speculated that she had been intentionally scuttled. When the steamer’s other longboat was found, on May 10th, it was found to contain the steamer’s two name boards from the pilothouse. The location of the eight men from the steamer – all roughly in the same location nearly ten miles away – also led to the theory that the men had been murdered and thrown into the water as a result of their illicit alcohol-running activities going horribly awry. Another theory was that the cargo had been sold twice which led to some disgruntled purchasers. Word on the street, also stated that the crewmen and two captains had pooled their financial resources of nearly one hundred thousand dollars to make an arrangement with Canadian and Boston smuggling entity. As noted by one news correspondent who covered the story, smuggling money was surely less cumbersome than a cargo of barreled bottles. The disappearance of the two captains led some to believe that the crews’ murders and intentional scuttling of the steamer might have been the plan all along.  Rival rum-runners and piracy was on the rise within the bootleggers’ shadowy circles.  
As the John Dwight set out into the evening darkness on April 4, 1923, little did the ten men know that they would set off a massive search, an exhaustive yet frustratingly inconclusive investigation and log what would be termed by the Boston Globe as “the bloodiest maritime mystery in New England history.” While the Coastguardsmen were unable to effect a rescue in the waters of the Long Island Sound that fateful morning in April 1923, they held true to their duty to serve others in the finest tradition of the service as sentinels and saviors of the seas.  

Source Listing
The Gazette Chronicle.
Rum Runners. (From Gazette editions of June 1935.)
Keatts, Henry. New England’s Legacy of Shipwrecks. American Merchant Marine Museum Press, Kings Point, New York, 1988.
Okrent, Daniel. Last Call, the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, New York, 2010.
The New York Tribune.
“8 Men Drown As Ale-laden Craft Founders,” April 8, 1923
The Sunday Herald
“Mystery Hulk Dwight Wiped Out, But Not Forgotten,” July 8, 1923.
Willoughby, Malcom F. Rum War at Sea. United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1964.


 

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