It was a late Sunday afternoon in September, 7 1919. The Willian H. Sumner, a phosphate trade ship from Puerto Rico, was sailing northward heading to its homeport in New York City. At this time, it was usual to see three masted schooners sailing the carolina coast off Topsail Island . . .what was not normal is for them to be shouting distance from that coast.
The story goes that the young 25 year old captain on his first voyage in command had sailed too close to the shore while the currents and winds had died preventing him from sailing back offshore again. That is how the story went when told by first mate Charles Lacey anyways.
When the currents and winds left the schooner stranded near present day New Topsail Inlet, the ship drew closer to the dangerous shoals . .shoals that would rip the bottom out of a 165 foot schooner as she “grounded” on them.
Sumner – Topsail Island ShipwreckThis much is verified, the Sumner rail “aground” that September evening on the shoals in New Topsail Inlet (present day south end of Topsail Island). As the ship was pulverized on the shoals, the first mate made his way to present day Hampstead, where he promptly telegraphed the owners of the ships fate. It also seems that upon his arrival, the young captain was found in a pool of blood, a victim to gunshots, apparently self inflicted over the despair of losing the vessel on his maiden voyage.
By Tuesday, the ship had broken apart on the shoals, the captains body recovered and the jury appointed by the pender county coroner was unwilling to accept the Captain’s suicide.
It seems that the wounds on the Captain were quite curious, the right lobe of his ear was shot off and a bullet had hit him in between the temples . . .with no gunpowder marks on his face indicating point blank range from the pistol shot or suicide was not the case. Adding to the speculation, the ships log only noted “ship beached, anchor dropped” and the letters the captain had recently wrote were of cheerful tone.
The speculation is that the crew had asked the Captain to detour to pick up supplies and the Captain wishing to head northward to port would not. The crew then allegedly mutinied the captain and to their fear, ran aground at Topsail Inlet. Now the crew was sure to be discovered as a mutiny crew and actions had to be taken. We can see the actions that may have been taken clearly now, stage a suicide and move on.
After several trials, the jury still could not decide and the first mate was set free to head to “Alabama on the first thing that smokes”.
Today, depending on the tide and winds, just south of the Surf Condos in Surf City, one can find the remains of the broken schooner with the murder mystery history. One of the broken up parts of the ship has found Surf City, 15 miles to the north, as its resting place buried in the sand to show itself once or twice each year.
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