Modern history

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Part Two - A Reign of Terror

Screams for Rescue

All morning the waves came in murmuring softly and occasionally rising out of line and falling in a muffled boom. But the swells were low where the Atlantic City beach canted gently toward the sea, and the bathers breached them easily. The sun was high as Gertrude Schuyler stepped into the surf and splashed seawater on her bathing costume. She glanced back at her husband and eight-year-old daughter on the beach, and then she was in, a cool shock in the beginning, but presently she was accustomed to it. A typist employed in an office in Manhattan, her skin was porcelain white, city skin, and she glanced longingly at the warm, sun-bright sky, for a “ruddy sunburn” was coming into vogue. Sunburn took a harsh toll on the day-trippers, one of many hazards at the beach in those days. But it is not likely she worried about such things, for she was young and knew little about the sea beyond the excitement of being there. She'd had little experience swimming.

The view out to sea was splendid if a bit overwhelming for a city girl, the sea without end until Europe. Curling at the edges of her vision were the sandy wastes of Absecon Island. The island, she knew, was one hundred miles south of New York, not far north of Cape May. If Gertrude was aware that north across Little Egg Inlet lay Long Beach Island, and that on the island was a small village with a few hotels, she did not know that a shark had killed a man there the day before, or that the shark was now stalking the coast. The story had yet to make the papers. There were no notices on the boardwalk or in the hotels and no warning had been issued by the surfmen (the term for lifeguards then). In a world without radio or television, much of the news that summer traveled with traditional unhurried ease, by post and spoken word in local quarters.

In Beach Haven, Dr. Vansant made arrangements for his son's funeral, and the tragedy shadowed the bright July Fourth festivities at the Engleside Hotel. At the beach in front of the hotel, hundreds of heretofore carefree swimmers were afraid to go back in the water, and none but skillful and daring swimmers entered the breakers. Beach Haven officials, perhaps to protect the tourist trade, cabled no alarm of the attack beyond the hotel. All along the 127-mile Atlantic coast of New Jersey that Sunday, the first documented case in American history of a man taken as shark prey was attended by silence. From Cape May north to Atlantic Highlands, thousands of swimmers blissfully took to the beaches, unaware they shared the water with a rogue shark that had taken human flesh.

When Gertrude Schuyler had boarded the shore train from New York City that morning, the papers were preoccupied with a different undersea predator—the Deutschland, the enormous German U-boat menacingly docked in Baltimore Harbor. While the U-boat haunted Americans with the memory of the Lusitania, the Times reported with some distaste that women were mistakenly for peace at all cost in the European War because of “mother-love.” The women's pages, meanwhile, were taken up with the importance of watering peonies during the summer months and baking custard in individual glass dishes, as well as the efficiency of the new electric candles for nurseries. There were significant sales in silk motoring hats and chiffon veils to keep out the dust for comfortable automobiling; modern bathing suits in mohair, satin, taffeta, and poplin could be had for $2.75.

Gertrude was grateful that the sartorial authorities of modern times allowed a woman to don practical bathing suits and sport attire in linen and crepe de Chines without the burdens of frivolous charms of fluff and frills of the past. She had been surprised to learn that in Atlantic City that morning, the director of safety had handed down the latest “canons of modesty at the bathing beach.” The new law in Atlantic City decreed that on the land side of the boardwalk, “conventionalism shall reign” and men and women would be required to “seek covering for their bathing suits,” evincing a “mighty modesty.” Seaward of the boardwalk, “where mermaids sport,” there may continue to be a “veritable Eden in the innocence of garb . . . nature and loveliness unadorned.”

Gertrude Schuyler had demurely uncovered her bathing costume after crossing the boardwalk. Now, after a series of ablutions, she began to stroke along the coast, enjoying the freedom of a swim in shallow water, taking pleasure in the play of cool water over her torso and limbs as she and the water worked together to pull her beyond the crowds.

The new rules heightened the forbidden pleasure of swimming freely. To the first tremulous moderns, the shifting tides and supple boundaries of time and space at the seashore served as a release from the straitjackets of routine and repression. Nowhere was the release more potent than in Atlantic City, with its utopian architecture and great crowds of the new leisurely middle class sharing and affirming the sybaritic pleasures of bathing. Atlantic City at the turn of the century, wrote the Irish playwright James Hannay, was “all the seaside pleasure cities of the world rolled into one, then raised to the third power.” There was saltwater taffy and the rambling pleasure of choosing from more restaurants than a reasonable person could count. A stroll on the world's first boardwalk allowed one the pleasure of being at the shore without tracking sand into the trains and hotels. From the boardwalk one could see fully attired “surf dancers”—men in suits and women in fancy dress, dancing in the shallows—and young women in scandalously short swimsuits, chased by the beach police armed with tape measures. Looming over the boardwalk stood a skyline that seemed inspired by Lyman Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Gertrude Schuyler planned to join her husband and daughter in the afternoon for a visit to the great hotels designed by William Lightfoot Price, who introduced the modern style to Atlantic City a decade before it reached Paris, declaring, “This is America, and art is the utterance of the living and not the dead.”

Rising over the ocean was Price's Marlborough Hotel, an immense Victorian hostelry of gables and turrets, circa 1902, with a tiny extra window conspicuously positioned on the side of each room. Price's public boast was that the Marlborough possessed the luxury, unheard-of then, of a private bath in every guest room. Connected by a bridge to the Victorian hotel was the Blenheim, a sultan's palace with Moorish domes. The fifteen-story tower of the Blenheim was the world's largest cement building built on sand, and people feared it would fall down. Beyond the Marlborough-Blenheim loomed the still-grander Traymore, nicknamed the sandcastle, an enormous beige pile of domed turrets that rose over the ocean.

The Traymore was an Edwardian wonder. Thomas Edison had developed the cement used in its huge art deco towers, and N. C. Wyeth painted the children's playroom with characters from Treasure Island. In the hotel restaurant, the Submarine Grill, Wyeth created a mural of mermaids, flying fish, and mermen rising to a ceiling that was a glass-bottomed aquarium-skylight through which sunlight streamed to the diner at the “bottom of the sea.” In the music room, framed by classical columns, stood a fountain, in the center of which floated a hollow crystal globe. Tiny goldfish passing through the globe were magnified to monstrous size.

But the ultimate pleasure, increasingly rare in the big cities, was the joy of separating from the crowds. As Gertrude Schuyler swam farther out, the swirls of light reflected by the sand dulled and the water deepened to an opaque blue-green. Under the surface, small, silvery fish flickered. Above, steamers edged along the horizon, traced by swooping gulls, and as the bather traversed the border between sea and sky, it was said habit dissolves and one's sense of wonder is renewed.

The surfmen stood on the beach, coolly eyeing the horizon and sea and crowds as if by standing still they could somehow take it all in, eyes alert for unusual movement. The surfmen were assisted by athletic young volunteers who strutted about with spools on their belts containing five yards of stout rope to toss to distressed swimmers. The surfmen had their hands full that day: There were thousands of people in the water now, a number that would grow, by day's end, to fifty thousand. The director of safety of Atlantic City, in addition to protecting innocent bystanders from the shudders and chance bewilderment of spying a swimsuit worn by one of the freaks of fashion in all its filmy brevity, also boasted the coast's largest and best-trained rescue platoon. On the beach stood long, stout poles to which rescuers tied their ropes to tow upset swimmers to shore, ropes pulled by chains of men opposing the sea in a kind of tug-of-war.

Thousands of men, and women too, draped the boardwalk rails, surveying the panorama of shore and sea like swells departing on the France or the Rotterdam; for the masses it was the nearest experience to being aboard an ocean liner. Men in hats leaning elbow to elbow, women carrying embroidered sun umbrellas pushed along in Shill's wicker rolling chairs.

In the random arithmetic of crowds, someone would have noticed Gertrude Schuyler in trouble before the surfmen. At a distance, her hands waved soundlessly in the warm air, and around her a patch of sea frothed white. There were so many people in the water, it would have taken great concentration, or luck, for the surfmen to hear the screams.

Gertrude Schuyler had been swimming, when suddenly without warning an overpowering force pulled her under. She was in the grip of something unimaginably strong, against which struggle was useless.

In an instant she was gone. She flailed her arms before they disappeared. Resurfacing for a moment, she made one panicked shout for help, and then all one could hear were the frightful screams of men and women whose worst nightmare of the beach was realized.

One of the surfmen must have seen her, because swiftly several surfmen and rescue volunteers rushed to the point where the water had whitened, their lifeboat splitting the waves. The trick was to keep one's head above the waves and break sideways out of the grip of the thing. Whether luck or divine assistance came to Gertrude Schuyler is not known, but momentarily she was free and in the arms of rescuers. Long minutes later she was back on the beach, coughing up seawater and accepting comfort from her husband and concerned strangers. Exciting plans for touring Atlantic City's amusements had given way to the gratitude of being alive. It was a stunning if unflattering story for Gertrude Schuyler to take back on the train: She had nearly drowned.

The pattern was disturbingly familiar to Atlantic City's surfmen. Eleven times that Sunday they heard screams for rescue; eleven times the surfmen and volunteers rushed into the water with ropes and pulled men and women to safety. Drownings were common at the time before learning to swim was a childhood rite of passage. “A burst of panic, a few quick minutes of struggle, a few scattered bubbles, and another casualty was added to the list,” according to beach historians Bosker and Lencek. Undertow was the terrifying shadow on the sun-bright days at the Jersey shore. Bathing expert Dr. John H. Packard, surgeon at the Episcopal Hospital of Philadelphia, believed day-trippers were in particular danger. They “know nothing of the beaches and venture far more than those who do. Often they cannot swim, and are helpless when in danger,” he wrote.

That evening on the train, as Gertrude Schuyler returned with her husband and daughter to New York with hundreds of others, bearing the “badges of pleasure and leisure”—sunburn, windburn, a few hands and faces swollen from jellyfish stings—conversations turned inevitably to the dangerous sea, yet with no reference to a shark, for there was no known shark to fear.

Not until the next day, Monday, July third, was the existence of a dangerous sea creature on the shore publicly known. Readers had to turn deep inside the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin to learn of the death of the son of a prominent Philadelphia family two days earlier in a mysterious attack at sea. Charles Vansant's death was overshadowed by the news that a Philadelphia society woman, Mrs. Florence Burling, had been granted a divorce from the notable Mr. Arthur Burling. It was a scandal beyond the pale as Mr. Burling had rushed about the immigration detention house, waving a gun, threatening to shoot officials who refused to turn over his intended second wife, whereupon Mr. Burling's would-be second wife was deported as an undesirable and Mr. Burling was sent to jail. Quite apart from its scandalous aspects, the story was worrisome to Philadelphians, for the Burling divorce was one of seventy-two granted recently in the city. Divorce, unthinkable to the Victorians, was now becoming the American mode.

The same day, The New York Times, then reaching its first greatness under the great editor Carr V. Van Anda, devoted prominent headlines to local heroes at the shore over the holiday weekend—the men who'd rescued five passengers from a sinking pleasure boat off Manhattan Beach, and the surfmen who prevented eleven drownings in Atlantic City. On the last page of the Times, at the bottom of the page, was a small headline over a brief, four-paragraph story, “Dies After Attack by Fish.”

Van Anda's genius was to turn his “death ray” gaze, as his staffers called it, on the news, penetrating the reality underlying any myth. Four years earlier, while others widely accepted that the Titanic was unsinkable, Van Anda's rapid calls at 1:20 in the morning on April 15, 1912, to Timescorrespondents and agents of the White Star Line had allowed him to deduce, before any newspaperman in America, that the Titanic had gone down. During World War I, he correctly dispatched correspondents to the scene of battles yet to occur. Covering the 1922 discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, Van Anda, who read hieroglyphics, detected in a photograph a 3,500-year-old forgery and duly reported it.

On July 3, 1916, however, Van Anda's prescience failed him. The two-day-old story portrayed the death at sea as a freak accident. The Times did not report the speculation of local baymen that a sea turtle or shark had killed the young swimmer, for the facts were murky and such attacks were unheard of. What fish was capable of tearing a man to pieces the Times story did not say.

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