Modern history

The Grande Dame

Mrs. George W. Childs of Philadelphia, the former Emma Peterson, was ensconced in a high and lovely suite at the Essex and Sussex, with fine views of the ocean. The space was small and spartan compared to the Childs mansion on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, where Emma and her late husband, publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, hosted Whitman, Twain, and their good friend Ulysses S. Grant in the Gilded Age's most glittering salon. Nor could any hotel suite match the comfort of Wootton, her “splendid country seat” on Philadelphia's Main Line, or the seaside cottage in nearby Long Branch, where Emma and George summered alongside President Grant and their closest friend, the Philadelphia banker, J. Anthony Drexel, who introduced them to his young and promising New York partner, John Pierpont Morgan. Those grand days were past, yet at the age of seventy-four, Mrs. Childs remained an imperial presence in Philadelphia society, a generous philanthropist, and a doting aunt. An ardent nature lover, Mrs. Childs had donated great tracts of open space to the state of Pennsylvania, and it was still a pleasure to breathe the wide sea airs at the Jersey shore. At the Essex and Sussex that summer, she planned to enjoy the ocean and society just a few miles from the old seaside cottage, and not far from the town of Deal, where her beloved niece, the child she never had, summered.

At 2:30 that afternoon, the grande dame had settled into her room for a respite before the social requirements of evening, when she heard, with a keen acuity for her age, disturbing noises floating through the windows over the sea. Her curiosity aroused, Mrs. Childs called to her maid to bring the field glasses, and stepped out on her private balcony, where she raised her glasses to the panorama of the sea. Far below and to the south was a scene of great confusion. Men and women were running toward the hotel in panic, their voices carried upward by the wind. Scanning south of the hotel, Mrs. Childs saw a small boat had breached the shore. Two men—in the bathing costumes of surfmen—lifted a man out of the boat and set him down on the sands. A small crowd had gathered at water's edge. Mrs. Childs's view was partially obscured by the shifting crowd, but presently she saw, to her astonishment, that the man lying on the beach was covered with blood.

Although born to wealth and security, Mrs. Childs was not unfamiliar with the idea that life could present not only disappointment and tragedy but horror—her husband had owned the original manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who certainly chilled her. In her Victorian salon the intellectuals discussed the sublime thrill, then in vogue, of observing nature's terrifying displays from a posture of safety: a stirring view of mountainous waves from the cozy warmth of one's seaside cottage, for instance. Yet it is not likely Mrs. Childs had ever had an encounter quite equal to the feeling that swept through her as the field glasses revealed that the man's legs were missing. Mrs. Childs was a strong woman in crisis, and by then perspiration on her temples and her own beating heart sharpened her determination to learn what was happening. On either side of the fallen man, mothers hurried children out of the water as if it were boiling. On the sands, women in long dresses swooned. Men rushed to assist them. From her distant balcony the grande dame heard as if from the wind and sea itself faint but unmistakable cries of “Shark!” She had seen all she needed, and heard quite enough.

Putting down the field glasses, Mrs. Childs rushed for the telephone and called the hotel office. F. T. Keating, assistant manager of the hotel, picked up. Keating, alarmed, went straight to the hotel manager, David B. Plumer, who—without time to consider the uniqueness of the situation—put into motion the first coastwide shark alarm in the history of the United States. Plumer instructed Keating to call every physician booked in the hotel, or anywhere in Spring Lake. Moving urgently to the E & S switchboard, he ordered the operators to notify every “central” operator on the north and central coast. The first central switchboard operators had been men, but they fought constantly and were unruly with customers, so they were replaced by women. So it was women who sounded the alert that the shore was in chaos. Within minutes, the E & S operators reached every major hotel on New Jersey's Gold Coast, from Atlantic Highlands, sixteen miles north, to Point Pleasant, six miles south.

For the first time in memory along the East Coast of the United States, a tranquil beach day was interrupted by surfmen running to the edge of the sea to frantically wave swimmers out of the water; by bathers thrashing and stumbling madly to shore for reasons that were urgent if not clear. Within half an hour, thousands of bathers fled more than thirty miles of beaches in a shark panic without precedent.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the first appearance of the great white shark as twentieth-century man-eater harkened back to apocryphal stories such as St. George and the dragon and foretold all appearances, in fact and fiction, of the great white to come. Men and women fled the water for sound and practical reasons, and they also fled their nightmares, long quiescent, of a creature buried so long in myth and rumor and repressed fear that when released expanded beyond any known and reasonable bounds. A simple act of nature in a few square feet of ocean sent a cloud of fear along vast stretches of coastal water and far inland. The crowds fled a sea monster, with its weight of evil, threat, and retribution.

Moments after dialing the assistant hotel manager, Mrs. Childs ordered her servants to bring around her automobile. She had tried to ring her niece on the telephone, but there was no answer. Within minutes, Mrs. Childs was speeding to Deal Beach, seven miles to the north, to personally stop her niece from entering the water for her afternoon swim.

Just one block south of the New Essex and Sussex on the Spring Lake oceanfront, the switchboard jangled urgently at the New Monmouth Hotel. The enormous New Monmouth boasted a central Palladian dome flanked by polygonal towers from which unfolded vast wings that embraced the sea. Within minutes, the sumptuous ritual of afternoon tea at the New Monmouth was sundered as Drs. William W. Trout and A. Cornell, the house physicians, sprinted through the lobby, carrying their heavy black bags.

Rushing south on Ocean Drive and down to the beach, the doctors pressed through the small crowd that had gathered around the body in the wet sand. “A morbid crowd had gathered, intent on seeing the remains,” the Asbury Park Evening Press reported. The bell captain, or what was left of him, lay on his back in a welter of blood that was already crusting and drying on his bathing costume and diffusing on the sand. Trout and Cornell, the first physicians to reach Bruder, summoned their full professional composure, but jellyfish stings, crab pinches, and sunburn were the usual toll of the beach. In their combined years, the physicians had not seen such wounds from an animal attack. Bruder's left leg was bitten off clear above the knee; his right leg, just below the knee, was gone. A huge gouge was ripped from his torso, the wound edged with large teeth marks. The bell captain was already dead from massive blood loss. There was nothing to do but arrange for the body to be taken to autopsy and to calm the crowd.

Eyes full of questions turned to Trout and Cornell as they examined the remains, as though a doctor could explain what had happened, or promise it would not happen again. Facing gasps and muffled sobs, women shooing away the wide eyes of children, men sputtering anger that was the flip side of the coin of fear, Trout and Cornell were relieved to see the large, loose-limbed figure of Dr. William G. Schauffler, the governor's staff physician and surgeon of the New Jersey National Guard, ambling across the sands.

At the tender age of twenty-five, Schauffler was something of a local wunderkind—the highest-ranking medical doctor in the state. Tall and broad-boned, rugged yet affable in a small-town way, Dr. Schauffler was a born leader of men, trailed often by a group of youths “who were ready for anything, and afraid of nothing,” a family friend remembered. Within a year, in World War I, Schauffler became an American hero, a captain commanding the legendary 90th Aero Squadron under Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. In the 1930s, he organized men into a pioneering sea and air fire rescue squad that responded to the fiery wreck of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Now, as Colonel Schauffler kneeled to inspect Bruder's corpse, a troubled expression creased his youthful features. It was fifteen minutes after the attack and blood still oozed from the bell captain's tattered limbs. Schauffler's appraisal was that of a doctor who was also a skilled fisherman. He was a part-time charter captain who took his boat out of nearby Point Pleasant. A compulsive student of fish and their habits, he designed and sold his own line of rods for deep-sea fishing, and was credited for innovating a fighting chair where a man could strap in to battle big fish like marlin and tuna. Now, studying Bruder's partially devoured torso, the legs that ended in torn and bloodied nubs, Schauffler reached what he considered the gravest possible conclusion. The wounds were without a doubt the work of a large shark. Later, Schauffler filed the first detailed medical report of a shark attack victim in the United States. “The left foot was missing as well as the lower end of the tibia and fibula,” he wrote. “The leg bone was denuded of flesh from a point halfway below the knee. There was a deep gash above the left knee, which penetrated to the bone. On the right side of the abdomen low down a piece of flesh as big as a man's fist was missing. There is not the slightest doubt that a man-eating shark inflicted the injuries.”

Schauffler's report anticipated the classic study of shark attack victims by South African doctors Davies and Campbell half a century later. In the later terminology of Davies and Campbell, Bruder suffered the severest shark-inflicted injury possible, a grade-one. Grade one injuries involve major damage to the femoral artery in the area of the femoral triangle, or multiple artery severing. Had Bruder suffered the same attack in the early twenty-first century, he still would have died, even with instant and advanced medical response. In a grade-one shark injury, wrote Davies and Campbell, “the victim usually dies within minutes after the attack.”

As Schauffler rose from beside Bruder's body, he was convinced of what had to be done. He was already forming plans to organize a patrol, armed men and a fleet of boats, to protect bathers and capture and kill the shark. The shark, he believed, was a confirmed man-eater, a large and deranged animal that would continue to threaten swimmers until it was destroyed.

Word preceded Dr. Schauffler to the lobby of the Essex and Sussex that the bell captain had been torn to pieces by a shark. Panic, like a billowing ether, occupied the grand room. Troubled guests had gathered in knots of conversation, and manager David Plumer found himself dealing with the matter of Bruder's body and comforting the stricken. “The news that the man had been killed by a shark spread rapidly through the resort, and many persons were so overcome by the horror of Bruder's death that they had to be assisted to their rooms,” The New York Times reported. “Swimmers hurried out of the water and couldn't be induced to return.” With the coming of twilight, local residents were drawn irresistibly to the hotel to make sense of the tragedy, but sense dissolved in a babel of opinion. Old-time fishermen insisted a shark attack was too far-fetched to believe, that swordfish, giant sea turtles, and big mackerel were more likely man-killers than a shark. No one could recall a shark attack in Spring Lake since the pioneers built homes on the beach in the 1880s. Townfolk recalled, with knotted stomachs, the shark caught by a Spring Lake fisherman in 1913. In the fish's stomach was the foot of an unidentified woman, the foot still encased in a fashionable tan shoe. But it was concluded then that the shark had scavenged the body of a drowned woman. Sharks were considered too timid to threaten a live human being.

That evening, as dark waves brushed the beach and moist winds blew through the high windows of the lobby, Mrs. Childs moved with a quiet dignity under the cottony shadows thrown by electric chandeliers, collecting donations from the summer colonists for Charles Bruder's mother in Switzerland. Mrs. Bruder had only one other son to support her, Mrs. Childs explained. In addition, the Philadelphia grande dame hoped to raise money to send the young man's remains home to his mother, across the Atlantic, to be buried.

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