Modern history

Arrival of a Man-Eater

Far from shore the great white moved into deeper waters. In the literature of shark attacks, men often describe man-eaters as enraged, snapping at anything near: small fish, fishing lines, buoys. But the white shark now was likely doing what it always did: swimming steadily forward, dorsal fin high, searching for the next meal. All of Charles Bruder would certainly have sated the shark, but the legs left it hungry, imparted slightly more urgency to the search that never ended. If the attack on Bruder taught it anything—it was capable of crude learning, and attack was its only subject—it was that the mammals of the coast were vulnerable but not easy prey.

The great white had been frightened off by White and Anderson's lifeboat, which it perceived as a bigger predator, or it was simply spooked by a large foreign object, which sharks hastily avoid. Had the fish been mature, eighteen feet and three tons, neither boats nor men, oars, bullets, nor a larger shark would have stopped the feeding. Had the surfmen not rescued Bruder, the shark may have soared almost completely out of the water and plunged down, jaw agape, on the young man, taking him deep in the water. According to A. Peter Klimley's research in the 1990s of Carcharodon carcharias attacks on pinnipeds, white sharks carry struggling prey as far as three quarters of a mile away from the point of attack to allow the prey to bleed out. Then the shark can feed without distraction.

Now the great white moved off the coast of Spring Lake, deeply irritated, electric with hunger. Yet the shark had entered the only region of the world where a white shark population existed without the abundance of seals and sea lions, its favorite foods, to sustain it. To a great white, a man is a bony, unpalatable, low-fat choice, distressingly muscular. Enormous quantities of fat, scientists believe, fuel the great white's energy needs. The preference is striking: Whites feeding on a whale carcass have been witnessed carefully stripping away the blubbery layers.

Survival for a young white in the mid-Atlantic bight was precarious. Absent the fatty prey available on the West Coast—sea lions, elephant seals—the shark subsisted mostly on large fish such as rake and cod and red drum. As it grew larger than ten feet, the mid-Atlantic offered porpoises, sea turtles, and harbor seals, still extant off New Jersey in the first part of the century. But big, blubbery prey was scarce. Even if it were lucky enough to find a whale carcass, the juvenile great white would likely have been driven off by larger sharks.

Denied its usual diet, the great white would have turned to the lesser prey items it consumes as the need arises. Exactly what the great white eats in an emergency is a mystery ichthyologists solved by the late twentieth century after decades of investigation: whatever it wishes. The giant fish devours the living and the dead and the inanimate. Bottles, tin cans, cuckoo clocks, truck tires, a whole sheep, an intact Newfoundland dog with its collar on, have all been taken from the stomach of white. In the days when animal carcasses were thrown in the ocean, boars, pigs, the head of a horse, a whole horse, and the entire skin of a buffalo found their way into the stomachs of great white sharks. Almost anything is within the reach of a mouth that takes fifty pounds in a single bite. One white was found with five hundred pounds of bull elephant seal in its stomach, taken, no doubt, in a single battle—a grown bull elephant seal weighs fifteen hundred pounds. The white wears the mantle of the “natural undertaker.” Without sharks the ocean would be littered with decomposing carcasses.

The white shark's preference for pinnipeds, fish, and other sea creatures over human flesh is documented. Burgess's worldwide study of white attacks shows that in the majority of the 179 attacks—56.8 percent of the cases—human victims received only a single bite and were “spit out.” Some shark biologists believe humans resemble seals and, when proven to be imposters, are spit out; others insist humans are rejected as insufficiently fatty. Burgess disagrees. In a third of the attacks in the worldwide study, the great white bit its human victim repeatedly, clearly intending to feed. In such cases, “multiple bites occurred, including many instances in which victims were wholly consumed,” Burgess says, indicating that “humans are not uniformly unpalatable.”

Burgess interprets the shark's “bite and spit” behavior differently. The white shark's attacks on humans parallels its attacks on sea creatures—after the first strike it circles around, giving the prey time to bleed out.

According to George Burgess, the shark bit and spit not because its human victim was unplatable, but because it simply ceased its attack:

It wasn't given an opportunity for a second bite. We have enough deaths and consumptions in the Attack File to know a white shark will happily consume a human being if it wants to. But because of our brain and social structure, a person grabbed by a white shark has a very good chance of getting to a boat, getting on a surfboard, having a swimming buddy help him escape the water. The poor sea lion doesn't have those assets. If humans were unpalatable we wouldn't have bodies disappearing and consumed.

In gray light the tide came in, covering the sands, and the globes of the streetlamps ensnared the brightness of dawn. In the early hours of Friday, July 7, before the hotels began serving coffee and distributing the morning newspaper, gentlemen made briskly to the boardwalk for their constitutionals, gentlemen in boaters and blue blazers, chins set to the breeze, who would not permit themselves to be thrown off balance. Later, intrepid young men, fewer in number, declared it a fine beach day, too lovely to waste, with the rain coming Saturday, and as the sun heated the shallows and the roadsters started down the coast road, they went into the sea.

Yet, as the sun rounded over the ocean at Spring Lake, a small squadron of boats split the shallows, gunning loud motorboat engines and trailing diluted crimson pools of animal blood. On the prows of the boats stood groups of men, faces hard and pointed down toward the water, long rifles and harpoons angled high against the delicate blue sky. Roped to the boats were chunks of lamb slaughtered by the butcher that morning, bait for the man-eater. Dr. Schauffler had organized the patrol to catch and kill the shark, and also to protect bathers, so those who wished could swim with peace of mind. Yet before long, as the sun tipped toward the hotel, young men, one at a time, left the water, returning to the hotel, or the pool at the Bath and Tennis Club, fed by the sea it faced. Shortly, the line of blue-green breakers rolled in uninterrupted, gulls swooped and called to a high and empty sky, and the beach at Spring Lake was bereft, for the first summer day in many years, of human presence—except for the men with the guns, and the sharp metallic smells of gasoline and lamb's blood.

In the lobby of the Essex and Sussex that morning, the white-haired figure of Mrs. George W. Childs moved through the crowds, emboldened by purpose, spreading news of the bell captain's funeral. Her plan to ship the young man home across the Atlantic had been refused by the Swiss counsel as too dangerous during wartime, with U-boats prowling the shipping channels. The bell captain would be buried the next morning in nearby Manasquan, and the management of the E & S vowed to cover all expenses, as if by doing the right thing—and doing it quickly—the hotel and its guests could put the tragedy behind them. But David Plumer, the manager, found himself patrolling the lobby that morning, calming nerves, and coaxing people to stay as the roar of motorboats drifted from the sea. Small lines of summer colonists stood at the front desk, shortening their vacations, making plans for the mountains. Word had reached the hotel that Asbury Park and towns up and down the coast were barricading their beaches from a man-eating shark. Yet the history of shark attack is footnoted by denial, and Spring Lake, perhaps inevitably, was opposed to such an alarming view.

Oliver Hush Brown, the mayor of Spring Lake and president of the First National Bank, possessed numerous public and private reasons to pray all talk of a shark would simply disappear. As mayor for thirty-two years, Brown was the town's prime mover; he led Spring Lake's comeback from the great fire of 1900, which destroyed whole blocks of businesses, and nurtured it as a tourist resort that would “cater to people of refinement and culture.” His O. H. Brown variety store, filled with tasteful fineries from the mayor's buying trips to Europe, provided furnishings, floor coverings, china, and objets to the wealthy summer cottagers and hotels. The lobby of the E & S that morning was filled with O. H. Brown furnishings. In 1914, in fact, when the New E & S opened, the mayor had become a stockholder.

By midmorning, a commotion swept the lobby of the E & S as colonists crowded around copies of the day's New York Times, smudging their fingers with ink as they passed around the broadsheet pages. “Shark Kills Bather Off New Jersey Beach,” the front page blared. “Bites Off Both Legs of a Young Swimmer. Guards Find Him Dying. Women Are Panic-stricken As Mutilated Body Is Brought Ashore.” Even the habitually restrained Times could not report the arrival of a man-eating shark without sensation. There was no other way to tell the story. Men and women studied the newspaper with audible gasps. Dispatches by Times correspondents from the Battle of the Somme and the Russian front and the British sinking of twenty-one German ships seemed somehow tame and distant in comparison. With its headlines and stories of July 7, 1916, the Times introduced the great white shark to American culture as a source for general fear, the twentieth-century sea monster. As guests folded back the front page, the previous night's bold assertions that a shark could not have killed Bruder evaporated in the daylight. Some guests locked themselves in their rooms, others simply packed to leave. It was as if the horrors of the previous day, stamped in newsprint, could no longer be denied.

Some Spring Lake residents and fishermen stubbornly continued to claim that there were far more likely man-killers than sharks. They swapped stories of giant mackerels and huge, swift swordfish that could run a man through with their long, steel-hard blades. Whatever was out there concealed by the waves, for the first time in American history people en masse were afraid to enter the water. The four hundred to five hundred bathers who swam in the waters off the South Pavilion on Thursday dwindled on Friday to half a dozen brave souls drifting in and out of the surf. Finally, the surf emptied for good.

That afternoon, guests at the Essex and Sussex who elected to stay must have had second thoughts. The sounds of distant muffled gunshots reached the hotel, followed by an anxious account from the surfmen at the South Pavilion, on the water's edge. A large shark had been spotted perilously close to the beach. The armed men of the shark patrol had raised their rifles and opened fire across the waves, shooting at a large fin. The fish eluded the spray of bullets and, apparently frightened, disappeared out to sea. No swimmers were injured by the rifle fire; none were in the water. The pool at the Bath and Tennis Club grew uncomfortably overcrowded that afternoon. There were so many people in the pool, it would have to be emptied and refilled several additional times, in the days ahead, for sanitary reasons. Eventually, the club would petition the township for permission to lay a larger pipe to fill the pool. Nobody would go back into the ocean.

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