Modern history

Myths of Antiquity

Forty-five miles north of Spring Lake, New York City was a sea of buildings Henry James called “extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.” Looming over Broadway was the tallest building in the world, the fifty-eight-story Woolworth Building, the new cathedral of commerce that symbolized New York's spirited modern ascension over Paris, trailing only London as the world's largest city. Everything in New York seemed new and modern in 1916—revolutionary words blowing through the city then. Penn Station and Grand Central, Gimbel's and Ebbets Field, were all new to the feverish teens. At the Biograph Theater, D. W. Griffith launched the motion picture industry; Picasso, Matisse, and Picabia introduced modern art at the Armory Show; Emma Goldman and John Reed, anarchists, and New Women in Greenwich Village, swept away Victorian sexual prudery in a tide of free speech and free love. In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in New York, after going to jail for writing about the subject. The Lusitania never returned to New York harbor, and the Titanic never arrived. The triumphal voyages of the ocean liners nonetheless extended the spell of the modern and new.

Rising over the Upper West Side like a castle, the American Museum of Natural History was another icon of the new, for under its ten-acre roof the museum had mounted the most painstaking effort in the modern world to illuminate the shadowy myths of the past with the lamp of scientific investigation: to acquire and transmit, for the first time in history, scientifically documented information about the animals, plants, and minerals of the earth's surface.

Late that July afternoon, a group of newspapermen presented itself at the grand entrance of the museum on Central Park West with a characteristic urgency. Hurrying past a gallery of marble busts—Benjamin Franklin, Alexander von Humboldt, Louis Agassiz, John James Audubon, Edward Drinker Cope, Robert E. Peary—the gentlemen of the press were dispatched to the office of the director of the museum and head of the scientific staff, Dr. Frederic Augustus Lucas.

Dr. Lucas was one of the preeminent scientists and “museum men” in the world, an authority in the fields of taxidermy, osteology (the study of bones), geology, and comparative anatomy. Once a lean New England sailor of clipper ships, Dr. Lucas at the age of sixty-four had attained a corpulence that to the late Victorians signified power. Thick white hair and a prominent walrus mustache set off by formal dark suits gave the director the bearing of a nineteenth-century financier. Preternaturally big, sad dark eyes in a drooping, jowly face revealed the humanist, one of the country's first great museum scientists, who delighted in bringing the “rational amusement” of science to the public.

The director was at the peak of his career. After twenty years as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where he consulted frequently with Alexander Graham Bell, he had been appointed director of the American Museum in 1911 by the trustees, who included Theodore Roosevelt, Henry C. Frick, and J. P. Morgan. At Lucas's direction, the museum mounted the expeditions of many of the world's greatest botanists, anthropologists, and explorers. It dispatched Carl E. Akeley and Roosevelt to Africa and Peary to the North Pole. Dr. Lucas presided over major museums—the American, the Smithsonian, and the Brooklyn Museum—during the fifty years when museums grew from obscure collections scarcely open to the public to vast institutions of education and entertainment. It was he who mounted one of the world's most extensive efforts to reveal “natural” exhibits of animals and human tribes in their habitats within glass-enclosed cases.

With his professorial appearance, wit, and passion, Dr. Lucas was one of the great popularizers of science before television and radio, a Carl Sagan of an era of lantern-slide presentations and crowded lecture halls. He was an expert in demand by the great encyclopedias, including the Encyclopedia Americana, on all matters of natural history. He was most famous to a general readership for his short, best-selling book on fossils, Animals of the Past: An Account of Some of the Creatures of the Ancient World, in which he showed his gift for enlivening the driest science. Apologizing for using Latin scientific names, he wrote: “The reader may perhaps sympathize with the old lady who said that the discovery of all these strange animals did not surprise her so much as the fact that anyone should know their names when they were found.” He steadfastly refused to report the ages of any fossil animals, since scientific estimates of the Jurassic period—“when the dinosaurs held carnival”—varied so widely, from six million to fifty million years ago. “It does seem as if it were hardly worthwhile to name any figures . . . so the question of age will be left for the reader to settle to his or her satisfaction.” The dinosaurs, then, were simply very old. Each chapter began with a poem by Lucas. In the “Rulers of the Ancient Seas” he wrote, “There rolling monsters armed in scaly pride/Flounce in the billows, and dash around the tide/There huge leviathan unwieldly moves/And through the waves a living island roves.” His entertaining survey of some of the recent discoveries of the fossil hunters—the mammoth, the mastodon, Tyrannosaurus rex—made him, in the public eye, one of the foremost scientists in the country.

But it was for a different reason the newspapermen requested an interview with Dr. Lucas. The director had studied shark attacks for years, an endeavor that earned him the reputation of being the scientific community's reigning shark expert. It was Lucas who had dispatched John T. Nichols, one of his brightest assistants, to investigate the death of Charles Bruder in Spring Lake. But Nichols suspected a killer whale, while the newspapermen, and the public at large, were obsessed with the idea of a man-eating shark—a subject that, to the press's lament, no other men of science seemed to know much about. No less an authority than The New York Times—already the undisputed newspaper authority on matters of science—had declared Frederic Augustus Lucas “the greatest shark expert of this century” (leaving out the fact that Dr. Lucas was not an ichthyologist).

Frederic Augustus Lucas combined broad training in science with the Victorian naturalists' love of nature. Verging on childlike joy, he thrilled still to the gleam of enormous teeth appearing out of the shadows of vast halls, the gargantuan prehistoric forms reaching the uppermost ceilings. A brilliant popularizer of science in the new century, it was Lucas's unerring instinct to exhibit nature in its most spectacular and colossal forms. An eighty-foot blue whale swam silently behind a darkened glass window, the tentacles of a giant squid wrapped around its head. The Hall of Dinosaurs was the envy of the world, especially the tyrannosaurus skeleton—“mightiest of all animals that have walked the face of the earth,” Dr. Lucas wrote, “for apparently nothing could have withstood the attack of this monster beast of prey.”

Yet Dr. Lucas was uncharacteristically agitated as he strolled the cavernous stone hallways that afternoon. In his own estimation he had devoted far too much time to shining the cool lights of science and reason on the feverish public perception of sea monsters. The hullabaloo over a man supposedly killed by a shark in Spring Lake reminded him of the uproar over the “giant blob” that had washed ashore on Anastasia Island, Florida, in November 1896, causing an international sensation over the “Florida sea monster.” Then, too, Dr. Lucas, at the time a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, was required to step in and disappoint the masses with scientific fact, identifying the “blob” as no more than decayed whale blubber. These hubbubs interfered with Dr. Lucas's real work, the careful, loving shaping of the museum, his research, writing, and scholarship, and the nurturing of young scientists.

He had been pressed into extra duty by the hullabaloo over the shark, and Dr. Lucas didn't tolerate work as he once did. “The ideas do not come so quickly, nor the pen record them so readily as of yore,” he lamented in the seventh edition of Animals of the Past. “Worst of all his brain has joined with the labor unions in demanding an eight hour day and refuses to work nights.”

An avowed Victorian gentleman, Frederic Lucas was rankled by much of the modern world. A disciplined and orderly man, he grew weary that week as newspapermen interrupted him with queries about the young man in Spring Lake supposedly killed by a shark. What kind of shark was responsible? Are sharks man-eaters? Should swimmers be afraid? The names and faces of the men from the Post and Times, the Herald and World, the Journal and Inquirer and Bulletin, were different but the questions were endlessly the same. Dr. Lucas was in touch with his esteemed colleague Hugh M. Smith, director of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Washington—the government's top fish scholar—about the so-called “shark attacks.” Dr. Smith seemed equally perplexed by the Spring Lake incident, and shared Dr. Lucas's private sentiment that he wished the whole matter of the shark would simply go away.

A stickler for accuracy in educating the public, Lucas wasn't impressed with newspapermen's record in disseminating scientific knowledge. He ruefully recalled how the newspapers reported a colleague's discovery that the brain of the prehistoric creature was located near the posterior—dinosaurs were thinking with their pelvis! When Georgia newspapers had trumpeted the discovery of a “Giant Cliff Dweller Mummy,” Dr. Lucas dispatched an investigator to Atlanta to see if it belonged in the museum. The mummy was sitting in the sheriff's office, made of paper skin and the teeth of a cow.

The director could imagine few myths as archaic and misguided as the myth of the sea monster, and particularly the weak-minded belief in a man-eating shark. The man-eating shark was a hysterical product of the myths of antiquity, but such a creature, as far as Dr. Lucas's thirty years of personal scientific investigations could determine, simply did not exist, or most certainly not in New York or New Jersey waters.

Asked by the New York press to comment on Bruder's death, Dr. Lucas declared: “No shark could skin a human leg like a carrot, for the jaws are not powerful enough to induce injuries like those described by Colonel Schauffler.” The esteemed scientist was adamant to the point of “finality” that sharks were not capable of inflicting serious injury to man.

Dr. Lucas's authority on sharks was supported by a lifetime of scientific study. Frederic Augustus Lucas was one of the last of the old-time Victorian naturalists who relied on love of nature and a keen mind in lieu of a university education. Armed with an introductory letter from his nineteenth-century sea-captain father—“Do you have any use for a boy who seems mostly interested in skinning snakes?”—he studied at the Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, where he absorbed the broad training of one of the last of the “all-around naturalists.” Of all things modern, what rankled him most was scientific “specialization,” which struck him as narrow and unmanly; he failed to understand how the new men of science could not clean skeletons, do taxidermy, and mount and build their own exhibits like carpenters, as he once did.

He was troubled by the lack of passion in young museum men: “Old-timers like Hornaday, Akeley and myself grieve over the helplessness of the modern preparator, his dread of working overtime . . . his readiness to make up for being late by quitting early. We worked a dozen hours a day and then went home to work for ourselves or took our best girl to the theatre. We heard nothing in those days of the artistic temperament—we heard more of laziness or general cussedness.”

Dr. Lucas's knowledge spanned the whole of the animal kingdom. During his fifty-year career, he wrote 365 scientific journal articles—many in longhand, before the typewriter was invented—ranging “in the old-fashioned way from insects to dinosaurs through the whole gamut of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.”

He had been first fascinated with sharks while sailing around the world with his father. By the time he was eighteen, Lucas had sailed to Europe and Asia and around the Cape of Good Hope. The persistent myth of the man-eating shark fired his skepticism, for nowhere in the world could he find documented evidence of such a fish. As was said of William Beebe, the “father of oceanography,” whom Lucas employed as a young man and who later went down in the first bathysphere: “He was not prepared to take anyone's word for anything. He had to see for himself.” And so in the 1880s, when he joined the United States Museum (later the Smithsonian), the Brooklyn Museum, and finally the American Museum, he continued his inquiries firsthand on the Atlantic Coast.

Again and again, his investigations of reported man-eating sharks on the East Coast turned up fabricated stories of large but harmless species. While Lucas allowed that “two really dangerous species, the white shark and the blue shark,” wander up from the tropics, he maintained that “there is no record of any fully grown individual ever having been taken within hundreds of miles of New York.” Furthermore, “ordinarily a shark is a very cautious animal, and it is difficult to get a big one to take a bait to which he is not accustomed.” Thus, the danger of being attacked by a shark on the Atlantic Coast was “infinitely less than that of being struck by lightning.”

As a recognized authority, Lucas was often called to set the record straight. He had watched from a distance the previous summer the ongoing shark debate in The New York Times. The director was dismayed when a spate of local “shark scares” revealed that an unreasoning fear of attack still existed, and later cheered when The New York Times published its August 2, 1915, editorial, “Let Us Do Justice to Sharks,” declaring that Hermann Oelrichs had been right and “that sharks can properly be called dangerous, in this part of the world, is apparently untrue.” But when a subsequent rash of letters to the editor of the Times purported to describe dozens of gruesome man-eating shark attacks around the world, Dr. Lucas could not let pass what he regarded as unscientific, unsubstantiated anecdote or rumor. Dr. Lucas had not changed his opinion since 1905, when, as editor of Young Folks Cyclopaedia of Natural History, he classified the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, under its popular name “the man-eater shark.” “This, the most voracious of sharks, does not hesitate, it is said, to attack a man, but practically few or no authentic cases are on record of such a thing having taken place.”

So the director was understandably disturbed when J. T. Du Bois, an American diplomat, began the broadside of evidence on August 15, 1915, with a grisly letter to the Times, “The Man-eating Shark.” Even carefree New York and New Jersey swimmers must have shuddered as they read the report of the diplomat, then consul general in Singapore, British Malaya, of the collision and sinking of French and British passenger steamers in the Straits of Rhio in November 1907. “The panic stricken passengers threw themselves into the water and were instantly attacked by some man-eating sharks, and the waters were reddened by the slaughter. About ninety people lost their lives. When the news of this disaster reached the United States, I received several letters asking if it were true that such a thing existed as a man-eating shark.”

Intrigued, Du Bois immediately dispatched fifty letters to diplomats around the world, from the Philippines to the Red Sea, “asking for verified incidents of the work of the man-eating shark.” The response astonished him: “I received sixteen affidavits from American Consuls, Philippine officials, and one Indian official, reciting interesting incidents of the man-eating sharks attacking and wounding or killing and eating human beings.” He was sent a photograph of a Tomali boy, coin-diving on the Gulf of Aden, being “seized by a man-eating shark and dragged back into the waters, never to return.”

Eight days after the diplomat's letter, another letter in the Times, signed cryptically “N.S.W.,” denoting the Australian state of New South Wales, gave convincing and gruesome details of three cases of sharks devouring humans, adding that “any one who doubts that sharks in temperate waters do attack human beings will visit Sydney, N.S.W. . . . and . . . his doubts will be speedily resolved.” The letter reported the case of a boy dangling his legs off a wharf at Ryde, on the Parramatta River, which feeds the harbor, when “a shark came up, seized a foot, and disappeared with the boy, whose body was never seen again.” The very next day, Herbert MacKenzie, a native of Sydney, Australia, capital of New South Wales, published in the Times a letter confirming to the last detail his memory of the three cases reported by “N.S.W.” “As a native of that beautiful city, I can with authority corroborate the statements . . . and know of others where lives and limbs have been lost as a result of these sea monsters in the beautiful waters of the harbor.” In the late 1880s, MacKenzie reported: “I distinctly remember a young man losing first an arm, then, just as rescue was at hand, the entire body disappeared, leaving only a blood path in the water. This happened in Rushcutters Bay.”

If readers of the Times were unsettled by these accounts, they must have found reassuring the rebuttal from Dr. Lucas, the famed expert who had investigated alleged shark attacks on the East Coast for forty years and verified none as authentic. In his letter to the editor, “The Shark Slander,” Dr. Lucas announced he knew of only “two fairly reliable references to such cases” in the world—one in Bombay, where a man lost his leg, another in the Hawaiian Islands, where a human victim was surely mistaken for offal dumped in the water.

Those who believed a shark had killed Charles Bruder, Lucas declared, had made one of the commonest errors in such cases, “that the shark bit off the man's leg as though it were a carrot.” Such a feat was not possible, Lucas said, and the mere statement “shows that the maker or writer of it had little idea of the strength of the apparatus needed to perform such an amputation.” In his contribution to Nichols's and Murphy's journal article for the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin, published three months before Bruder's death, Lucas described the common sense behind his theory. “The next time the reader carves a leg of lamb, let him speculate on the power required to sever this at one stroke—and the bones of a sheep are much lighter than those of a man. Moreover, a shark, popular belief to the contrary notwithstanding, is not particularly strong in the jaws.”

As evidence, Dr. Lucas noted that his protégé, Robert Cushman Murphy, during an expedition to South Georgia Island, witnessed “the difficulty of sharks in tearing meat from the carcass of a whale.” And Lucas recalled his own “disappointment at witnessing the efforts of a twelve-foot shark to cut a chunk out of a sea lion. The sea lion had been dead a week and was supposedly tender, but the shark tugged and thrashed and made a great to-do over each mouthful.”

Given the weakness of even the largest sharks' jaws, Lucas reasoned, a man would lose a leg only “if a shark thirty feet or more in length happened to catch a man fairly on the knee joint where no severing of the bone was necessary.” A shark was not capable of biting cleanly through the bone and therefore could not have been the animal that bit off Charles Bruder's legs below the knee. What animal was capable of the attack, Dr. Lucas couldn't say, but “certainly no shark recorded as having been taken in these waters could possibly perform such an act.” According to Lucas, the best scientific data concerning the question of the East Coast shark attack remained the uncollected wager Hermann Oelrichs made in 1891. Twenty-five years had substantiated the tycoon's position, Lucas concluded, that there is “practically no danger of an attack . . . about our coasts.”

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