Modern history

A Great Many Bathers Are Rather Scarce

His broad back to the sun, Benjamin Everingham dipped the oars of a small rowboat into the listless gray sea and pulled. The boat glided a few feet, slapping against the grain of the waves, and slowed, and he exhaled and pulled again. He was fifty feet beyond the ropes at the Asbury Avenue beach, moving parallel to the coast. A line of salmon clouds floated on the horizon. As the boat coasted, he looked toward the horizon, squinting for a fin, and, seeing nothing, he put his head down and pulled again. It was after eleven in the morning and the mild weather was a surprise. Mindful of the gift of a clear day, the summer people in the hotels and boardinghouses crowded the beaches early that Saturday.

There were more than a hundred people in the water at Asbury Avenue, thronged behind the safety ropes. Hundreds more sat on the beach under muted green, blue, and siena umbrellas. The Fourth Avenue and Seventh Avenue beaches were crowded too. The Asbury Park Press sang with reassuring headlines: “Will Assure Absolute Safety to Bathers . . . Asbury Park Bathing Grounds All to Be Surrounded by Wire.” A heavy, close-meshed wire netting, used for fishing but thought to be strong enough to keep out sharks, had been installed the day before at the Fourth Avenue beach from sea bottom to the high-tide level. Work hadn't started at Asbury Avenue yet. The beach was open to the sea, thus Everingham's assignment to row along the coast and keep an eye out for sharks.

Everingham was captain of the surfmen for the resort city, but by all accounts he was taking his assignment that day lightly. He was skeptical of reports that a shark had killed a man on Thursday in Spring Lake, four miles south. Fishermen in Asbury Park were saying it must have been a freak big mackerel or swordfish, and, in any case, as an old-time seaman had said in the Press, “Such an accident is not apt to happen again in a thousand years.” Instructed to carry a rifle and ax on his shark patrol to protect the bathers, Everingham hadn't bothered.

Everingham's lapse in judgment would come as a surprise to officials of the beach town. Asbury Park was a fabled Gilded Age resort of broad Parisian-style boulevards and grand hotels and mansions, one of which was built by John D. Rockefeller. In 1916, Asbury Park was considered a “flossy” place, a new word then for “classy.” A John Sousa band performed a summer concert series in the bandstand; a nationally famous parade of babies toddled down the boardwalk; an electrified trolley system, the second in America, ran down to the sea.

That Saturday, Mayor Laughlin Hetrick had announced a new theme for the baby parade of “demonstration of national preparedness from the standpoint of protection for mothers and babies.” Strollers on the boardwalk, who came to Asbury Park for health, looked for bottled cures such as Lenox Water, which “Relieves Rheumatism, Nervous Exhaustion and Lassitude . . . restoring nerve force,” although the Pure-Food Act had recently driven many such potions off the market. At the Asbury Avenue beach that morning, young women sported the new colorful swimsuits with bold checks and stripes, no doubt relieved at the removal of the bathhouse sign: “Modesty of apparel is as becoming to a lady in a bathing suit as it is to a lady dressed in silk and satin. A word to the wise is sufficient.”

At a quarter to noon, as Benjamin Everingham rowed parallel to the coast, perhaps he was distracted by the flashy new bathing costumes. Perhaps he was wearied from staring at the endless ocean and thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. But when he turned toward the horizon, he saw a type of gray fin cutting the low waves. In an instant he recognized it as a large shark. It seemed to be fully eight feet long, and it was bearing directly for his boat. Everingham must have regretted for a fleeting moment that he had neglected to bring a rifle or ax. Just as the shark was about to strike his boat, the surfman stood and “lifted one of the oars from its lock and struck viciously at the slimy sea monster.” Stricken, the creature turned sideways as if to flee, whereupon Everingham swung the oar and struck the big fish again, “and with a swirling of the waters the shark turned and shot out to sea.”

Crowds watching from the beach and a nearby fishing pier were puzzled as they saw Everingham standing up in his boat, striking the surface of the water with an oar. But the mystery was answered as the captain of the surfmen rowed frantically to shore, shouting that he'd seen a shark. Everingham's announcement, followed by an order to his colleagues to clear the surf, caused considerable excitement on the shore. In an uproar, more than a hundred men, women, and children ran shrieking from the Asbury Avenue beach. It did not require much urging of the guards to clear the water of the bathers.

The captain of the surfmen tried to calm the panic, telling all who would listen that “had he been armed with an axe or harpoon he might have succeeded in killing or wounding the shark.” But as soon as Everingham reported the news to his superiors, Asbury Park officials closed the beach and ordered bathers out of the water at the Seventh Avenue bathing grounds as well. The Fourth Avenue beach, enclosed by protective steel nets, remained open that afternoon, but many bathers chose to leave the water. They sat huddled on the sands, watching armed patrol boats move up and down the coast outside the netting.

The shark aroused in men old angers and thrills and new possibilities of blood lust. That afternoon, Mayor Hetrick returned from a fishing trip on his luxury yacht, Tuna, to find Ben Everingham's battle with a shark the talk of Asbury Park. The mayor immediately ordered shark hooks fashioned for his boat and announced from then on the Tuna would be fishing for sharks to keep them away from the populace. The crew of the Tuna had its own reasons, he said. Earlier that day the Tuna's passengers had been alarmed by the sight of blue sharks playing about a buoy about a mile from Asbury Park. The mayor had spied blue sharks like this before, far from shore, but the sight of the fins appearing and disappearing from the surface and vanishing south to points unknown upset and frightened his paying passengers. The captain of the Tuna, A. A. Thompson, had experience with sharks in southern waters, the mayor said. As if to prove his readiness, Captain Thompson boasted that “should the monsters of the deep remain in this vicinity they are liable to find their ranks depleted.”

That afternoon, Harold Phillips, a member of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, joined the mayor in spirit, declaring he would tow the carcasses of horses and cows to a remote area a quarter mile off Sandy Hook, “the idea being that the sharks would all be attracted to the spot and done away with.” The idea caused an uproar in the club. There was no shortage of sportfishermen eager for a try. The carcasses would attract “the greatest roundup of sharks ever seen,” Phillips promised, sketching it out right in front of them, and then the fellows from the Asbury Park Gun Club would train their rifles “for what would no doubt prove most exciting sport, shooting the big game of the seas.”

But Asbury Park officials were not reassured by plans to eradicate all the man-eaters in the ocean. By the end of the day, they announced that both the Asbury Avenue and Seventh Avenue beaches would remain closed because of the “shark menace” until they could be surrounded by the steel-wire nets. In the hotels on Grand Avenue, and in trolley car 32 that ran from the train depot to the beach, the talk was of a killer shark. Whether the shark that attacked Everingham was the great white that killed Bruder didn't seem to matter; fear was growing general on the coast at the pace that hysteria outruns reason. One shark now represented all sharks, white or blue, near or far from shore. Two days after the death of Charles Bruder in Spring Lake, declared the Asbury Park Press, “The shark scare in Asbury Park has become a reality.”

Late that evening, a newlywed woman spending her honeymoon in Asbury Park mailed a postcard to a friend in Ludlow, Massachusetts, titled “Bathing Scene, Asbury Park, N.J.” The photograph of the beach showed crowds of people in the water behind rope lines, and a beach dotted with sunbathers and umbrellas. The woman, whose name was Mona, wrote on the back in small Palmer script compressed to fit: “This card is the picture of the beach where we go bathing. They have screened it in and it is patrolled by boats since the scare of a shark biting off the legs of a man a few beaches above here the other morning. The man died. Since then a great many bathers are rather scarce.”

The news of Bruder's death flew that summer from Manasquan to Massachusetts to Virginia and across five hundred miles of coastline. The news held sway in billiard parlors and smoking rooms and on carriage rides until men and women looked out to sea and saw in the fins that had been there summer after summer new and alien shapes. Everyone along the shore was thinking about sharks during the summer of 1916: an Edwardian matron watching a child's first swim, a man folding back the front page—both legs are bitten off just below the knees—to find the sports, a traveling Victrola scratching out Irving Berlin's “When I Lost You” under the blowing sand of a beach picnic. Whether borne by word of mouth or by printing press, the story traveled the shortest distance to the frightened heart, for it was the oldest suspense story of all—man killed by monster. And if this once-truest tale was forgotten and denied or polished up by the sweet civilized shine of metaphor, the story stirred latent yet hot in the veins of the moderns, raw, antediluvian, real. “Killed by Shark,” the Press said. “Boy, Legs Bitten Off by Shark,” Pulitzer's World screamed, “Dies on Beach . . . Precautions to Safeguard Bathers.”

Never had this aged yarn been borne so far so fast or been so thoroughly reinvented as new, by the Times of Adolph Ochs, William Randolph Hearst's Journal, Joseph Pulitzer and Frank Cobb's World, and by the “great octopus” that was “the most tremendous engine for Power which ever existed in this world,” the Associated Press. The titans of the yellow press knew the shortcuts to the frightened heart. Cobb hired young college men conversant with the Ajax of Sophocles; Hearst went for the “gee-whiz” effect; Ochs knew the thrill of murder and shark attack like any man, but while “the yellows see such stories only as opportunities for sensationalism,” he said, “when the Times gives a great amount of space to such stories it turns out authentic sociological documents.” However the story was told, people already knew it by heart and knew without asking what the end was. On the eastern seaboard, men took hold of the fear and anger and made it their own.

In New York Bay, on Saturday, July 8, seven days after Vansant's death, two days after Bruder's death, the very day Ben Everingham clubbed an attacking shark at Asbury Park, a score of boys and girls were bathing near the Robbins Reef Yacht Club, in Bayonne, New Jersey, when several of the children saw a shark, a big one, some eight feet long, appear off the float that extended out from the clubhouse. The children saw something black approaching them and, becoming frightened, started for shore. Somebody yelled, “It's a shark!” and the children ran, screaming, for the bathhouses.

In the yard adjoining the bathhouses, Dennis Colohan, a police lieutenant, was working with Amos Harker, superintendent of the city water department, and two other policemen to place an engine in a motorboat owned by Harker, when they heard the screams. Looking out on the water, the men saw a shark lift its head only a short distance from where the children had been bathing.

Lieutenant Colohan had his revolver with him and, followed by the other men, ran to the end of the float. The shark was still coming, headed toward shore. Colohan waited until the big fish was twenty feet away. He saw that the fin alone was three feet high out of the water and he squeezed the trigger. Some of the shots lodged in the shark's head, and yet the shark kept coming and Colohan kept shooting, emptying the revolver. The shark “seemed stunned for a moment, and then, lashing its tail, it turned quickly about, headed toward the Robbins Reef Lighthouse and disappeared,” Colohan said.

Word spread on the beach rapidly and “many bathers along the shore decided to quit,” reported the New York World. The police issued a warning to all bathers not to venture far out in the bay. According to an old bay fisherman, “The shark was the first seen in New York Bay in many years and the first ever so close to shore.” Lieutenant Colohan stood on the shore with the other men for half an hour after the shark disappeared by the lighthouse, waiting for it to return. The next day he was a hero, elevated by the World to the same pedestal as Everingham: “Two More Sharks Sighted and Sent to Sea A-grieving.”

More than two hundred miles south, along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, swimmers and boaters spied the ocean and the waters of Chesapeake Bay as something menacing and foreign. The Washington Star urged swimmers to beware of whatever had killed two men in New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands of people on the Atlantic coast were now afraid to go in the water, the Star noted, for good reason.

A warning came from silent film star and world-renowned beauty Annette Kellerman, who in 1914 starred in Neptune's Daughter and was then appearing as a mermaid in A Daughter of the Gods. “Whether . . . Bruder was killed by the dreaded shark or by some other species of large fish,” Kellerman was moved to write in a major article in the Washington Post, “something in the water . . . attacked him and tore his limbs from the body, that we do know.”

Kellerman's voice was an important one in educating America about the terrors of sharks. The world's most famous female swimmer, later portrayed by Esther Williams in the 1952 movie Million Dollar Mermaid, Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for wearing a one-piece bathing suit, which pointed the suffragette movement toward androgynous bathing styles and freed women from the gloves, hats, stockings, and pumps that made it impossible to swim. Kellerman was an early prophet of swimming as a safe, democratic, and wholesome sport. Now, in July 1916, she urged Americans to accept a hidden danger inherent in swimming: to fear sharks and to raise their children to fear them, especially the white shark. Well known to Australians, the white was “the nearest to what we term man-eater,” for it “will attack with terrific ferocity, and nothing will stop him from attaining his end . . . whatever his eyes see he will go for, and at one gulp swallow a man . . .” In Australia, “from the time a child is able to understand things the fear of the shark is forcibly impressed upon the mind. The shark to an Australian child occupies the same position as the bogey man does to American children.”

She closed her essay with a prescient warning: “That shark that killed Bruder will hover about the spot and perhaps others will join him. Then we will be subjected to a reign of terror that will cause the public to shun the beaches and bring ruin to the bathing-house owners. Let a word in time suffice. We must have no more shocking cases on the order of the Spring Lake beach affair.”

That same morning in Spring Lake, the soul of Charles Bruder was committed to eternal life at a funeral service at St. Andrew's Methodist Church, as employees of the Essex and Sussex, the New Monmouth, and other hotels filled the pews. Outside the windows, patrol boats buzzed along the coast through a steaming summer morning, and rowboats, packed with armed men, moored near the north and south bathing pavilions. Despite the heat, the beaches were almost empty, particularly at the South End pavilion, where Bruder was attacked, “indicating the fear felt by members of the cottage colony,” a local newspaper reported. Only a few ventured into the ocean and seemed to have no fear.

The fear had spread to nearby Manasquan, too. E. E. Sweeting, proprietor of Sweeting's bathing pavilion, tried to persuade bathers they had nothing to worry about. Sweeting had assigned Captain Charles Bentz of his surfmen to patrol the beach in a boat, “armed with a marlin spike, axe and other hardware that a shark might resent if he ventured too near.” But bathers were reluctant, and attendance was sparse.

After the church service, the funeral procession wended to Atlantic View Cemetery in Manasquan to bury the bell captain, in a grave near the sea, with a brief ceremony to bring closure and peace. Yet it was as if burial confirmed the strangeness of Bruder's death, as if opening the ground for a man killed by a shark released feelings of alienness and threat. Shortly after interment, five miles almost directly off the coast, John Anderson, a respected Manasquan fisherman, had a frightening experience he would later tell everyone on the docks. He was cruising in his small boat, when he saw “a school of sharks and porpoises disporting in the briny” with “other sea denizens which might have been whales.” Anderson had seen many sharks in his years at sea and worked among them, but now, fearful, he turned his boat toward shore, “loath to stay near the sea monsters.”

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