Modern history

The Fish

The big fish moved slowly on the surface of the deep. Its dark top matched the leaden sea; its white bottom blended with sunshine reflected from beneath. The fish moved with grace and beauty remarkable for its size, in a cloak of invisibility fashioned from infinite silvery refractions of light. Unseen and unheard, it would swim for days without coming in sight of man or boat or another of its kind. Little about the scene had changed since the fish swam in the Age of Reptiles. The ocean was not yet watched by satellites or shadowed by the flying cross of airplanes. The fish had appeared before the continents divided, before there were trees and flying insects, enduring while nature underwent upheaval and extinction. The fish had survived and changed little.

The Victorian scientific lust, after Darwin, to classify and catalogue every living plant, animal, and human tribe had made no inroads on the fish's privacy. Indeed, extreme scarcity is one of its greatest survival gifts. It was in 1916—and still is, almost a century later—a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a fisherman or a sailor to see such a fish.

It was nature's plan for a minnow or a Maryland crab to be ordinary sights, but, like eagles in the sky and tigers on land, the great white shark sits atop the ocean's food pyramid, an “apex predator.” Great whites must consume such massive quantities of flesh to survive, it would be unthinkable for them to be numerous. The great white is the largest predator fish on the contemporary planet that the laws of physics allow. It is, quite simply, too dangerous for there to be more than a limited number of its kind.

As a result of its great scarcity, little was known about the white shark in 1916. Most Americans had never seen a shark, except for scattered photographs in newspapers and drawings such as the comically nearsighted “grand chien de la mer,” vaguely resembling a great white shark, in Jules Verne's bestseller Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The sailors' myth of a “man-eating fish” persisted in the machine age as a hoary, vaguely dubious relic of the Age of Sail. Herman Melville had witnessed ferocious sharks on his Pacific whaling trips and wrote in Moby Dick of the white shark's “transcendent horrors, its elusive . . . terrible . . . whiteness.” But Melville had died penniless in New York in 1891, his big book an antiquated flop in the modern age of steamers and telegraph cables, Ahab's great sperm whale, the nineteenth-century sea monster, driven nearly extinct by man. All the sea monsters of the ancients were shrinking in the deductive glare of science: “It's scientific” would soon be the magic phrase that settled all parlor arguments, as Frederick Lewis Allen would write in Only Yesterday. The ship-grappling kraken turned out to be the giant squid, huge, mysteriously shy, tucked away harmlessly in the depths. The “man-eating giant octopus” was neither, simply a large, inky cephalopod; the mermaid, mythic Siren that lured sailors to their doom, was the far less perilous, if less comely, manatee. Well-read Victorian and Edwardian men were determined not to fall prey to excesses of ancient myth or modern “pseudo-science of the Jules Verne sort,” as Mark Sullivan noted in Our Times. A man was wary of being duped by the newspapers, notorious fabricators that trafficked in “perpetual motion, rain-making, pits dug through to China, messages from Mars, visitors from outer space.” To turn-of-the-century men, the man-eating shark, like the sea serpent, seemed just such a myth.

Jules Verne himself faithfully reported the Victorian skepticism in 1870 in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: “Even though fishermen's stories are not to be believed it is said that in one of these fish was found a buffalo head and an entire calf; in another, two tuna and a sailor still in uniform; in another, a sailor with his saber; and in yet another, a horse with its rider. It must be said, though, that these stories seem a bit doubtful.” Myths of the sea had a way of enduring, however, even in the most rational men. It would fall to the 1890s, to a new class of men, men who controlled and manipulated nature like none before, to expose the myth. In 1891, “monopolies,” “trusts,” and “robber barons” entered the American language and men were seized by an awe and fear of bigness—big railroads, big money, big men like Rockefeller and Harriman. Yet if ordinary man was small and had to bow to “nature's noblemen,” as the robber barons much preferred to be called, he could at least be at ease and equal in the ocean, swimming—a sport “we all from cats to kings can enjoy.” For in the 1890s, the largest oceanic predator, the man-eating shark, was proven to be a specious fable, a fish no match for any man, and surely not the colossus of the day.

On a warm, windy afternoon in July 1891, the luxury yacht Hildegard steamed east in the Atlantic far from the dark New York skyline. The day was fair with a reluctant sun, and now and again a wave crested. The Hildegard ran trim with teak and brass gleaming but lacked the whimsical grace of the old sailing yawls; the new coal-powered yachts of the Gilded Age were low and slick. Against the gray emptiness with only petrels for company and an occasional distant steamer, the ship buzzed and glowed with the faint nimbus of a Gay Nineties party. Cigar smoke curled beyond the gunwales, and the sports chewed tobacco. Cigarettes were a sign of sissiness to the men, or low breeding, for the men aboard the Hildegard were the “upper crust,” as the newspapers called them then. Smoking was verboten for women and the showing of an ankle a scandal, yet the gentler sex aboard the Hildegard displayed a decadent and empiric sensuality. In swan dresses and broad hats bedecked with ostrich feathers, they moved in a shifting constellation of diamonds—diamond hatpins, tiaras and diamond-encrusted lizards, insects, and bees, all the rage. Steam had given the rich for the first time in history the ability to sail away to the deep, to float to nowhere in particular for sporting amusements or the pleasure of squandering time and space as if there were no greater refinement. The wastes of ocean were a final barrier distancing gentlemen from the rabblement. “You can do business with anyone,” said J. P. Morgan, “but you can go sailing only with gentlemen.”

Leaning over the railings that afternoon were men in Prince Albert suits and ties and glistening soft shoes, sportsmen like William K. Vanderbilt II, the captain's brother-in-law, who would reciprocate with invitations to come aboard his family's 291-foot yacht with twenty staterooms and crew of sixty-two. The younger Vanderbilt, dark and mustachioed and handsome, was in the process of reducing his great-grandfather Cornelius's railroad fortune in a manner that would directly inspire the coining of the 1890s term “conspicuous consumption.” Parties aboard the Hildegard routinely included such men as the captain's friend Charles Dana, publisher of the New York Sun; his newly hired architect, Stanford White; his boon fellow clubman at Delmonico's, Theodore Roosevelt, seven years away from leading the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill. The captain himself, Hermann Oelrichs, had also donned a suit and vest, yet neither silk nor gabardine could conceal the enormous power of his torso, nor deflect the admiring looks cast his way. In those days of titans of industry and sensation-seeking socialites and the obsequious gentlemen of the press, all were drawn to Hermann Oelrichs.

Oelrichs stood nearly six feet, more than two hundred pounds, a giant of a man for the time, broad-beamed and narrow-waisted with a great handlebar mustache and shining, arrogant eyes. An international shipping mogul, Oelrichs was one of America's richest men, and had won the hand of the finest catch of the late Victorian Age—“bonanza heiress” Teresa Fair, a California senator's daughter in line to inherit the Comstock Lode. An avid sportsman, Oelrichs helped introduce polo and lacrosse to the United States. He was also acclaimed as the best amateur baseball player and hammer thrower in New York City and the finest amateur boxer and swimmer in the country. Yet there was about Hermann Oelrichs, too, the ache of promise unrealized. He remained aloof, declining offers to run for both mayor of New York City and president of the New York Athletic Club. “Hermann Oelrichs was so richly endowed by nature and so perfectly equipped both mentally and physically,” opined The New York Times, “that his friends have been almost unanimous in declaring that had he so chosen he might have made for himself a much larger place in life.”

Yet that afternoon, as the Hildegard steamed east, Hermann Oelrichs made perhaps his greatest contribution. As his crew fed the leaping fires of the boiler, as servants distributed food, and the men called out, “gimme a smile” (a gentleman's term for a drink), and grew loud and expansive and joined in a raucous sporting mood, there arrived a moment, on the edge of dusk and the continental shelf, freighted with the nineties need for spectacle. In that moment Hermann Oelrichs declared he was looking for sharks.

If a shudder overtook the Hildegard's passengers scanning the iron-colored sea, they could have been forgiven. Sharks were widely feared in those days as ferocious man-eaters, based on terrifying tropical legends of which Oelrichs, like his friend and fellow world-traveler Roosevelt, was especially familiar. Despite the skepticism of science, dread of the shark persisted in 1891 in tingling hairs on the back of the neck. In the publication that year of “Song of Myself,” Whitman celebrated all the universe except the “leaden-eyed” shark, the ominous crease in a wave “where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water.” That afternoon, as ripples of anticipation traversed the ship, Oelrichs announced, as he often had back in the parlors of Gilded Age New York, that so-called “man-eating” sharks were a fable of the ancients. Sharks were in fact cowardly, he insisted, and he would frighten away the largest of them that surfaced from the fathoms.

That year Oelrichs had offered in the pages of the New York Sun a reward of five hundred dollars for “such proof as a court would accept that in temperate waters even one man, woman, or child, while alive, was ever attacked by a shark.” Temperate waters he defined as the East Coast of the United States north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

In the rollicking spirit of the times, Oelrichs—like his brother-in-law, Vanderbilt, who hosted America's first motorcar race to further “scientific development of the automobile”—seemed more interested in a good show than in advancing science.

But the audacious wager by a captain of the shipping industry “started the papers all over the country to discussing sharks,” The New York Times reported. “Mr. Oelrichs contended that the ancient and widespread fear of sharks had little or no support in the shape of verified or verifiable cases in which they had killed or even injured a human being . . . He limited the offer to temperate waters because he had little knowledge of shark habits in the tropics, but even there he thought them harmless scavengers.”

Now, on this summery afternoon at the edge of the century of human progress, the validity of shark attacks would be settled to the satisfaction of intelligent men once and for all.

If any man in the Gilded Age could best the shark, it would be a man who possessed Vanderbilt's wealth and Roosevelt's vigor and an unsurpassed reputation for prowess at sea. Such a man was Hermann Oelrichs. He was American director of the prestigious North German Lloyd shipping company, which would soon produce the world's first luxury superliner, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. According to historian Lee Server, the 655-foot-long, two-thousand-passenger German ship “held a place of pride in the human spirit” rivaled only by the big city skyscrapers as a “remarkable emblem . . . of a remarkable era . . . and of the seemingly limitless progress of science and technology.” Before the Mauretania and Lusitania, Normandie and Titanic were built in an effort to duplicate the glory of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Oelrichs hosted elaborate dinner parties in the middle of the Atlantic in the stateroom of the world's greatest ship, regaling his wealthy friends with tales of his long swims and encounters with sharks.

In an era when the first modern oceanographic research from the 1870 voyage of the HMS Challenger was just being published, Oelrichs's captains, who traversed the seven seas in steamships, reported to him that in their combined years of transoceanic travel they had neither seen nor heard reliable evidence of a man-eating shark. And the tycoon confirmed as much to be true from his own extensive observations.

The millionaire director of Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen was indisputably one of the world's great long-distance ocean swimmers. At a time when ichthyologists researched sharks by waiting for dead species to be brought ashore by fishermen, Oelrichs had swum in the presence of countless sharks in deep and shallow waters and never been attacked. Although he never swam the Hellespont like Byron, as he had dreamed, New York newspapermen spread his fame. One wrote, “Some of the trans-Atlantic skippers used to say . . . that upon nearing the American coast they would look for Hermann Oelrichs, and would then know that they could not be very far from land.” Every summer for years he had made legendary five-mile “shark-chasing” swims off the New Jersey coast, from which he returned to shore and New York Herald headlines like “Oelrichs Scares Away the Sharks.”

A generation before the Roaring Twenties rise of professional sports, Oelrichs was a star of heavily publicized sporting stunts for which the public hungered. He challenged the champion John L. Sullivan to a boxing match, putting up a $10,000 purse of his own money. Sullivan declined. Fighting an adversary who had no choice in the matter, Oelrichs wrestled a caged lion to a draw, to the thunderous approval of the press and his fans. Many of the passengers of the Hildegard had no doubt seen Oelrichs in the Atlantic off Newport, Rhode Island, demonstrating he was stronger than any fish in the sea. As the press and the cream of New York society, including Whitneys and Vanderbilts, crowded the cliffs over the ocean, Oelrichs challenged a fisherman in a boat to reel him in as a “human fish.” For twenty minutes the fisherman struggled and failed to reel in the stout sportsman on a line fastened to his waist, providing society with what newspapers called “the most interesting incident of the Summer.”

Now, aboard the Hildegard, a hundred miles from shore, several large sharks appeared starboard. Conversation ceased as the big fish moved silently, fins slicing high through the waves. Whispers traversed the deck as Oelrichs quickly changed to his bathing clothes, murmurs growing to shouts as the sports in the crowd urged him on. Oelrichs directed his hands to move the ship closer, and approached the railing. While side wagers were made, men snatched their white boaters against the wind, and women leaned over the railing to watch, long dresses whipping erratically. Others averted their eyes as the water received the powerful athlete.

Oelrichs disappeared for a moment, then surfaced between heaving four- and five-foot waves. Shaking the water from his brow, he stroked away from the boat, knifing through the waves atop a thousand feet of ocean. In ways unknown by the boating party, the sharks detected the presence of a large mammal thrashing noisily in the water and began to move in eerie concert.

Yet to the astonishment of the shipboard party, Oelrichs thrashed boldly in the presence of the sharks, quickly scattering the most fearsome-looking fish in the sea as if knocking out a dozen John L. Sullivans at once. As the sharks disappeared into the deep, Hermann Oelrichs, flushed with pride and exertion, climbed back aboard his yacht, victorious. The passengers of the Hildegard cheered wildly, waving boaters, handkerchiefs, and scarves in the briny air. It is not known whether it was a harmless species or dangerous makos or oceanic whitetips that had fled into the deep. A century later, scientists would not have been surprised to see any of these sharks avoiding a man, not preferred prey in such a chance encounter. The big sharks attack in stealth or in defense, and a small, sluggish, finless mammal would hardly represent a threat. The truth of the encounter was impossible for men to discern that afternoon in 1891, and couldn't compete with the legend that reached New York City that evening: Hermann Oelrichs had conducted an experiment, man versus shark, and the outcome was plain for any man to see. The sportsman had swum among ferocious sharks, and sent them fleeing.

The great fish were no match for a man.

The moment would have been emphemeral, a parlor trick at sea, yet Oelrichs, like the fish he challenged, possessed his own qualities of myth. Fifteen years later, in November 1906, Oelrichs was crossing the Atlantic on the Kaiser Wilhelm—returning to New York from “taking the waters at Carlsbad” to recover from the exhaustion of assisting in the relief efforts of the San Francisco earthquake—when he died, at age fifty-six, of a dissipated liver. He was eulogized on the front page of The New York Times as a major figure in the city's life for a quarter century, who might have contributed far more to society. Yet the Gilded Age mogul-sportsman went to his grave knowing he had won his wager. Indeed, his position on man-eating sharks had grown more convincing to the scientific community with each passing year. By 1906, the Wright Brothers had flown, the newly invented marvel of neon lights lit Broadway (where George Bernard Shaw opened with Man and Superman), Jack London had written The Sea Wolf. Yet scant more was known about the true nature of sharks. No one since 1891 had come forward with proof of a shark attack on man in the temperate waters on the East Coast. As the widowed grande dame, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and an aging William K. Vanderbilt, met Hermann's body at the port of New York, the shark wager had fully outgrown its vaudevillian beginnings as a feature in New York's yellow journalism wars, a summer diversion for the Four Hundred who graced Mrs. Astor's and Mrs. Oelrichs's ballrooms. It was now respected scientific data. Ichthyologists at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, a world leader among the new and serious museums, were quoting Hermann Oelrichs's bet as compelling evidence that man-eating sharks did not exist. On the question of shark attack in the new twentieth century, it was the best science there was.

By the summer of 1915, when Bell in New York spoke to Watson in San Francisco in the first long-distance call, and Ford developed the marvel of a farm tractor (and made his one millionth car), the editors of The New York Times adjudged it time, long overdue, for society to acknowledge the modern and scientific view of sharks.

In an August 2 editorial, “Let Us Do Justice to Sharks,” the Times decided it was “time to revive the controversy . . . [Hermann Oelrichs] excited” and put the issue to rest once and for all. Almost a decade had passed since Hermann Oelrichs's death, the Times noted, a quarter century since his famous wager, and no verifiable shark attacks on man on the East Coast had yet been reported. The editors were puzzled at the persistence among modern people of an irrational fear of sharks.

“To this day there is nothing that will so quickly set a crowd of swimmers scurrying for our beaches as the sight of a shark's fin in the offing,” the Times lamented. Such fears were baseless and unreasonable, the newspaper's editors wrote. While the Times allowed that “the bitter hate that every sailor feels for the whole shark tribe can hardly be wholly baseless, for hate is always the exact measure of fear, and all fears have reason of one sort or another,” the only evidence of such an attack was a single photograph, reportedly taken from a steamer in the Red Sea, “seeming to be a shark in the very act of closing his jaws on a man.” Given Oelrichs's uncollected reward and the paucity of other evidence, the Times concluded “that sharks can properly be called dangerous, in this part of the world, is apparently untrue.”

In the spring of 1916, the great white swam on the surface of a world that perhaps knew less about its nature than it had in several centuries. Even in the twenty-first century, the white shark remains largely a mystery. The force of its bite has never been measured. The bite of a six-foot lemon shark has been calculated at seven tons per square inch. The great white, at nearly twenty feet, three thousand pounds, will not submit to dental examination, and will not accept confinement. The fish is too big, too violent, beyond control. Man has never been able to keep the great white in captivity. When this has been attempted, the giant shark batters its head against its prison, unable to accept boundaries, hammering at the metal stays in the concrete that it senses electromagnetically. All that is known about the jaw power of the great white is that it must be immeasurably stronger than a small lemon shark's.

In 1971, Jacques Cousteau postulated that the white shark had poor vision. Now it is known that its eyesight is so remarkable that it can hunt, in rare cases, more than half a mile deep, its expressionless black eyes absorbing the faintest light. Until the late nineteenth century, scientists did not believe life existed at such a depth, concluding that the ocean floor was a lifeless plain. But when the transatlantic telegraph cable was hauled up for repairs, the thick cable swarmed with heretofore unknown creatures, a new universe. The first ocean scientists to explore the depths of that universe were alive in 1916, but their discoveries were decades away. They could not have known what was coming.

The fish's arrival was choreographed by nature to be mysterious—a survival advantage—a mystery that only heightened human ignorance and fear.

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