Modern history

To Drive Away the Sharks

She was tall and voluptuous and men's eyes followed as she moved on the beach that morning. The Atlantic was a clear and distant blue with sea foam lathering the sand under a round, full sky, but it was her form that men saw when she appeared, the aquiline nose and cheekbones and cascading hair of the vaudeville star Gertrude Hoffman. There was said to be something dark, irresistible, and ruinous to men in the lush figure of Hoffman. She had popularized the Salome dance in the early 1900s, unleashing its cousins, the striptease and the belly dance, and the dance of the seven veils. She had been arrested for indecent dancing (albeit for publicity reasons, rigged by her producer, William Hammerstein) and ordered to wear ankle-length tights. Now the pearls and feathers of the stage were gone and Gertrude Hoffman stood unadorned in a bathing costume.

At midmorning, the dancer stepped delicately into the ocean and began to wade out. Thousands of bathers shared the water with Hoffman at Coney Island and Brighton beaches and all along the Brooklyn shoreline. Wednesday had hit ninety-one degrees, the hottest day of the summer until Thursday, when the mercury “aviated toward ninety-two,” the weathermen said. Friday, July 14 was another sizzler, and the Weather Bureau in Washington declared no end in sight to the heat wave.

New Yorkers were escaping to the beach early. The Sea Beach trains and electric streetcars rumbled in all morning from the boroughs, and steamboats from Manhattan disgorged passengers at Coney Island's Dreamland Pier. On the beach, a man and a woman could escape the heat that had killed eight New Yorkers. In Illusion Palace or the Village of Midgets or the Upside-Down House (where furniture was nailed to the ceiling), a father or mother could perhaps forget the infantile paralysis epidemic that had taken seventeen more lives the previous day.

In the distant towers of Coney Island was a world in reassuring miniature, where visitors could replay and resolve to their satisfaction the anxieties of modern civilization with the help of a thousand fancies. It was said, “If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.” In an age before television and the dominance of motion pictures, Americans flocked to Coney Island to witness the events they'd only imagined.

Yet nothing real or imagined by Coney Island's impresarios in the American experience prepared visitors for the events of that Friday morning on the beach. Shortly after wading out, Gertrude Hoffman slipped into the waves and began to swim, her slender arms arcing gracefully. She had swum several hundred feet off the foot of West Thirty-first Street, when terror stole her breath. A large, dark fin appeared in the water, moving swiftly directly toward her, whereupon the dancer believed she was about to be devoured by the man-eater of New Jersey.

Fortunately, The New York Times reported, Hoffman “had the presence of mind to remember that she had read in the Times that a bather can scare away a shark by splashing, and she beat up the water furiously.” The large fin disappeared and Hoffman retreated to shore, where slowly her heart resumed its normal beat. Later, when she regained composure, the dancer wasn't sure if she had seen a shark or merely imagined it after reading the headlines in the morning paper. She was, the Times reported, “not sure . . . whether she had had her trouble for nothing or had barely escaped death.” In any case, she was not eager to return to the water.

While Gertrude Hoffman's encounter in Coney Island was frightening, it was not at all unusual. Reports of sharks nearing the coast were multiplying. A shark panic unrivaled in American history was sweeping along the coasts of New York and New Jersey and spreading by telephone and wireless, letter and postcard. From the edge of the sea, an alarm sounded by the forces that had turned the sinking of the Maine into war had little trouble transforming a juvenile Carcharodon carcharias into a sea monster. Newsboys chased men down the street, hawking front pages right under their noses, and announced in Irish and Italian and Polish accents and high prepubescent voices to passing motorcars and horse carriages and the stone towers of Manhattan:

“Big, savage sharks infest coast!”

“Shark kills 2 bathers, maims 1, near New York!”

“Whole of Jersey coast infested with man-eating monsters!”

“Ten pounds of his flesh ripped off by sea monster!”

The New York Herald headline trumpeted six columns across the top, a size reserved for war or the “Second Coming”: “Shark glides up shallow creek and kills boy and man, then tears another swimmer.”

“Monster makes way through Raritan Bay and upstream mile and one-half.”

“First little victim only 12 years old.”

“Man who goes to rescue dies soon after being dragged from creature's teeth.”

An average New Yorker in 1916 had seen little more of war than the simulations of the Boer War or the naval battle “War of Worlds” at Luna Park on Coney Island, but the Herald assured its readers, “No more spectacular raid on inland or coast waters ever was made.”

The morning of Gertrude Hoffman's encounter, Thomas Richard, assistant steward of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Coney Island, was bathing in Sheepshead Bay at the foot of Emmons Avenue in Brooklyn, facing the other end of Coney Island, when fifty people breakfasting on the porch of the hotel yelled “Shark!” A group of bathers ran screaming from the water, but Richard was too far out to swim quickly ashore and saw a fin headed in his direction. As the fin closed in, he raced for a nearby motorboat and climbed in, drawing his legs out of the water a fraction of a second before the ripple passed where he had been.

Fear rounded the bays of New York from Gravesend Bay to Great Kills Harbor to the Rockaways. On Staten Island beaches there was a noticeable decrease in bathers—fewer still after employees of the Mount Loretto Home sighted a fin in Princess Bay, and, after a brief struggle, beached the bloodied corpse of an eight-and-a-half-foot shark. At Keansburg on Raritan Bay and Atlantic Highlands on Sandy Hook Bay—both sharing a shoreline with Matawan Creek—the bathers stayed on shore and basked in the sun. By Saturday, July 15, the weekend business of the bathhouse owners at Coney Island and Brighton Beach was in ruins. Police estimated fifty thousand Coney Island bathers had chosen to stay out of the water for fear of the man-eater. “Terror of Sharks Keeps a Million Bathers on Shore,” the New York World reported.

The few who braved the surf could not have been reassured by the company. On long, deserted beaches, crowds frolicking in the water and cooling under umbrellas had been replaced by gangs of men with gaffs and spears, guns and harpoons—men with the high spirits of sportsmen, or the grim aspect of bounty hunters. “Bathing has come almost to a stop along the Jersey coast,” The New York Times reported, “especially those areas where the man-eater has attacked, and a new sport, and public service, the hunting of sharks, has sprung up.” A captain terrified a crowd at a Long Island dock by bringing ashore a monstrous seventeen-foot shark; only when he cut it open did he realize it was a plankton eater. In shallow water off Eldred's Bar near Rockaway Point in Brooklyn, eight men digging for sandworms saw a shark driving a school of weakfish toward shore—“a shark that was doing what sharks do every year when the weakfish appear,” according to shark researcher Thomas B. Allen. In a fury the men killed it with oars, spears, spades, and eel-tongs.

Thus one of the most profligate shark hunts in history swept the coast. Fishermen slayed dozens of purported man-eaters and hauled their bloodied corpses to shore, where crowds watched the gigantic stomachs of the monsters slit open, revealing immense quantities of fish—but not the prize that paid: human flesh.

By that same Friday, swimmers were afraid to enter the waters of Chesapeake Bay for fear of man-eaters. The news on the front page of the Washington Post was presented as being as significant as the British assault on the Germans at the Somme. In headlines larger than those announcing the Mexican revolt, the Italian assault on the Austrians in Lagarina, the rush of Americans to join the army, or President Wilson's appointee to replace Charles Evans Hughes on the Supreme Court, the Post crowed: “Sharks cause panic. Man-eaters seen at numerous points along the Atlantic. New York and New Jersey shores guarded by armed men.” That morning, a Baltimore swimming club made plans to hire a shark patrol for their Sunday race on the Chesapeake, and the Maryland State Police schooner May Brown confirmed that it had spied “big sea monsters” in Annapolis harbor. The “shark scare . . . threw fright into the many persons . . . who frequent the nearby shores of Chesapeake Bay and Severn River for bathing purposes,” the Baltimore Sun reported.

Hysteria spread, afflicting the lowly and the mighty, as a single shark prevented people from entering the water along more than a thousand miles of the East Coast, from New England to Florida. Fishermen off Connecticut steered clear of Atlantic “monsters,” and a Tampa, Florida, boater said the Gulf man-eaters were so thick he'd returned to port. A neighbor of Teddy Roosevelt said he saw a shark off the beach in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and called upon him to do something about it.

The shark became an American cause célèbre. Giant toothy sharks grinned from front-page photographs. Ruthless cartoon sharks stalked human prey on the women's pages, and editorial writers wagged about the death of the myth that sharks were harmless.

People signed up for special swimming courses that, according to Allen, were supposed to teach bathers how to outwit sharks. Swimming star Annette Kellerman offered her advice in both The New York Times and the Washington Post that one must simply keep an eye out for sharks—“you can always see them and dive under them if they rush up at you.” Since the shark attacks “upside down,” she explained, “you have a chance to get away, if the distance to shore . . . is not too far.” A captain from Key West, Florida, who would later tutor Ernest Hemingway in deep-sea fishing, offered to kill the shark for free. The vice president of the Autocar Company on the Main Line of Philadelphia, who sported at Zane Grey's fishing camp in Long Key, Florida, said sharks, “not being very astute fish,” would go for baited kegs every thousand feet. Letters to the editor advocated that Washington send the entire United States submarine fleet to destroy the shark. Another suggested the bait of a dummy stuffed with explosives and dressed like Lester Stilwell. Frank Claret, master of the Atlantic Transport liner Minnehaha, just arrived that week from London, said the largest of man-eaters were easy to scare away “by shouting as loud as possible, and by striking the water with one's feet and hands.” The captain even suggested there was a new opportunity for fine dining, offering some recipes for shark, “not bad, if well curried.” Moroney's Army and Navy Whiskey published a newspaper advertisement warning, “Keep away from those sharks at Atlantic City. They are café owners who are always ‘just out' when you call for a highball made of Moroney's . . .” According to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Hermann Oelrichs's famous bet had at last been settled; there was at last “proof sharks bite.”

If the shark exposed an American impulse to make entertainment out of tragedy—an impulse as fresh as the San Francisco earthquake at Luna Park, a Coney Island production in three parts—in New Jersey the impact of the shark was real.

By the middle of July, thousands of citizens of New Jersey had showered telegrams and letters, editorials and telephone calls, on Trenton and Washington, begging the U.S. government and the state of New Jersey for help. Dozens of letters went directly to the White House, imploring President Wilson to take steps to rid the coast of the monsters. Hundreds of New Jersey citizens cabled Governor Tom Fielder with a collective alarm.

The economy of the Jersey shore was in a crisis. Tourists who had not yet had time to mourn or even understand the deaths of Charles Vansant and Charles Bruder reacted to the reported fatal attacks on yet another young man and a boy in New Jersey waters by packing—for home, or for the mountains. During the second week of July, the grand hotels, cottages, and guest houses from Cape May north to Spring Lake reported an average of 75 percent vacancies on some of the best beach days of the year. The threat of the shark prowling offshore cost Jersey hoteliers a quarter million dollars in lost reservations in a week. Combined with the growing fear of gathering in hotels and beaches and public places during an infantile paralysis epidemic, the economies of a dozen seaside towns were on the verge of ruin.

Twenty-eight trainloads of visitors on company excursions had canceled shore trips in recent days. The Asbury Park Hotel had closed, its full house sent packing, because of one infected child. Without summer tourist dollars, many communities would have trouble surviving the winter. The morning Gertrude Hoffman went for a dip, the governor of New Jersey was besieged by citizens' pleas for state authorities to kill the shark.

Governor James Fairman Fielder, a Wilson Progressive, forty-nine years old, a large, powerfully built man, stood before newspapermen from New York, Trenton, and Asbury Park in the governor's summer mansion in Sea Girt that Friday morning. Governor Fielder was one of the bright voices of the Progressive Era, men who believed man had mastered the animal kingdom and were close to perfecting mankind, and that government could fix anything.

The governor had called a press conference to make an announcement about the shark emergency. Fielder was a solid man in a crisis. Descended from a line of Dutch-English politicians and churchmen, he was widely admired for his unflappable temperament and was, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, his predecessor, “a man of proved character, capacity, fidelity and devotion to the public service.”

Now, he announced to reporters, the state was facing a crisis for which no one had answers. Reflecting on the deaths of three New Jersey men and a boy, the governor gave his opinion that not one but many sea monsters were attacking the state's coastline at continuing peril to human life, yet there was “no possible action that the state could take that would lessen the evil.” The governor had no idea what to do, for veteran fishermen and scientists couldn't settle on what the sea monster or monsters were, let alone offer a plan of action. Fielder had contemplated a massive hunt along the state's lengthy coast, but such an expeditionary force would have to be authorized by the legislature, which was out of session, and “even if the legislature could be called,” he said, the “cost was prohibitive.” The governor urged every coastal town in New Jersey to construct shark nets. If the irony occurred to him of a Progressive governor in the modern era asking for a man to step forward to slay a sea monster, Fielder did not express it. It was neither an armada nor a soldier-knight who was needed in this day and age, it was an expert. At the close of his brief address, Governor Fielder urged “the bathers . . . to be careful,” and prayed someone would “come forward” with the knowledge to “drive away the sharks.”

Friday morning in the White House, Woodrow Wilson was up before dawn and at five A.M. took breakfast with his First Lady. Somewhat frail at sixty years of age, the President preferred to rise later and work only three to four hours a day, but the war in Europe and the election had pressed him, he told the First Lady, to rise early and “steal up on them in the dark.”

After breakfast the President retired to his office for an hour of correspondence, dictation, and brief meetings with a few key advisers. At eleven, the President, tall and graying in a tailored black suit, entered a Cabinet meeting to discuss “the shark horror gripping the New Jersey Coast.” The citizens of New Jersey, New York, and other coastal states had sent a torrent of telegrams and letters to the White House beseeching the President of the United States to slay a man-eating sea monster.

On Capitol Hill that morning, New Jersey Congressman Isaac Bacharach of Atlantic City introduced a bill appropriat-

ing $5,000 for the federal Bureaus of Fisheries to cooperate in rounding up sharks for the purpose of “the extermination of man-eating sharks now infesting the waters of the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of New Jersey.”

Joseph P. Tumulty, a Jersey City lawyer and the President's most trusted adviser since 1913, urged Wilson take bold and decisive action against sharks. Earlier that morning, Tumulty had cabled his friend, J. Lyle Kinmonth, editor of the Asbury Park Press, promising Wilson would “do anything in his power to . . . rid the Jersey coast of the shark menace.”

Yet exactly what the President could do about a rogue shark was another matter entirely. William Redfield, secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversaw lighthouses and fisheries, told the Cabinet that despite Congressman Bacharach's proposal, “the bureau of fisheries had been unable to offer any scientific explanation of the unprecedented attacks upon human beings.” Bureau experts “reluctantly had been compelled to come to the conclusion that no certainly effective preventive measures could be recommended.” Fisheries' only advice was “a shark catching campaign” and to warn bathers to stay in shallow water.

The President turned to his ablest Cabinet member and son-in-law, Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, to lead a “war on sharks.” Shortly after emerging from the Cabinet meeting, McAdoo called a press conference. Surrounded by Washington newspapermen, McAdoo announced that the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries would join forces to “rout the sea terrors.” According to McAdoo, the coast guard cutter Mohawk would sail immediately to the Jersey coast to destroy any or all killer sharks, avenge four deaths, and save the bathing season.

On Saturday, July 15, the “U.S. war on sharks” was the biggest news in the Washington Post and front-page headlines across the world—in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and even London. “Wilson and Cabinet Make Plans to Prevent More Tragedies,” the Post headline read. “Coast Guards Turn Hunters . . . Federal Cutters Also Are Ordered to Fish for the Monsters.”

The Coast Guard “would be ordered to do what it could toward clearing the coast of the dangerous fish and preventing further loss of life.” The U.S. lifesaving stations all along the East Coast would be involved, too, by order of the Treasury Department. According to the Washington Post, “no definite plan of action has been worked out, but the idea is to have the service aid in locating and when possible warn resorts of their proximity.” On the front page of the Washington Evening Star was a political cartoon, “Uncle Sam's Latest Crusade,” depicting a grim, machine-gun-toting Uncle Sam in a patrol boat flying a flag with the words “Death to Sharks.”

That night the Mohawk stood at anchor in New York harbor, where it would remain. For in the days to come, a shark-extermination program along the 127-mile-long New Jersey coast would be judged “impracticable,” and the campaign would be abandoned.

The federal government's final suggestion to New Jersey and its bathers was the same as Governor Fielder's: Install wire netting, and stay in shallow water. John Cole, director of all government lifesaving stations on the New Jersey coast, had a different opinion. “Where there are no nets, the best way to keep from getting bit is to keep out of the water,” he said. “I wouldn't go in.”

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