Modern history

Something Peculiarly Sinister

The two men were going fishing in the bay, hoping to catch lunch or even dinner, if the fishing was good. In the early hours of Friday, July 14, the sky was cloudy, but the bay was calm. It was a splendid morning to be on the water. The men were friends and they had been lingering on the small wharf in the old port town of South Amboy, when Michael Schleisser, the smaller of the two, found an old oar handle lying on the wharf. The oar was snapped in half, the paddle gone, driftwood of a forgotten evening, an absent adventure. Schleisser picked it up and put it with his fishing gear.

“What do you need that for?” John Murphy asked his friend.

“Oh, it'll come in handy for something,” Schleisser said.

Michael Schleisser was indeed good at cobbling things into something. He was brilliant with his hands. Schleisser was all of five-foot-six, a wiry man with a wide forehead and a long, tapering face and a handlebar mustache. Forty years old, he had emigrated from his native Serbia fifteen years earlier and had become one of the foremost taxidermists in the United States, specializing in turning out impressive trophies for hunters and fishermen. He was renowned as an animal trainer, and he was a big-game hunter who'd traveled the world and stalked the African veldt. In the backyard of his house in Harlem were a tethered black bear, gray wolf, red fox, and opossum, several large alligators in a tank, as well as an aviary, several turtles, a cage of white rats, and other animals. On the second floor were cases displaying mounted rare butterflies, racks of firearms, rows of animal heads, and stuffed animals from Asia, Africa, and South America. Michael Schleisser had trained or killed everything that moved, and was afraid of nothing.

John Murphy, a twenty-eight-year-old Bronx resident, knew his way around boats. He worked as a laborer for a steamship company. Together the men loved to fish Raritan Bay.

The launch was small, an eight-foot wooden motorboat, but ideal for two men fishing. Schleisser and Murphy sailed past Staten Island through Outerbridge Reach, entered Laurence Harbor, and finally reached Raritan Bay below Staten Island. They threw a six-foot net over the stern and began to trawl the bay with it. The net was great for snagging bait fish like tunny and menhaden. The boat chugged along smoothly, the net running six feet deep. After an hour, they had sailed far from the wharf at Amboy, and were motoring at the bottom of Raritan Bay, roughly four miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek.

Shortly before noon, the boat slammed to a halt. Scheissler and Murphy hit the floor, hands out to protect themselves. The force was such that the engine immediately sputtered and died. But the men knew they weren't having engine trouble. As Schleisser and Murphy righted themselves, they saw that something was caught in the net, something big. The boat began to move backward, stern first, against the waves. Water leaped the gunwales. The boat was being pulled backward fast, and dragged down. It was being pulled under.

Gifted with the ability to remain calm during a crisis, Schleisser, his heart raging, focused his gaze behind the boat. In the net he saw what he would later describe as “a big bifurcated tail flash out of water.” He turned back to Murphy and shouted, “My God, we've got a shark!” The small craft moved backward rapidly. The rushing of the shark threw the bow high in the air and more water rushed over the gunwales. Murphy threw himself forward to keep the stern from being submerged. Schleisser searched the boat for a weapon. There was nothing at hand but their fishing rods and bait, and the broken oar handle. Had they intended to hunt the rogue shark, they would have taken out a larger boat, packed a harpoon, guns, and knives. Schleisser grabbed the oar handle and edged back toward the stern.

To his astonishment, the shark was rising out of the net and onto the stern, snapping its great jaws. The stern heaved downward, and Schleisser battled for purchase. He could see the fish's dark top and even its whitish underside—and the size of its teeth. Perhaps only a hunter as experienced as Schleisser could consider the creature attacking him without losing all hope. The mouth that Schleisser faced over the gunwales was wide enough to swallow him. Given his knowledge, he may have guessed it was a great white, perhaps the manhunter from the headlines. As the boat rocked wildly, the shark splashed water vigorously with its powerful tail. “The sea-tiger beat the sea into a foam,” he later recalled.

Schleisser was in no position to surrender, for it soon became apparent that he and Murphy were the prey. The great white was trying to leap the gunwales to reach the two men, jaws agape. As the boat thrashed on the bay, Schleisser tried to steady himself to attempt a blow at the creature's head, but each time he set to swing the oar handle, “he was thwarted by the rocking of the boat.”

Schleisser's plan was a dangerous one. He may have known of the shark's affinity for attacking oars or of the fury with which sharks around the world responded to confrontations with fishermen.

Finding his footing for an instant, Schleisser struck with all his strength. The first blow landed on the nose, the second about the gills. The shark responded furiously, rising directly toward Schleisser's arm. The great jaws missed their target, but the immense head struck Schleisser's forearm hard, its sandpaperlike skin opening cuts on Schleisser's wrist. There was blood now in the water. The shark thrashed wildly, entangling itself further in the mesh of the net. With a desperate rush it leaped onto the stern toward the men. Schleisser saw an opportunity and struck another heavy blow on the nose which partially stunned the shark. As it lay dazed for a moment on the stern, Schleisser struck it repeatedly on the gills and the head until the fish went slack and slowly slid into the net. Schleisser and Murphy fell back into the boat exhausted, near collapse. The shark was dead. They had beaten it to death.

Stunned, the men sat silently, unable to move or talk as the boat gently rocked on the bay. Moving slowly, they got the engine to turn over and chugged back toward Amboy, towing the dead shark.

When they reached the wharf at South Amboy, Schleisser and Murphy were greeted by the usual crowd of fishermen and onlookers who gathered when a boat arrived with an unusually large fish in tow. On this day, however, the murmurs of curiosity on the docks rose to levels of excitement beyond the usual discussion of the impressive size of the fish. For it was Michael Schleisser—a man with a reputation as a big game fisherman—who arrived at the dock, and the fish he had was no ordinary trophy. It was a shark, a large one.

Michael Schleisser and John Murphy clambered onto the docks with the ragged look of men who had nothing left to give. Wearily, Schleisser described the battle with the shark. The big-game hunter admitted the shark had attacked more ferociously than any African lion or any grizzly bear he had ever encountered. It was, he said, “the hardest fight for life I've ever had.”

Eagerly, the men helped Schleisser and Murphy hoist the giant fish from its tow. It took half a dozen men to carry it. Michael Schleisser announced that he wanted a picture, and hastily, the massive shark was propped on a pair of sawhorses some seven feet apart. The taxidermist stood unsmiling behind his trophy, his torso nearly obscured by the height of dorsal fin. The fish's dark, unseeing eyes stared out in a kind of fury, and its jaw was propped open wide enough to take in a man's head. As the photographer snapped the picture, it was apparent to Schleisser and the other fishermen that the shark lacked the claspers of a male. Although it was too young to be carrying pups, the shark was a female.

The fisherman were taken aback since they traditionally assumed that man-eating sharks were males. In fact, while both genders are capable of devouring humans, females are in some respects more formidable. Equipped with extra girth to sustain and protect its eggs, the female white shark grows even larger than the male.

Throughout history the capture of a large shark has drawn the morbidly curious to witness the opening of the stomach to see if it contains human remains. That day the witnesses' curiosity was more than idle. Those who greeted Schleisser's boat were hoping the taxidermist had captured the man eater of Matawan Creek.

In the following days, while Michael Schleisser investigated the true nature of his trophy, John T. Nichols and Robert Cushman Murphy resolved to undertake their own search for the shark. Among the few men who grasped the identity and true nature of the shark that had terrorized New Jersey, Nichols and Murphy had appointed themselves the task of finding and killing it. On Wednesday, July 20, the scientists set out in their small launch into Jamaica Bay, which they had determined was a likely destination for a hungry shark that had demonstrated a northward progression of attacks—if it had not yet escaped to the sea. Murphy, a lanky six foot three, stood in the bowsprit of the small craft, a harpoon in one hand. At the wheel, John Nichols piloted the vessel and scanned the waters for a caudal fin on the surface—a signature of the great white, for Nichols and Murphy now had no doubt that it was a great white they were hunting. They expected the shark to be immense, thirty or possibly forty feet, and to reveal itself like a wide seam in the ocean. Nichols believed the shark that had killed four New Jersey men was “the only true man-eating shark,” the species that his research had revealed was “according to Linnaeus, the Leviathan which swallowed Jonah.” That the biblical story, apocryphal or not, was plausible impressed Nichols.

Nichols and Murphy were aware that the U.S. Coast Guard's war on sharks had been called off, and they now believed, as did Hugh Smith at the U.S. Department of Fisheries, that the predator was a single great white shark.

Neither man was disposed by nature to pursue the ocean's largest and fiercest predator. Both loved the sea and its organisms passionately. But as Nichols concentrated on the horizon, he scanned the surface for the lone creature that inspired in him no affection, but, rather, a mixture of awe and dread. In the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin article that Nichols and Murphy collaborated on in April, they had written:

There is something peculiarly sinister in the shark's makeup. The sight of his dark, lean fin lazily cutting zigzags in the surface of some quiet, sparkling summer sea, and then slipping out of sight not to appear again, suggests an evil spirit. His leering, chinless face, his great mouth with its rows of knifelike teeth, which he knows too well how to use on the fisherman's gear, the relentless fury with which, when his last hour has come, he thrashes on deck and snaps at his enemies; his toughness, his brutal nerveless vitality and insensibility to physical injury, fail to elicit the admiration one feels for the dashing, brilliant, destructive, gastronomic bluefish, tunny, or salmon.

Murphy would become a pioneering conservationist, an inspiration to Rachel Carson in her classic Silent Spring. He shared the Ancient Mariner's admonition of the preciousness of life. “And I had done an hellish thing/And it would work 'em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird/That made the breeze to blow.” But he had no qualms about killing a shark, even the rare Carcharodon carcharias. On a whaling voyage in the South Pacific, Murphy had noted that the whaleman's antipathy toward sharks was fierce, and came to respect it. The day a whaleman died, three blue sharks, about seven feet long, appeared under the stern, and “the old, old maritime conviction that these hated brutes had come expressly for the body was breathed about the ship . . . sharks are considered by sailors to be fair quarry upon which to practice all the barbarism of ingenious human nature,” he wrote. “Indeed it is doubtful whether there be any creature that the average human being takes more pleasure in destroying.”

Both men believed finding a white shark in the vicinity of New York City would be an epic accomplishment. “So far as we can discover [the white shark], it is throughout its cosmopolitan range in warm seas, a rare fish,” they wrote. “It is occasional on the Atlantic coast of the United States as far north as Cape Cod, but we know of no definite record for Long Island.” Rarer still was any evidence a great white shark had ever attacked a human being on the East Coast—evidence Nichols needed to persuade Dr. Lucas, and himself, that the New Jersey attacks were the work of a shark, a shark that needed to be killed.

Like Frederic Lucas, neither Murphy nor Nichols was inclined to believe any shark was a deliberate man-eater, but the past thirty-six hours had altered their view. In Matawan four days earlier, Nichols had been influenced by his meeting with Captain Watson Fisher, Stanley Fisher's father, the retired commander of the Savannah Steamship Line. Captain Fisher struck Nichols as an intelligent, reasonable man who shared Dr. Lucas's sentiments about sharks. Captain Fisher claimed that, in his fifty-six years at sea, he had never seen a shark attack a man and never knew of an authentic report of such an attack. Yet Fisher emphasized to Nichols his newfound conviction that his son was killed by a shark.

Retreating to the depths of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Nichols had pored over rafts of old documents. By digging deep into the scientific literature of the nineteenth century, he found the proof he sought: documented evidence the great white shark had visited temperate waters and devoured human beings. It was in the 1880s, off the coast of Massachusetts, that a great white attacked and broke apart a fishing boat and proceeded to kill and devour most of the fishermen. Although the attack was far from shore, the white's presence in northern latitudes convinced Nichols. His research led him to believe that not only was Frederic Lucas wrong, but scientific and government assurances about the harmlessness of sharks were both uninformed and dangerous. New Jersey was correct to have “abandoned its swimming,” he had told The New York Times, and now it was “time for New Yorkers to take warning. The garbage in New York Bay and chances of catching unsuspecting swimmers undoubtedly will bring the sea tigers into New York waters.

“It is the white shark which has been at work, and this is the second time in history this type has been seen north of Cape Hatteras,” Nichols continued. “My own belief is that [this] single fish . . . has killed all four of the bathers and that if . . . it is killed the attacks will end.”

Nichols made swift strides in his theory when, after returning from Matawan, he was able to persuade Frederic Lucas the victims were most likely attacked by a shark. Subsequently, in a humbling if not devastating moment, Dr. Lucas admitted on the front page of The New York Times that he had been wrong.

With the headline “Science Admits Its Error. No Longer Doubted That Big Fish Attack Men,” the Times reported that “the foremost authority on sharks in this country has doubted that any type of shark ever attacked a human being, and has published his doubts, but the recent cases have changed his view.”

So Nichols and Murphy set out into the waters of Jamaica Bay in their launch rigged to fish for the big shark. The scientists noted, to their dismay, that the weakfish and fluke in the bay had all but disappeared. Plants in Queens and Brooklyn daily discharged millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay. The waste was slowly poisoning the clams and oysters—by 1921, the health department would abolish shellfishing in Jamaica Bay—but in 1916 the organic torrent from the city may have lured the shark.

They had armed themselves with several harpoons in preparation for an encounter with the big fish. Guns and knives were also aboard, to the extent they would matter. The scientists were under no illusions about their chances versus Carcharodon carcharias if it appeared in its full-grown size.

Forsaking sleep, they cruised the deep channel in Rockaway Inlet. In the daylight Nichols could see some distance through the water, paying special attention to sandbars, against which the sun would silhouette his quarry. Whereas the brown shark, the commonest large shark in the latitude of New York, Nichols noted, kept below the surface in the manner of the littoral species, its fin and tail seldom seen unless it was crossing a sandbar, the pelagic species like the white shark rode high in the water, announcing their presence like a surfacing U-boat.

Suddenly, on the second day, Nichols felt his heart protesting against his ribs. He had spotted a shark moving along the edge of the bar. Nichols carefully worked the sloop toward it, avoiding the shoals where he would go aground, and followed the winding course of the shark. Murphy narrowed his eyes as the sloop swung from one tack to another, and finally saw an elusive shadow moving a couple of boat lengths ahead. The light in the water could play tricks with the shadow, blowing it to monstrous size, but then the shadow slipped too far ahead to discern its true substance. Murphy tightened his grip on the harpoon and wondered if the iron would slow a white shark. Whaling in the South Atlantic, the power of five- and seven-foot blue sharks had astounded him. “We have seen one hooked, shot full of lead from a repeating rifle, then harpooned, hauled on deck, and disemboweled, yet it continued alive and alert for a long while, thrashing its tail and opening and shutting its weird expressionless eyes . . .”

As the huge shadow darted, Murphy readied himself for the possibility it may turn and shoot under the bowsprit, giving him but a fraction of an instant to strike. He knew well the consequence of a bad throw—he'd watch the iron graze the fish and “the pole stand quivering in the sand, while the shark darts away into deep water and is gone.” He was not sure anymore if he knew the consequence of a good throw. For the local sharks, he knew it was a sure strike and “away goes the shark, spinning out the coil of rope and carrying the tub over the water with a rush.” But what was a harpoon to an enraged three-thousand-pound fish: a bothersome needle? Should he pray it would come close enough for the guns and the knives? Or pray that it wouldn't?

When the shark came within striking distance Murphy surged forward, heart drumming, hoisting the harpoon, angling for purchase on the bowsprit. But the fearsome shadow was what Nichols and Murphy immediately recognized as a sand shark, Carcharias taurus, what is now known to shark biologists as the sand-tiger shark, a common, large, fish-eating species in the region, not known as an attacker of humans. With dismay the men exhaled, perhaps for a moment doubting their pursuit of a white shark. Lucas had warned them that almost every case of a captured purported man-eater he had investigated on the coasts of New Jersey or Long Island resolved to be “harmless, if ugly-looking, sand sharks.”

The shark disappeared and the scientists spent the day and the night looking for larger shadows in the bay. Other sharks appeared, but nothing to arouse their interest. Nicholas and Murphy discussed leaving Jamaica Bay for the waters of Lower New York Bay and guarded against the unwelcome feeling that the trip was turning into a failure.

Nichols had hunted sharks many times for the gains of science and knew how a man squandered hours and days on the water and grew sleepy and cramped and bored—until, when it was least expected, a shark exploded from the deep. Murphy had learned the same lessons in the South Atlantic, having spent endless days stalking the great whales. But they didn't have endless days now.

As the sun came up on the second day, Nichols and Murphy trailed steel hooks on strong chains baited with the “tempting morsel” of a cow's lung. Animal blood radiated and diffused in the water as the launch rode the gentle bay, bearing the long shadows of men, tired and bored, on the waters they had known since boyhood that now seemed somehow alien.

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