Modern history

Like a Tale from the Stone Age

There was nothing left to do but cut open the fish to see what its stomach contents revealed, but Michael Schleisser disappointed his audience. Instead he recruited men to lift the huge creature into his automobile.

Back at home in his Harlem row house, Schleisser worked quickly, for the fish would decay rapidly. That afternoon, in the basement given over to a taxidermy studio, Schleisser began the enormous task of mounting the shark. It measured seven and a half feet long and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. It was a dark, dull blue on top and white underneath. Schleisser cut the fish open and removed the stomach, whereupon a terrible odor filled the basement, and the taxidermist found himself sorting through a large, grisly pile of flesh and bones. There was a mix of large and small bones, and the bones appeared to be human. Schleisser weighed the flesh and bones together and they came to approximately fifteen pounds. As he studied the gruesome scene in the dim light of his basement, Schleisser came to believe he had caught the man-eating shark that had terrorized New Jersey for the first two weeks of July. As Schleisser began to mount the shark, that Tuesday, July 14, President Wilson had already suspended the war on sharks, and John Treadwell Nichols and Robert Cushman Murphy were making plans to hunt the predator in Jamaica Bay, unaware that an apparent man-eater had been caught. Schleisser, a showman at heart, felt no immediate need to inform the world. He wanted to confirm that the bones in the shark's stomach were human, and for that he required the assistance of a scientist. Schleisser resolved to ship the bones to the most famous scientist he personally knew, one whose word was beyond reproach. But first he made a phone call to his local newspaper, the Home News.

The newspaper was in a hurry to get the story out, but recognizing the publicity value of having the shark to display, the editors were willing to hold the story until Schleisser had completed his taxidermy. Four days later, Schleisser brought the stuffed and mounted shark to the offices of the Harlem newspaper. The next day, the Home News proudly devoted its front page to one of the most dramatic stories in its history, with the headline: “Harlem Man in Tiny Boat Kills a 7 1⁄2 Foot Man-eating Shark.”

“Like a tale from the stone age,” the story began, “when men went forth single-handed, armed with nothing but a club, to slay ferocious beasts, is the story of two uptown men, one of whom, with the broken handle of an oar held off a monster man-eating shark after a terrific battle and finally killed it.” There was the picture of Schleisser posing with the shark mounted across the sawhorses.

That day and the next, Thursday, July 20, the newspaper promised its readers “the monster will be placed in the window of the Home News, at 135 W. 125th St., where everyone will have an opportunity to see what a man-eating shark really looks like.” Next to the man-eater, the Home Newspromised, would be a display of the large and small bones found in its stomach.

The box had arrived in the middle of the week at the American Museum of Natural History, addressed to the director, Frederic Augustus Lucas. It was not unusual for the museum to receive a box of dry bones, poison adders, or shrunken heads for that matter. This box received special attention because an accompanying note claimed that the bones the box contained had been retrieved from the stomach of the man-eating shark.

Lucas would have treated the claim with his usual skepticism had it not come from someone he knew and trusted. Michael Schleisser and Frederic Lucas were close enough that before Schleisser made a major exploration of Brazil, he requested and received a letter of introduction from Dr. Lucas to a curator at the U.S. National Museum. However, much as Lucas respected the taxidermy work Schleisser had done for the museum, the director remained suspicious that Schleisser was not purely devoted to science. “I am giving a letter of introduction to Mr. Michael Schleisser who is about to make a trip to the interior of Brazil,” Lucas had written. “I have known Mr. Schleisser for a number of years and consider him reliable, although I rather feel that his expedition is largely on account of his love of exploration and partly for photographing.”

The problem Schleisser confronted Dr. Lucas with was typical of the taxidermist: a discovery that was arguably scientific, but questionable, perhaps irresponsible, even sensational. Before him, unquestionably, was a pile of masticated human bones. Although the bones challenged his theory that sharks were unable to bite through human bones, Dr. Lucas was grateful to Schleisser for what he came to regard as a contribution to science, and wrote a note on museum stationery thanking the taxidermist.

Dear Mr. Schleisser: I am very much obliged to you for your courtesy in letting me see the bones taken from the shark. They are parts of the left radius and ulna of one of the anterior left ribs. There is no doubt about this. They have, as you see, been badly shattered. Can you tell me the exact species of shark from which these bones were taken, or if you are in doubt, I am sure that Mr. Nichols would be very glad to call and determine the species exactly? Again thanking you for your kindness, I am, F.A. LUCAS, Director.

From Brooklyn and Staten Island and Greenwich Village they came. Thousands clambered aboard the trolleys to 125th Street in Harlem that Sunday. By the time John Treadwell Nichols arrived at the Home News office, a mob of thirty thousand people had gathered in front of it. Americans at the turn of the century were accustomed to behavior in crowds, for parades and public spectacles were commonplace. So that Sunday the mob formed a line, and began to pass before the window in orderly fashion. There were gasps and cries of “Monster!” Adults shuddered and turned away. Mothers pulled children to the side. Many refused to believe what they saw. The shark was monstrous to the point of being scarcely believable.

John Nichols pushed to the front and lingered, staring at the man-eater. His first glance eliminated all doubt. The preternaturally wide, torpedo-shaped body; the crescent caudal fin and long, narrow pectoral fins; the small second dorsal and anal fins; the bifurcated coloring; the large gill slits, broad conical snout, and black eyes; the huge teeth, distinctively triangular and serrated, and, unlike most sharks, the teeth in its top and bottom jaws almost symmetrical. The jaws were large enough to have taken human life—“yawning jaws and vicious teeth,” a reporter called them. It was unquestionably Carcharodon carcharias.

Independent experts had determined that the bones taken from the shark's stomach were human. Physicians identified the eleven-inch bone as the shinbone of a boy—presumably Lester Stilwell's—and a section of rib bone as belonging to a young man, perhaps Charles Bruder. Dr. Lucas, however, maintained these judgments were “incorrect.” The bones were certainly human, Lucas agreed, but based on the size of the shark and the condition of the bones, he claimed they were parts of the left forearm and left upper rib taken from the body of a robust man who had been “dead some time and not the result of any active attack.” This was not proof, in Dr. Lucas's opinion, that a shark could bite clean through human bone, or that sharks attack man. This conclusion supported Dr. Lucas's lifework as well as his theory that the species of the attacker was unknown. In a letter to Bureau of Fisheries Commissioner Hugh Smith, Lucas declared that the great white with human remains inside was not the killer and unfortunately his colleague John Nichols “was not able to get any information other than that published in the newspapers.”

Time, however, favored the young Dr. Nichols. Unknown to Lucas, Nichols, and their contemporaries, great whites live not only in the tropics but all over the world, and one of the largest populations is off the New Jersey–New York coast. This population is mostly juveniles, however, who take smaller prey and seldom stray close to shore.

On August 8, 1916, Hugh Smith wrote Frederic Lucas: “The excitement in this matter appears to have died down, much to the relief of this office, and I hope nothing will occur to resuscitate it.”

By the end of that summer of 1916, the last summer before America entered the Great War, the great white shark had fallen from the front pages of the Times and the Sun and the World. The next spring, Woodrow Wilson told Congress: “The day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth . . . the world must be made safe for Democracy.” Even in the era preoccupied with “Over There” and “Lick a Stamp and Lick the Kaiser!” on to the time of flappers and radio, through the Great Depression and the Second World War and beyond, the shark would live on as an enduring presence in the American imagination.

On July 10, 1917, the one-year anniversary week of the attacks, President Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover to raise food production for the war effort, yet bigger news was that five hundred bathers fled screaming from the waters of Rockaway Park after swimmers spied a large fin near shore.

Over the next few decades, New York newspapers sounded what became an annual alarm, and the parents of Matawan forbade their children from swimming in Matawan Creek. The grand Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven was demolished for wood during World War II and, later still, the New Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake was converted to condominiums.

Today all evidence of the great white shark of that long-ago summer is gone. The carcass of the fish disappeared shortly after it was displayed in the window of the Home News, and some years later, a scientist spotted its jaw hanging in a window of a Manhattan shop at 86th and Broadway before it disappeared forever. Yet it was the legacy of this young, aberrant, perhaps sickly or injured great white to frame the way people perceive sharks. In 1974, Peter Benchley invoked the 1916 shark as the role model for his fictional white shark in Jaws.

By the end of the twentieth century, the deadly predator of 1916 immortalized by Benchley would begin to fade from popular culture. By the 1990s, the concept of the rogue shark had fallen out of scientific favor for lack of proof other than anecdotal material. Shark researchers even began to doubt Nichols's conclusion that the killer of all four victims in 1916 had been a single shark—or even, in all cases, a great white shark. Some suggest that a bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, was the killer of Matawan Creek, as it is the only man-eating species that routinely passes into freshwater, whereas for Carcharodon carcharias, the trip would be extraordinary.

Indeed, by the twenty-first century, Carcharodon carcharias had assumed a new status as magnificent yet misunderstood sea creature, rare and accidental killer of man, and endangered species protected by the laws of numerous countries, including the United States. So radical was the change in attitude that in 2000 Peter Benchley pleaded with Australians not to destroy a great white that had killed a young swimmer. “This was not a rogue shark, tantalized by the taste of human flesh and bound now to kill and kill again. Such creatures do not exist, despite what you might have derived from Jaws. . . . Let us mourn the man and forgive the animal, for, in truth, it knew not what it did.”

Hermann Oelrichs, whose 1891 reward was never collected, would have appreciated Benchley's view.

Still, in an era of fisheries that would eradicate it, science that would plumb all its mysteries, and global media that would reveal its every move, the great white endures in the depths where it has always reigned: in cautionary tales told by mothers and fathers, in whispers in the unconscious, in offshore shadows, and in ripples on a tidal creek.

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