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Shark Fears Grab Public Attention

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 28, 2016

In July 1916, the people of the Jersey Shore felt they were under attack, and after the deaths of four people and the maiming of one, there was finally a consensus over who the enemy was: sharks! The New York Sun reported from Trenton on July 15, “Governor Fielder is considering the advisability of asking the State to pay a bounty for each one killed. The Paterson Chamber of Commerce yesterday adopted a resolution favoring this course. In a letter to the Governor, John J. Fitzgerald, secretary of the board, says the following bounties would interest fishermen in the extermination of the pests. For a 100 pound shark – $2; 200 pounds – $5; 300 pounds – $10; 400 pounds – $25; 500 pounds – $50.”

The paper continued, saying the issue was even being discussed in Washington.

“The Federal Government today canvassed its resources for combating the invasion of north Atlantic coast waters by sharks. President Wilson and his Cabinet discussed what could be able to prevent more tragedies like those which have occurred recently along the New Jersey shore, and the Coast Guard and Life Saving services were ordered to assist in shark extermination in every way possible.”

In Beach Haven, the scene of the first attack, actions were already being taken. The New Jersey Courier of the 14th announced, “Beach Haven is to be protected here-after by a heavy wire netting, extending 300 feet into the sea and along the entire bathing beach. Robert Engle, president of the town council and owner of the hotel Engleside, announces that the cottagers had subscribed to a fund sufficient to put up the net, and work will be started at once. It will be so strong that no sharks or other dangerous fish can come near the beach. … two big fellows 8 and 12 feet long were caught Monday at Little Egg Harbor Inlet, and the captor towed them to Beach Haven to have a picture taken of them, when ordinarily they would have been left to float away, or else fed to the pigs.”

Interest in sharks was sweeping the country; Two days later, the Indianapolis Star stated a “monster shark weighing 400 pounds and ten feet in length was caught off Beach Haven, N.J., by Capt. Clarence Parker, a member of the Beach Haven Yacht Club.

“The shark is of enormous proportions; its immensity can be gathered from its weight and length. Hundreds of men with rifles, spears and other weapons are patrolling the Jersey beaches waiting for the other shark or sharks to appear. The beaches are desolate. Swimmers are not permitted to venture out.”

As shark fever became the rage of the summer, some tried to cash in. In the New Brunswick Times of July 20, “… in every town along the summer coast, including Asbury Park, there are at least one or two ‘shark shows’ that have been thriving on almost unbelievable profits. At some of the places the admission charged is twenty-five cents, at others a dime will let you for a look at the ‘horrible man-eating fish.’ And one out of every three passersby, recalling, no doubt, the sinister tragedy of the surf that shocked the nation only a few days ago, parts with a dime or a quarter and leaves the shark exhibition with the satisfaction in prospect of telling the folks back home: ‘Oh, yes; oh my, yes, I saw one of the monsters … In the Asbury Park show … The shark was about six feet long – only a small fellow.’”

Unfortunately there was also a dark side to the fear of sharks. The Asbury Park Press carried a story on July 25.

“Not sharks but the fear of sharks, caused the death of a man yesterday in the Shrewsbury river near Atlantic Highlands.

“Samuel Harding, 35, of 10 Summit Street, Newark, went swimming off Grevely Point and was not far from the shore when he threw up his hands and called for help. A number of persons, among them some strong swimmers, were on the beach, and two or three young men ran toward the water with the intention of going to the rescue.

 “But some one shouted; ‘Sharks! A shark’s got him! Don’t go in; there are sharks there!’

“The neighborhood has been so worked up over the recent killings by sharks that this was the first thing some thought of. So the young men allowed themselves to be restrained, and the group on the beach saw Harding go down three times without offering him any aid.

“About 20 minutes later his body was brought up by an oysterman’s rake. It was not marked, so the shark scare had been mere hysteria.

“Attempts to induce artificial respiration continued for more than an hour but the body had been too long submerged.”

This kind of story was overshadowed when the New York Sun headline of July 26 proclaimed, “BIGGEST MAN EATING SHARK CAUGHT OFF JERSEY COAST. Long Beach Fishermen Bring 600 Pounder, 10 feet, 8 Inches Long, and Four Other ‘Tigers of the Sea’ Ashore.”

The article continued, “When Capt. Jack Benson’s crew of pound seiners came in to the station of the Ship Bottom fishery on Long Beach, five miles above Beach Haven this morning they towed behind their motor boat a 600 pound shark ten feet eight inches in length, the largest captured since the maneaters from southern waters began their raid on the New Jersey coast.

“The Ship Bottom fishermen had a high exciting battle with their ferocious game. The big shark, in particular, tore around at great rate when drawn to the side of the boat. Capt. Benson, a muscular man, pounded it repeatedly on the head with a heavy iron bar, finally dazing it enough to allow one of the hands to lasso its tail. Then the line was made fast and the shark was towed to shore tail first. Had the spunk not been beaten out of it, it probably could have pulled the boat out to sea. … The big fellow had an eighteen inch spread of mouth and was thirty inches in diameter at the thickest part of his body.”

Ocean County sharks were becoming big business, and on the 21st, the Courier told of another shark.

“There was without a question a shark in Toms River on Wednesday afternoon, when an auto containing an eight foot shark stopped in town en route from Ships Bottom to Monmouth Beach. So many people crowded around to see the shark that it was taken to the McClenahan building and put on exhibition at ten cents a peep. This shark, by no means a large one, was caught by Jack Hays in the Ships Bottom pound Wednesday morning. The manager of the fish freezer at Monmouth Beach had been wanting to get a shark, and Hayes phoned him of the catch. He at once started in an auto. While here he said he would freeze the shark and send it out to Pittsburg to a friend, to show him what the shark scare on the coast was about.”

By the 28th, the shark was ready for display. According to the Press, “The largest shark seen in this vicinity in a long time has been frozen at the Monmouth Beach Fish company and is now at the Long Branch pier. The monster is of the blue variety and measures 19 feet 8 inches in length, weighing in the neighborhood of 700 pounds. The fish was caught at Ship Bottom by Capt. J. Benson’s crew of pound fishermen. … The Ship Bottom fishermen had a highly exciting time with the ferocious sea rover. The big shark in particular tore around at great rate when drawn to the side of the pond boat. Captain’s motorman pounded it repeatedly on the head with a heavy iron bar, dazing it enough to allow one of his men to lasso its tail. The line was made fast and the monster was towed in tail first. All of the sharks were of one variety, blue with large spots entirely strange to the Jersey coast. They have four rows of large teeth. The big fellow had an 18 inch spread of mouth and was 30 inches in diameter at the thickest part of his body. Part of the tail was broken off or he would have measured 11 feet.”

While seeing and smelling a shark up close wasn’t scary enough, the Press on the same page ran another shark story.

“Several hours after it had been hauled from the water a shark captured last night at Beach Haven, early this morning snapped at E.D. Bonnell, who was preparing the fish for exhibition purposes, ripping Bonnell’s right shoe and scratching his foot.

“The shark was caught in a pound net by John Gulick at practically the identical spot where the first shark attack occurred several weeks ago. The shark is seven feet long.”

During the month of July 1916, Beach Haven had garnered more national attention than it had ever received. They say no publicity is bad publicity, but in this case I’m not so sure.

Next Week: A last fish story.


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