Friday, July 1, 2011

The Jersey Shore Anniversary

When you hear the phrase Jersey Shore these days, I guess most people's first thought would be of a reality series on MTV.

But a series of events on the Jersey shore in the early 20th century had a profound impact on American culture later in the century — a much greater impact than any television show.

Those events began on this day in 1916.

I'm speaking of shark attacks that led to four deaths and one injury in the first half of July 1916.

As I understand it, it was a brutal summer along the East Coast. Folks had been sweltering in a heat wave, and that — along with a polio epidemic — sent hordes of people to the beach seeking relief.

No one probably thought about the possibility of shark attacks in those waters. Such attacks are quite rare in that vicinity, but, on Saturday, July 1, 1916, a 25–year–old man who was vacationing with his family decided to go for a short swim with his dog before dinner.

After entering the water, the man began shouting, and other people on the beach thought he was calling to his dog, but, in reality, a shark was biting his legs. A lifeguard pulled him from the water, but he bled to death on the hotel manager's desk.

The beaches remained open, though, in spite of reports from ship captains of swarms of sharks off the coast. For awhile, it must have seemed that the folks who stood to gain from keeping the beaches open were going to get away with it, but then, on July 6, tragedy struck again about 45 miles north of the first attack.

A hotel bellhop was attacked while swimming about 100 yards from shore. He, too, was pulled from the water and bled to death on the way back to shore.

Another six days went by, then two attacks occurred about 30 miles north of the second incident. These were perhaps the most baffling. The first two attacks had happened in seaside resort locations, but the one on July 12, 1916, happened inland on a creek in a community that didn't really seem like a resort. An 11–year–old boy, who had been playing in the creek with some friends, was attacked and killed by a shark. A man who dove into the water in an attempt to save the boy also was attacked and bled to death at a hospital.

About half an hour later, the final victim, a 12–year–old boy, was attacked. He eventually recovered from his injuries.

The shark attacks triggered a panic. Tourism declined precipitously, and shark sightings rose sharply. Things only began to settle down after a fellow named Michael Schleisser caught a 7½–foot shark at the mouth of the creek. When they examined the shark, they found human remains in its digestive tract — but it was never established absolutely that the shark had been responsible for the attacks.

Half a century later, the shark attacks off the Jersey shore inspired Peter Benchley's phenomenal best–selling novel "Jaws" — which, in turn, inspired a blockbuster movie by the same name that dwarfed every other movie that was released that year.

Although the public officials along the Jersey Shore, like the ones in Benchley's novel, thought more about tourism and profits than public safety initially — and few, if any, people seemed to dispute the conclusion that sharks had been responsible for the attacks — it's still something of a mystery exactly what kind of shark it was — or, for that matter, how many were involved.

In the novel, the great white was to blame, and it was a good suspect in real life, too, but some people insisted it had been a bull shark instead. Bull sharks are known for their aggressiveness, as well as their ability to tolerate freshwater, which would account for its (or their) presence in the creek.

Folks didn't know a lot about sharks or shark behavior in 1916. Until the attacks, they were seen as relatively harmless, unlikely to attack humans unless provoked.

People knew a little more when Benchley wrote his novel, but public opinion had swung to the other extreme, mostly viewing sharks as dangerous and unpredictable. Before the end of his life, Benchley had a change of heart and said he regretted whatever role his book may have had in public misunderstanding of sharks.

No comments: