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Combining rich historical detail and a harrowing, pulse-pounding narrative, Close to Shorebrilliantly re-creates the summer of 1916, when a rogue Great White shark attacked swimmers along the New Jersey shore, triggering mass hysteria and launching the most extensive shark hunt in history.
During the summer before the United States entered World War I, when ocean swimming was just becoming popular and luxurious Jersey Shore resorts were thriving as a chic playland for an opulent yet still innocent era's new leisure class, Americans were abruptly introduced to the terror of sharks. In July 1916 a lone Great White left its usual deep-ocean habitat and headed in the direction of the New Jersey shoreline. There, near the towns of Beach Haven and Spring Lake-and, incredibly, a farming community eleven miles inland-the most ferocious and unpredictable of predators began a deadly rampage: the first shark attacks on swimmers in U.S. history.
For Americans celebrating an astoundingly prosperous epoch much like our own, fueled by the wizardry of revolutionary inventions, the arrival of this violent predator symbolized the limits of mankind's power against nature.
Interweaving a vivid portrait of the era and meticulously drawn characters with chilling accounts of the shark's five attacks and the frenzied hunt that ensued, Michael Capuzzo has created a nonfiction historical thriller with the texture of Ragtime and the tension of Jaws. From the unnerving inevitability of the first attack on the esteemed son of a prosperous Philadelphia physician to the spine-tingling moment when a farm boy swimming in Matawan Creek feels the sandpaper-like skin of the passing shark, Close to Shore is an undeniably gripping saga.
Heightening the drama are stories of the resulting panic in the citizenry, press and politicians, and of colorful personalities such as Herman Oelrichs, a flamboyant millionaire who made a bet that a shark was no match for a man (and set out to prove it); Museum of Natural History ichthyologist John Treadwell Nichols, faced with the challenge of stopping a mythic sea creature about which little was known; and, most memorable, the rogue Great White itself moving through a world that couldn't conceive of either its destructive power or its moral right to destroy.
Scrupulously researched and superbly written, Close to Shore brings to life a breathtaking, pivotal moment in American history. Masterfully written and suffused with fascinating period detail and insights into the science and behavior of sharks, Close to Shorerecounts a breathtaking, pivotal moment in American history with startling immediacy.
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Crown/Archetype; June 2002 368 pages; ISBN 9780767912549 Download in secure EPUB
Title: Close to Shore
Author: Michael Capuzzo
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The Last Man in the Water
The smell of the sea pulled him east. The Atlantic spread before him like a pool of diamonds, liquefied, tossing gently in gleaming tips and shards of changeable, fading bronze light. The sun climbed down toward dusk behind mountains of clouds swollen with moisture. The young man couldn't wait to get in the water.
The sandy beach stretched for miles. Behind him were seagrass-covered dunes, bleached fragments of shipwrecks, the shadows of Victorian turrets facing the sea. The warm wind carried the bark of a retriever, the faint perfume, so close, of the young women watching from the sands in their hourglass Gibson Girl dresses, their hair swept up high like the clouds captured in silk bow-tie ribbons. He was a handsome young man with slicked-back dark hair, a strong profile, a man who drew notice. He moved with the slight elbows-out jauntiness of a rebel, for ocean swimming was a new and godless pursuit, a worship of the cult of the body. The startling vision of a young man at the edge of the sea, Thomas Mann had recently written, "conjured up mythologies, was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the Gods. "
As the young man paused to survey the beach, the dog came beside him and lapped his hand. The man put his toes in the water, then strode quickly into the shallows, the sandy muck sucking at his feet, for there could be no hesitation, no sign of timidity. Timidity was something he was determined to leave far behind, once and forever. The temperature of the water was sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, but he walked out thigh-deep, giving the impression it was a stroll in the afternoon air. As the water reached for his torso, he jackknifed his body and dove in. The lifesavers' rowboat, an old shore-whalers model, lay up on dry sand, beyond the seaweed line.
There were a few other swimmers, splashing and floundering near shore. Quickly, he was beyond them. He was strong and practiced, with a lean, muscular body, and he moved swiftly into deeper water. In the far distance, merchant steamers crawled northward on the warm, onrushing torrents of the Gulf Stream. He could hear splashing behind him, the dog playfully following. All eyes, he knew, were on him now.
He had tried out for the swim team at the university and failed to make it, but he was in his early twenties, at the cusp of manhood, and his endurance did not wane. Soon he had the water to himself, it was his ocean, he was without doubt the strongest swimmer of the hour, and he stopped, exhaled, and floated on his back, a signal to shore that he had done what he had set out to do. He couldn't have known precisely how deep the water was beneath him, but, considering his distance from shore, he was certainly in far over his head.
It is impossible to know what the young man was thinking as he floated, and the moments passed lazily into twilight. Perhaps he was thinking that he had come to a place of greatest ease, safety, and comfort. The whole summer stretched before him on the beach, with family and friends, not a care in the world but the European war "across the pond," which touched him not. His father had removed him from the mysterious and deadly plagues afflicting the lower classes in Philadelphia. He was engaged to be married in the fall. Perhaps he was pining over his absent love, his first and forever love, as a young man does under a summer sky with all of life ahead. The wedding was arranged. His whole future had been wonderfully arranged.
After a time, he realized he no longer heard the splashing of the dog. He turned over on his stomach and looked toward land: the beach was a distant, shimmering strip exhaling the day's radiant heat; the shadows had deepened in front of the turrets; ladies' parasols on the boardwalk bobbed like puffs of yellow cream against the darkening sky. He was the last man in the water. He heard the dog barking from somewhere, across the wind and waves, and was amused. He heard voices, as if from far away. He kicked vigorously, and began his crawl toward shore. He felt an exhilarating jolt of adrenaline lifting him onward and over the waves. Perhaps he mistook it for the thrill of being noticed, or a simple joy in his youth and strength–"He is a Mercury, a brown Mercury, his heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea," Jack London, one of his favorite authors, had written.
His form was perfect, arms arcing through the sea.
AN ERRATIC ERA
On an island off the southern coast of New Jersey, at the edge of the vast and desolate pinelands, stood an old, proud wooden hotel. The graceful spire could be seen far over land and sea and stole the flat horizon from the famous bygone lighthouse that was crumbling into the tides. Carved around the crown of the spire was a bas-relief of ocean waves rolling in endless and regal procession. The overall effect was of a Greek temple left to preside over a land of mosquitoes and greenhead flies. The Engleside Hotel was the grandest lodge on the deserted stretch north of Atlantic City, a world apart from the glamour of Asbury Park, where President Woodrow Wilson stayed that summer of 1916, running for reelection on the promise "He kept us out of the war." In Asbury Park, notable and fashionable people set the modish style, but the Engleside moved to the cadence of elegant and simpler days. With its somber turrets and long, low porches, the hotel had a noble and slightly melancholy air, like the last member of an old line.
The Engleside tower struck toward the heavens with peculiar immodesty for a structure built by Quakers. It rose in a series of four deep balconies, where guests in wicker rocking chairs watched white-sailed wooden craft play with the wind. On the beach were potato-in-spoon races, skits with parasols, violins, and leaping dogs–entertainments that diverted their guests from rumors that the kaiser's U-boats were trolling offshore. The hotel was a temperance house, but guests enjoyed the pleasures of reading, dining, dancing in the starlit evening, rowing on the moonlit bay, writing long, intimate letters, and waiting for the return mail. There was little else to do. On the porches by the sea there was Edith Wharton's popular Ethan Frome to read, and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The children were in a tizzy over Kenneth Grahame's storybook The Wind in the Willows. The distant views were of twisted sea pine among the dunes, lonely golden eagles floating over the back country, and the water, thick with bluefish and striped bass, oyster and hard clam, which New Englanders called by the Indian name quahog and Philadelphians called Venus. Most of the guests of the Engleside, born to the Philadelphia aristocracy, read Latin and Greek. On clear days, the ocean appeared infinite before them. Long, gentle waves curled languorously onto miles of virgin beach and returned endlessly back to sea, but if the surf held the song of a Siren, it had long been resisted. For many years the Engleside's Victorian guests were too modest to disrobe to bathe. Philadelphians, changeless as their old and distinguished city, were reluctant or afraid to enter the water, for ocean bathing had not been done, and so for many years was not.
But late on the last night of June of that year, the deskman at the Engleside heard gentle splashing and frolicking in the water in front of the hotel. The young were challenging their Victorian parents with rebellious behaviors, and the latest fad was moonlight swimming. Perhaps the older generation was growing sentimental, aware of the looming shadows of the European mess. But many a deaf ear was turned that summer to the midnight air; the young were allowed to get away with it. The clerk that night heard nothing. The first cool air of the day blew through the hotel's open windows as the faint strains of hits such as "Don't Take My Darling Boy Away" spilled out over the water from the popular new portable camp and seashore Victrolas. The hotel's first five hundred electric lights glimmered and swam in the darkened sea. Deeper into the night, after the hotel was quiet and dark, the splashing and laughter in front of the Engleside lulled, and finally ceased.
Only yesterday, in the ancient life of the ocean fishes, had Leni-Lenape Indian kings led their warriors to the virgin beach to feast upon mountains of clams in preparation for autumn's wars; colonial sportsmen rumbled seaward on the carriage roads; Pennsylvania farmers rattled eastward by wagon, leaving crops behind for the annual "sea day." Never in the three human centuries at the shore, the eye blink that was the forty years of the Engleside, had so many people enjoyed the pastime of ocean bathing.
The tide surged in, free of human presence once again. The skates and rays and other fishes swarmed in their timeless feeding ways of the night sea, making subtle and unknowable adjustments.
At dawn on Saturday, July 1, the hotel and the ocean were united by the bright gold band of beach. Breakfast was served in the Engleside dining room by young Irish immigrant women from Boston, while the men read the Philadelphia Public Ledger and smoked Turkish cigarettes on the porches, and discussed the German march to Paris and the fall of the Philadelphia A's to last place. That was the summer the great Connie Mack affixed to the American language the axiom "You can't win 'em all." That weekend Mrs. Hetty Green, the world's richest and stingiest woman, would die, leaving $80 million and the notorious legacy of having refused to pay for an operation for her son, costing him his leg. By late morning, the sands were crowded with young men and women in the startling new swimming costumes, the women revealing inches of leg never before seen in public. In playful teams, men and women built sand castles, a new art in America and Europe that year. The shouting and flirting rose and fell like a nervous and reluctant tide, for this was all new, this lush and languid meeting of mankind and the sea, this joyful display of flesh.
In his office under the great spire, hotelier Robert Fry Engle reviewed the booking columns for the Independence Day weekend with great satisfaction. Engle, an artist and a gentleman given to tapered suits, Arrow collars, and the polished grooming of the new century (which included the new style of a cleanshaven face), shared his father's level-eyed Quaker pursuit of profit. For the second consecutive year, all one hundred and fifty rooms, rooms for three hundred people, were sold out from July Fourth straight through Labor Day. Engle, like his late father, born of old New Jersey stock, disapproved of the immoral and noisome behavior of some of his more modern guests, particularly those who tippled the stronger waters. But there was no denying the wonderful impact of the new horseless carriage and the railroads ferrying middle-class tourists en masse to the seashore, whatever their nouveau morality. The Engleside had never experienced such a boom. The great new century heralded a bright dawn for the hotel.
Other than their father-son business–an American tradition that was disappearing as the first generation of men dedicated their work lives to corporations–Robert Fry Engle seemed to have little in common with his father. Robert Barclay Engle, the Engleside's founder, was an immense, great-bellied Civil War veteran with a Whitmanesque Grand Army of the Republic beard. He was also a highly personable and witty innkeeper, a prosperous farmer, a shrewd and combative New Jersey state senator, and a dead-eye gunner. He was legendary for helping the leading men of his time, such as Jay Cooke, the great Philadelphia financier who bailed the nation out of the panic of 1873, shoot hundreds of wildfowl in a single day.
It was Robert Barclay Engle who possessed the pride, unseemly for a Quaker, to build a spire that thrust skyward; he who cleverly named the hotel by mixing the family surname with the ancient Gaelic word "aiengle," which his wealthy and literate guests knew meant "fireside" in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It was Engle who had the guile to open his massive, remote hostelry in June 1876, less than a month before the centennial of the United States in Philadelphia, his primary market, as if daring the world to ignore him. (It didn't; wealthy sportsmen hired boats and knowledgeable guides to ply through the bays and marshes to his isolated lodge.) Engle, one of many Union veterans who made good after the war, sold Jack London fantasies to wealthy Philadelphia and New York businessmen in the Railroad Age already pining for the lost wilderness and rough fireside camaraderie of the war. But he had been born too soon. It was his son, born in the age of Rockefeller, who was poised to indulge in the big dreams and abundant capital of the twentieth century.
Yet, as a young man with artistic sensibilities, Robert Fry Engle was an unlikely candidate for the family business, and thus something of a disappointment to his father. Educated at elite Quaker private schools, he showed a rare feeling for the beauty of the ocean and dunes. Although he enjoyed hunting, he preferred aiming a camera instead of a Winchester at the wilderness. In the 1890s, graduating from the Kodak Brownie and its slogan "You push the button, we do the rest," Engle became one of America's first art photographers, imitating the evocative landscapes of the French Impressionist school of painters. In 1896, at the age of twenty-eight, Engle's photograph of a sunset over the bays of Long Beach Island west of the Engleside was included in the first art photography salon in Washington, D.C., which was praised by Alfred Stieglitz as the first American exhibit "worthy of international attention." Engle's photograph titled "The Summer Was Sinking Low" was subsequently chosen among the first fifty art photographs for the permanent photography collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The collection–sheep grazing in sun-hazed midwest pastures, idyllic mid-Atlantic hills and valleys, the innocence of Victorian mothers and children in portraiture with nature–captured an American nostalgia for the wild places lost to the Industrial Revolution.
The celebrated young pictorialist traveled across America and into Mexico and Europe. He became a protégé of photographer Burton Holmes, the most famous travel photographer and lecturer of his day, and seemed likely to achieve Holmes's fame. But the ocean at Beach Haven, his father, the family business kept calling him back. At the height of his artistic promise, he returned to the Engleside and never left, content to shoot portraits of his guests, the skits on the beach, the great spire looming over the sea. If there were two men in him, the artist and the bourgeois merchant, it was clear which one society valued most. The object of his career became business. It was the tenor of the times. Gusto, vitality, the bigness of big business, were the values of the young industrial republic already beginning to dominate the world. Sprawling, monstrous American capitalism was "The Octopus," said the rough-hewn California novelist Frank Norris. Theodore Roosevelt set the new American credo, but Norris expressed it best: "Vitality is the thing after all. The United States in this year of grace 1902 does not want and need Scholars, but Men."
There was big money to be made by the right kind of men. Inspired by giants like Henry Flagler, Rockefeller's partner at Standard Oil who opened the Florida wilderness with hotels and railroads, Engle was one of a group of Philadelphians who had invested millions of dollars to develop Long Beach Island into a similar paradise, a Florida of the mid-Atlantic. At the southern tip of the eighteen-mile-long, nearly one-mile-wide island was tiny Beach Haven, which would become known as "the greatest ocean city in the world." A sea metropolis lined with skyscrapers and humming with trolleys and tens of thousands of wealthy residents, it would outshine Atlantic City, its neighbor to the south, which, being closer to shore, had inferior ocean breezes, Engle claimed. Nothing less would do than a capitalistic conquest of the Jersey shore; men like Morgan, Carnegie, and Harriman set standards that were colossal.
After the tourist season of 1915, the most successful ever in Beach Haven, Engle could envision his great ocean city taking form, a paradise of comfort and ease for his guests, freed from the annoyances of nature. He could hear it in the roar of the new acetylene plant firing up the sixty-five goosenecked streetlamps that cast shadows on the four dirt roads and two dusty avenues of town; in the stir of the hundreds of newly planted saplings waving under the starlight to shade future tourists; in the rumble of Overland Tourers and tin lizzies plying the first automobile bridge to the mainland, which he had lobbied state politicians to build.
Progress was in the groan of cranes filling marshes to create land and digging miles of drainage ditches to defeat the mosquito, a notable pest of progress. A born salesman, Engle had what folks said was a "line" for the persistent "Jersey skeeter" problem. "There never was an Eden that the Devil did not try to get into," Engle said, "and the more perfect the Eden the more he tried to get into it."
Mosquitoes and flies buzzed and banged on the doors of the cottages facing the ocean, and flew straight in the open hotel windows, for there were no screens in those days. Another blemish on Engle's paradise that Saturday was the weather. The morning air clung like a limpid cheesecloth, a phenomenon the best scientific minds on the East Coast couldn't explain; the heat just wouldn't quit. White-clad figures on the tennis courts by the sea, where a youngster named Billy Tilden would play, moved at half speed. By late afternoon, many of Engle's guests retreated to the rustic comforts of their small, narrow, vintage seventies rooms, to the renewing balm of hot and cold seawater showers, the latest modern convenience. As dusk approached, a line of roadsters nudged quietly against the sand-blown ark of the Engleside, and Beach Haven was left to its timeless sounds of wind and surf that came, again, with the lingering twilight. The last of the sails tipped and skittered on the horizon as a handful of guests watched from the wicker rockers high in the tower. In his office far below, Engle set plans for Sunday's "ladies' softball game," where men played in skirts to even the odds. The laughter of the sea and of the swimmers subsided as the tide flowed out and young bathers changed in the Victorian bathhouses, leaving few swimmers in the water. There was a steady boardwalk parade back to the hotel of women who ducked demurely under sun umbrellas and cooled their porcelain faces with Chinese fans. In the lobby, men returned from fishing trips, grumbling there was nothing to be had; local guides were complaining of a mysterious disappearance of gamefish. From the formal dining room, lined with Corinthian columns and tropical murals like a European court, came the clink of china and silver and crystal, muting the distant call of gulls.
Other sounds, presently, drifted over wind and waves and echoed along the ramparts of the great hotel. In the beginning, the sounds were quieter than the dissolving hiss of sandcastles, soft beyond the range of human detection, in fact. They were easily lost amid the languid noises of the summer colony winding down an ordinary afternoon in the wistful last days of the Edwardian period.
Yet the sounds would grow in intensity and travel swiftly, as sound does through water, and in time the reverberations would reach every corner of the grand hotel, around the globe, and across the new century, awakening something ancient and long forgotten in the human memory of the sea.
The big fish moved slowly on the surface of the deep. Its dark top matched the leaden sea; its white bottom blended with sunshine reflected from beneath. The fish moved with grace and beauty remarkable for its size, in a cloak of invisibility fashioned from infinite silvery refractions of light. Unseen and unheard, it would swim for days without coming in sight of man or boat or another of its kind. Little about the scene had changed since the fish swam in the Age of Reptiles. The ocean was not yet watched by satellites or shadowed by the flying cross of airplanes. The fish had appeared before the continents divided before there were trees and flying insects, enduring while nature underwent upheaval and extinction. The fish had survived and changed little.
The Victorian scientific lust, after Darwin, to classify and catalogue every living plant, animal, and human tribe had made no inroads on the fish's privacy. Indeed, extreme scarcity is one of its greatest survival gifts. It was in 1916–and still is, almost a century later–a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a fisherman or a sailor to see such a fish.
It was nature's plan for a minnow or a Maryland crab to be ordinary sights, but, like eagles in the sky and tigers on land, the great white shark sits atop the ocean's food pyramid, an "apex predator." Great whites must consume such massive quantities of flesh to survive, it would be unthinkable for them to be numerous. The great white is the largest predator fish on the contemporary planet that the laws of physics allow. It is, quite simply, too dangerous for there to be more than a limited number of its kind.
As a result of its great scarcity, little was known about the white shark in 1916. Most Americans had never seen a shark, except for scattered photographs in newspapers and drawings such as the comically nearsighted "grand chien de la mer," vaguely resembling a great white shark, in Jules Verne's bestseller Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The sailors' myth of a "man-eating fish" persisted in the machine age as a hoary, vaguely dubious relic of the Age of Sail. Herman Melville had witnessed ferocious sharks on his Pacific whaling trips and wrote in Moby Dick of the white shark's "transcendent horrors, its elusive . . . terrible . . . whiteness." But Melville had died penniless in New York in 1891, his big book an antiquated flop in the modern age of steamers and telegraph cables, Ahab's great sperm whale, the nineteenth-century sea monster, driven nearly extinct by man. All the sea monsters of the ancients were shrinking in the deductive glare of science: "It's scientific" would soon be the magic phrase that settled all parlor arguments, as Frederick Lewis Allen would write in Only Yesterday. The ship-grappling kraken turned out to be the giant squid, huge, mysteriously shy, tucked away harmlessly in the depths. The "man-eating giant octopus" was neither, simply a large, inky cephalopod; the mermaid, mythic Siren that lured sailors to their doom, was the far less perilous, if less comely, manatee. Well-read Victorian and Edwardian men were determined not to fall prey to excesses of ancient myth or modern "pseudo-science of the Jules Verne sort," as Mark Sullivan noted in Our Times. A man was wary of being duped by the newspapers, notorious fabricators that trafficked in "perpetual motion, rain-making, pits dug through to China, messages from Mars, visitors from outer space." To turn-of-the-century men, the man-eating shark, like the sea serpent, seemed just such a myth.
Jules Verne himself faithfully reported the Victorian skepticism in 1870 in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: "Even though fishermen's stories are not to be believed it is said that in one of these fish was found a buffalo head and an entire calf; in another, two tuna and a sailor still in uniform; in another, a sailor with his saber; and in yet another, a horse with its rider. It must be said, though, that these stories seem a bit doubtful." Myths of the sea had a way of enduring, however, even in the most rational men. It would fall to the 1890s, to a new class of men, men who controlled and manipulated nature like none before, to expose the myth. In 1891, "monopolies," "trusts," and "robber barons" entered the American language and men were seized by an awe and fear of bigness–big railroads, big money, big men like Rockefeller and Harriman. Yet if ordinary man was small and had to bow to "nature's noblemen," as the robber barons much preferred to be called, he could at least be at ease and equal in the ocean, swimming–a sport "we all from cats to kings can enjoy." For in the 1890s, the largest oceanic predator, the man-eating shark, was proven to be a specious fable, a fish no match for any man, and surely not the colossus of the day.
On a warm, windy afternoon in July 1891, the luxury yacht Hildegard steamed east in the Atlantic far from the dark New York skyline. The day was fair with a reluctant sun, and now and again a wave crested. The Hildegard ran trim with teak and brass gleaming but lacked the whimsical grace of the old sailing yawls; the new coal-powered yachts of the Gilded Age were low and slick. Against the gray emptiness with only petrels for company and an occasional distant steamer, the ship buzzed and glowed with the faint nimbus of a Gay Nineties party. Cigar smoke curled beyond the gunwales, and the sports chewed tobacco. Cigarettes were a sign of sissiness to the men, or low breeding, for the men aboard the Hildegard were the "upper crust," as the newspapers called them then. Smoking was verboten for women and the showing of an ankle a scandal, yet the gentler sex aboard the Hildegard displayed a decadent and empiric sensuality. In swan dresses and broad hats bedecked with ostrich feathers, they moved in a shifting constellation of diamonds–diamond hatpins, tiaras and diamondencrusted lizards, insects, and bees, all the rage. Steam had given the rich for the first time in history the ability to sail away to the deep, to float to nowhere in particular for sporting amusements or the pleasure of squandering time and space as if there were no greater refinement. The wastes of ocean were a final barrier distancing gentlemen from the rabblement. "You can do business with anyone," said J. P. Morgan, "but you can go sailing only with gentlemen."
Leaning over the railings that afternoon were men in Prince Albert suits and ties and glistening soft shoes, sportsmen like Wllliam K. Vanderbilt, Jr., the captain's brother-in-law, who would reciprocate with invitations to come aboard his family's 291-foot yacht with twenty staterooms and crew of sixty-two. The younger Vanderbilt, dark and mustachioed and handsome, was in the process of reducing his grandfather Cornelius's railroad fortune in a manner that would directly inspire the coining of the 1890s term "conspicuous consumption." Parties aboard the Hildegard routinely included such men as the captain's friend Charles Dana, publisher of the New York Sun; his newly hired architect, Stanford White; his boon drinking companion at Delmonico's, Theodore Roosevelt, seven years away from leading the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill. The captain himself, Hermann Oelrichs, had also donned a suit and vest, yet neither silk nor gabardine could conceal the enormous power of his torso, nor deflect the admiring looks cast his way. In those days of titans of industry and sensation-seeking socialites and the obsequious gentlemen of the press, all were drawn to Hermann Oelrichs.
Oelrichs stood nearly six feet, more than two hundred pounds, a giant of a man for the time, broad-beamed and narrow-waisted with a great handlebar mustache and shining, arrogant eyes. An international shipping mogul, Oelrichs was one of America's richest men, and had won the hand of the finest catch of the late Victorian Age–"bonanza heiress" Teresa Fair, a California senator's daughter in line to inherit the Comstock Lode. An avid sportsman, Oelrichs helped introduce polo and lacrosse to the United States. He was also acclaimed as the best amateur baseball player and hammer thrower in New York City and the finest amateur boxer and swimmer in the country. Yet there was about Hermann Oelrichs, too, the ache of promise unrealized. He remained aloof, declining offers to run for both mayor of New York City and president of the New York Athletic Club. "Hermann Oelrichs was so richly endowed by nature and so perfectly equipped both mentally and physically," opined The New York Times, "that his friends have been almost unanimous in declaring that had he so chosen he might have made for himself a much larger place in life."
Yet that afternoon, as the Hildegard steamed east, Hermann Oelrichs made perhaps his greatest contribution. As his crew fed the leaping fires of the boiler, as servants distributed food, and the men called out, "gimme a smile" (a gentleman's term for a drink), and grew loud and expansive and joined in a raucous sporting mood, there arrived a moment, on the edge of dusk and the continental shelf, freighted with the nineties need for spectacle. In that moment Hermann Oelrichs declared he was looking for sharks.
If a shudder overtook the Hildegard's passengers scanning the iron-colored sea, they could have been forgiven. Sharks were widely feared in those days as ferocious man-eaters, based on terrifying tropical legends of which Oelrichs, like his friend and fellow world-traveler Roosevelt, was especially familiar. Despite the skepticism of science, dread of the shark persisted in 1891 in tingling hairs on the back of the neck. In the publication that year of "Song of Myself," Whitman celebrated all the universe except the "leaden-eyed" shark, the ominous crease in a wave "where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water." That afternoon, as ripples of anticipation traversed the ship, Oelrichs announced, as he often had back in the parlors of Gilded Age New York, that so-called "man-eating" sharks were a fable of the ancients. Sharks were in fact cowardly, he insisted, and he would frighten away the largest of them that surfaced from the fathoms.
That year Oelrichs had offered in the pages of the New York Sun a reward of five hundred dollars for "such proof as a court would accept that in temperate waters even one man, woman, or child, while alive, was ever attacked by a shark." Temperate waters he defined as the East Coast of the United States north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
In the rollicking spirit of the times, Oelrichs–like his brother-in-law, Vanderbilt, who hosted America's first motorcar race to further "scientific development of the automobile"– seemed more interested in a good show than in advancing science.
But the audacious wager by a captain of the shipping industry "started the papers all over the country to discussing sharks," The New York Times reported. "Mr. Oelrichs contended that the ancient and widespread fear of sharks had little or no support in the shape of verified or verifiable cases in which they had killed or even injured a human being . . . He limited the offer to temperate waters because he had little knowledge of shark habits in the tropics, but even there he thought them harmless scavengers."
Now, on this summery afternoon at the edge of the century of human progress, the validity of shark attacks would be settled to the satisfaction of intelligent men once and for all.
If any man in the Gilded Age could best the shark, it would be a man who possessed Vanderbilt's wealth and Roosevelt's vigor and an unsurpassed reputation for prowess at sea. Such a man was Hermann Oelrichs. He was American director of the prestigious North German Lloyd shipping company, which would soon produce the world's fir less