sharks are harmless -- 9/2/14

Today's selection -- from Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo. In 1916, after reports of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey, Dr. Frederic Lucas, the renowned and highly esteemed director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, calmly reassured the country that sharks were harmless. 1916 was part of an era in which people first started going to the shore in large numbers due to newly gained leisure time and new train routes that made these destinations accessible. New Jersey featured some of the finest new resorts in the world, places frequented by the wealthy citizens of New York and Philadelphia, along with several U.S. presidents. These 1916 attacks were the inspiration for Peter Benchley's best-selling novel Jaws, later made into a movie by director Steven Spielberg:

"[Dr. Lucas] could imagine few myths as archaic and misguided as the myth of the sea monster, and particularly the weak-minded belief in a man-eating shark. The man-eating shark was a hysterical product of the myths of antiquity, but such a creature, as far as Dr. Lucas's thirty years of personal scientific investigations could determine, simply did not exist, or most certainly not in New York or New Jersey waters.

"Asked by the New York press to comment on Bruder's death, Dr. Lucas declared: 'No shark could skin a human leg like a carrot, for the jaws are not powerful enough to induce injuries like those described by Colonel Schauffler.' The esteemed scientist was adamant to the point of 'finality' that sharks were not capable of inflicting serious injury to man. Dr. Lucas's authority on sharks was supported by a lifetime of scientific study. ..."If readers of the [New York] Times were unsettled by ... accounts [of shark attacks], they must have found reassuring the rebuttal from Dr. Lucas, the famed expert who had investigated alleged shark attacks on the East Coast for forty years and verified none as authentic. In his letter to the editor, 'The Shark Slander,' Dr. Lucas announced he knew of only 'two fairly reliable references to such cases' in the world -- one in Bombay, where a man lost his leg, another in the Hawaiian Islands, where a human victim was surely mistaken for offal dumped in the water.

"Those who believed a shark had killed Charles Bruder, Lucas declared, had made one of the commonest errors in such cases, 'that the shark bit off the man's leg as though it were a carrot.' Such a feat was not possible, Lucas said, and the mere statement 'shows that the maker or writer of it had little idea of the strength of the apparatus needed to perform such an amputation.' In his contribution to Nichols's and Murphy's journal article for the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin, published three months before Bruder's death, Lucas described the common sense behind his theory. 'The next time the reader carves a leg of lamb, let him speculate on the power required to sever this at one stroke -- and the bones of a sheep are much lighter than those of a man. Moreover, a shark, popular belief to the contrary notwithstanding, is not particularly strong in the jaws.'

"As evidence, Dr. Lucas noted that his protege, Robert Cushman Murphy, during an expedition to South Georgia Island, witnessed 'the difficulty of sharks in tearing meat from the carcass of a whale.' And Lucas recalled his own 'disappointment at witnessing the efforts of a twelve-foot shark to cut a chunk out of a sea lion. The sea lion had been dead a week and was supposedly tender, but the shark tugged and thrashed and made a great to-do over each mouthful.'

"Given the weakness of even the largest sharks' jaws, Lucas reasoned, a man would lose a leg only 'if a shark thirty feet or more in length happened to catch a man fairly on the knee joint where no severing of the bone was necessary.' A shark was not capable of biting cleanly through the bone and therefore could not have been the animal that bit off Charles Bruder's legs below the knee. What animal was capable of the attack, Dr. Lucas couldn't say, but 'certainly no shark recorded as having been taken in these waters could possibly perform such an act.' According to Lucas, the best scientific data concerning the question of the East Coast shark attack remained the uncollected wager Hermann Oelrichs made in 1891. Twenty-five years had substantiated the tycoon's position, Lucas concluded, that there is 'practically no danger of an attack ... about our coasts.' "


Michael Capuzzo


Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in An Age of Innocence


Broadway Books


Copyright 2001 by Michael Capuzzo


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