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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 first luxury superliner, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. According to historian Lee Server, the 655-foot-long, two-thousand-passenger German ship "held a place of pride in the human spirit" rivaled only by the big city skyscrapers as a "remarkable emblem . . . of a remarkable era . . . and of the seemingly limitless progress of science and technology." Before the Mauretania and Lusitania, Normandie and Titanic were built in an effort to duplicate the glory of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Oelrichs hosted elaborate dinner parties in the middle of the Atlantic in the stateroom of the world's greatest ship, regaling his wealthy friends with tales of his long swims and encounters with sharks.
In an era when the first modern oceanographic research from the 1870 voyage of the HMS Challenger was just being published, Oelrichs's captains, who traversed the seven seas in steamships, reported to him that in their combined years of transoceanic travel they had neither seen nor heard reliable evidence of a man-eating shark. And the tycoon confirmed as much to be true from his own extensive observations.
The millionaire director of Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen was indisputably one of the world's great long-distance ocean swimmers. At a time when ichthyologists researched sharks by waiting for dead species to be brought ashore by fishermen, Oelrichs had swum in the presence of countless sharks in deep and shallow waters and never been attacked. Although he never swam the Hellespont like Byron, as he had dreamed, New York newspapermen spread his fame. One wrote, "Some of the trans-Atlantic skippers used to say . . . that upon nearing the American coast they would look for Hermann Oelrichs, and would then know that they could not be very far from land." Every summer for years he had made legendary five-mile "shark-chasing'' swims off the New Jersey coast, from which he returned to shore and New York Herald headlines like "Oelrichs Scares Away the Sharks."
A generation before the Roaring Twenties rise of professional sports, Oelrichs was a star of heavily publicized sporting stunts for which the public hungered. He challenged the champion John L. Sullivan to a boxing match, putting up a $10,000 purse of his own money. Sullivan declined. Fighting an adversary who had no choice in the matter, Oelrichs wrestled a caged lion to a draw, to the thunderous approval of the press and his fans. Many of the passengers of the Hildegard had no doubt seen Oelrichs in the Atlantic off Newport, Rhode Island, demonstrating he was stronger than any fish in the sea. As the press and the cream of New York society, including Whitneys and Vanderbilts, crowded the cliffs over the ocean, Oelrichs challenged a fisherman in a boat to reel him in as a "human fish." For twenty minutes the fisherman struggled and failed to reel in the stout sportsman on a line fastened to his waist, providing society with what newspapers called "the most interesting incident of the Summer."
Now, aboard the Hildegard, a hundred miles from shore, several large sharks appeared starboard. Conversation ceased as the big fish moved silently, fins slicing high through the waves. Whispers traversed the deck as Oelrichs quickly changed to his bathing clothes, murmurs growing to shouts as the sports in the crowd urged him on. Oelrichs directed his hands to move the ship closer, and approached the railing. While side wagers were made, men snatched their white boaters against the wind, and women leaned over the railing to watch, long dresses whipping erratically. Others averted their eyes as the water received the powerful athlete.
Oelrichs disappeared for a moment, then surfaced between heaving four- and five-foot waves. Shaking the water from his brow, he stroked away from the boat, knifing through the waves atop a thousand feet of ocean. In ways unknown by the boating party, the sharks detected the presence of a large mammal thrashing noisily in the water and began to move in eerie concert.
Yet to the astonishment of the shipboard party, Oelrichs thrashed boldly in the presence of the sharks, quickly scattering the most fearsome-looking fish in the sea as if knocking out a dozen John L. Sullivans at once. As the sharks disappeared into the deep, Hermann Oelrichs, flushed with pride and exertion, climbed back aboard his yacht, victorious. The passengers of the Hildegard cheered wildly, waving boaters, handkerchiefs, and scarves in the briny air. It is not known whether it was a harmless species or dangerous makos or oceanic whitetips that had fled into the deep. A century later, scientists would not have been surprised to see any of these sharks avoiding a man, not preferred prey in such a chance encounter. The big sharks attack in stealth or in defense, and a small, sluggish, finless mammal would hardly represent a threat. The truth of the encounter was impossible for men to discern that afternoon in 1891, and couldn't compete with the legend that reached New York City that evening: Hermann Oelrichs had conducted an experiment, man versus shark, and the outcome was plain for any man to see. The sportsman had swom among ferocious sharks, and sent them fleeing.
The great fish were no match for a man.
The moment would have been emphemeral, a parlor trick at sea, yet Oelrichs, like the fish he challenged, possessed his own qualities of myth. Fifteen years later, in November 1906, Oelrichs was crossing the Atlantic on the Kaiser Wilhelm– returning to New York from "taking the waters at Carlsbad" to recover from the exhaustion of assisting in the relief efforts of the San Francisco earthquake–when he died, at age fifty-six, of a dissipated liver. He was eulogized on the front page of The New York Times as a major figure in the city's life for a quarter century, who might have contributed far more to society. Yet the Gilded Age mogul-sportsman went to his grave knowing he had won his wager. Indeed, his position on man-eating sharks had grown more convincing to the scientific community with each passing year. By 1906, the Wright Brothers had flown, the newly invented marvel of neon lights lit Broadway (where George Bernard Shaw opened with Man and Superman), Jack London had written The Sea Wolf. Yet scant more was known about the true nature of sharks. No one since 1891 had come forward with proof of a shark attack on man in the temperate waters on the East Coast. As the widowed grande dame, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and an aging William K. Vanderbilt, met Hermann's body at the port of New York, the shark wager had fully outgrown its vaudevillian beginnings as a feature in New York's yellow journalism wars, a summer diversion for the Four Hundred who graced Mrs. Astor's and Mrs. Oelrichs's ballrooms. It was now respected scientific data. Ichthyologists at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, a world leader among the new and serious museums, were quoting Hermann Oelrichs's bet as compelling evidence that maneating sharks did not exist. On the question of shark attack in the new twentieth century, it was the best science there was.
By the summer of 1915, when Bell in New York spoke to Watson in San Francisco in the first long-distance call, and Ford developed the marvel of a farm tractor (and made his one millionth car), the editors of The New York Times adjudged it time, long overdue, for society to acknowledge the modern and scientific view of sharks.
In an August 2 editorial, "Let Us Do Justice to Sharks," the Times decided it was "time to revive the controversy . . . [Hermann Oelrichs] excited" and put the issue to rest once and for all. Almost a decade had passed since Hermann Oelrichs's death, the Times noted, a quarter century since his famous wager, and no verifiable shark attacks on man on the East Coast had yet been reported. The editors were puzzled at the persistence among modern people of an irrational fear of sharks.
"To this day there is nothing that will so quickly set a crowd of swimmers scurrying for our beaches as the sight of a shark's fin in the offing," the Times lamented. Such fears were baseless and unreasonable, the newspaper's editors wrote. While the Times allowed that "the bitter hate that every sailor feels for the whole shark tribe can hardly be wholly baseless, for hate is always the exact measure of fear, and all fears have reason of one sort or another," the only evidence of such an attack was a single photograph, reportedly taken from a steamer in the Red Sea, "seeming to be a shark in the very act of closing his jaws on a man." Given Oelrichs's uncollected reward and the paucity of other evidence, the Times concluded "that sharks can properly be called dangerous, in this part of the world, is apparently untrue."
In the spring of 1916, the great white swam on the surface of a world that perhaps knew less about its nature than it had in several centuries. Even in the twenty-first century, the white shark remains largely a mystery. The force of its bite has never been measured. The bite of a six-foot lemon shark has been calculated at seven tons per square inch. The great white, at nearly twenty feet, three thousand pounds, will not submit to dental examination, and will not accept confinement. The fish is too big, too violent, beyond control. Man has never been able to keep the great white in captivity. When this has been attempted, the giant shark batters its head against its prison, unable to accept boundaries, hammering at the metal stays in the concrete that it senses electromagnetically. All that is known about the jaw power of the great white is that it must be immeasurably stronger than a small lemon shark's.
In 1971, Jacques Cousteau postulated that the white shark had poor vision. Now it is known that its eyesight is so remarkable that it can hunt, in rare cases, more than half a mile deep, its expressionless black eyes absorbing the faintest light. Until the late nineteenth century, scientists did not believe life existed at such a depth, concluding that the ocean floor was a lifeless plain. But when the transatlantic telegraph cable was hauled up for repairs, the thick cable swarmed with heretofore unknown creatures, a new universe. The first ocean scientists to explore the depths of that universe were alive in 1916, but their discoveries were decades away. They could not have known what was coming.
The fish's arrival was choreographed by nature to be mysterious–a survival advantage–a mystery that only heightened human ignorance and fear.