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Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks…
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Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 (2001)

by Michael Capuzzo

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7023021,343 (3.86)21
Details the first documented cases in American history of sharks attacking swimmers, which occured along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey in 1916.
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I really enjoyed this historical read. It moved a little show in the beginning when introducing the characters, but it picked up after a few chapters. ( )
  RoxieT | Nov 9, 2019 |
Whew! I made it through this retelling of the grizzly shark attacks of 1916. I loved all the rich historical details that puts the reader right in the year 1916, along with feeling as you are an actual eye witness to each terrifying shark attack. You don’t want to miss this book. Just make sure you read it AFTER your beach vacation. 😀 ( )
  ChurchMouse70 | Jul 8, 2019 |
Well researched and well written. Better than the movie, Jaws. The real story. Highly recommended. ( )
  MikeDI | May 27, 2018 |
From the disaster response reading program, this is a melodramatic page turner, but a well-done melodramatic page-turner. Author Michael Capuzzo is a journalist, so we get a lot of the tradition for this sort of thing – backstories of the doomed and the survivors. Charles Vansant was a doctor’s son and recent Penn graduate; Charles Bruder was the bell captain at a beachfront hotel; Lester Stilwell was a preteen taking a break from his summer job in a basket factory, and Stanley Fisher was a tailor who went to rescue Stilwell. Of course, the shark has no name.


Being a nerd, I don’t really care about the backstories; that Charles Vansant’s father wore a pocket watch; that Charles Bruder sent money home to his mom in Switzerland; that Lester Stilwell was frail or that Stanley Fisher’s friend were surprised when the amateur athlete took up a career as a tailor. Still, it’s well done; Capuzzo does manage to evoke a summer at the beach in 1916, with ladies in long white dresses promenading along the shore while their bolder girlfriends entered the water and young men showed off their physiques as far as it was possible in a two piece bathing suit. I want to know more about the shark. Alas, that’s still mysterious. The shark is a character and Capuzzo tries to portray its “thoughts” insofar as it had any; but those chapters are unsatisfactory. What’s known is that there were fatal attacks at Beach Haven on July 1, 1916 (Charles Vansant - in three feet of water); at Spring Lake on July 6 (Charles Bruner, about 130 feet from shore); and at Matawan on July 12 (Lester Stilwell and Stanley Fisher, in Matawan Creek, 15 miles from the ocean and in perhaps 8 feet of brackish water). There was a nonfatal attack downstream in Matawan Creek later on July 12; Joseph Dunn’s friends were able to pull him free from the shark. On July 14 Michael Schleisser and John Murphy were fishing in Raritan Bay when they caught something large in their net. This turned out to be a shark; its struggles were so fierce the engine stopped and for a while the boat was pulled backward. The shark then apparently tried to get into the boat; Schleisser hit it on the head with an oar until it died. Schleisser was a taxidermist; the shark was a juvenile great white, about seven feet long and three hundred pounds. Schleisser removed about 15 pounds of flesh and bones from the stomach. Schleisser sent the stomach contents of his shark to Dr. Fredrick Lucas at the AMNH for identification, and Lucas replied “They are parts of the left radius and ulna of[sic] one of the anterior left ribs.” – which fit the description of what was missing from Lester Stilwell when his body was recovered. Nowadays there would be DNA matching but it wasn’t available in 1916.


The experts of the day, both scientists and fishermen, initially didn’t believe a shark was responsible. And they had no reason to; there had been no documented shark attack north of Cape Hatteras in the entire recorded history of North America. The general belief was that sharks didn’t attack humans; about 20 years before New York sportsman had offered a $1000 reward for proof of a shark attack and there were no takers. Certainly there were rumors from the tropics and even a photograph of what seemed to be a shark engulfing a boy but these were dismissed. Although the eyewitnesses said it was a “fish” that had attacked Vansant, the story was garbled by the time it got to the press. Local fishermen speculated a giant swordfish or a sea turtle might have been responsible; ichthyologists at the American Museum of Natural History confirmed that sharks didn’t attack humans, and couldn’t bite hard enough to sever a bone even if they did attack. After Bruder was killed John Nichols of the AMNH inspected his body; he still didn’t think a shark was involved and decided it must have been an orca. The creek attacks finally convinced people there was a shark; the AMNH scientists retracted their previous position. Locals set out shark patrols, firing at everything that moved and dynamiting the creek and the ocean in the interim. The Coast Guard cutter Mohawk was deployed. Schleisser and Murphy’s catch finally put an end to the panic.


Capuzzo is pleasantly readable when he talks about life on the beach in 1916; he good at evoking the atmosphere. Elegant ladies in long dresses and huge hats stroll along the boardwalk while their more adventurous sisters don their bathing dresses, bathing trunks, bathing hose, and bathing shoes to enter the water with police matrons ready to arrest anyone who shows too much skin. Young men disport themselves hoping to impress some of the bathing beauties (Their chests, of course, had to be covered but you had the right to bare arms in New Jersey). It being Jersey, mosquitoes are ubiquitous. There’s a war on in Europe but Wilson has kept us out of it.


The shark is less well handled. The chapters that describe things from the shark’s point of view seem contrived. While Capuzzo uses a lot of primary sources – newspaper articles, college yearbooks, etc. – for the human characters, shark behavior comes from popular works. Popular works are OK as far as they go, of course, but Capuzzo’s speculations and assumptions on why the shark broke precedent and attacked people in New Jersey in 1916 aren’t very convincing. Caught in the Gulf Stream and carried away for normal foraging ground? Phase of the moon? Confused by numerous signals in the water? Capuzzo implies that the same shark was responsible for all the attacks and that it was the shark that Schleisser and Murphy caught, and that that shark was a juvenile great white; that’s the way I’d bet too but a little googling discloses shark experts aren’t completely sure; bull sharks are frequently implicated in attacks on people and are much more comfortable in fresh water. In 1937 a five-foot bull shark was caught in Alton, Illinois, 1750 miles (as the shark swims) up the Mississippi. Makes me kind of nervous about wading in the Platte. Or taking a bath.


Well, pleasant enough and just the thing for summer beach reading. No pictures; as mentioned references are mostly contemporary for 1916 ambiance but modern popular works for sharks. One good map of New Jersey, but it could use some symbols showing where the attacks took place and the dates. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 6, 2017 |
Excellently written, this page turner was well worth the time spent reading. I was particularly drawn to it because the New Jersey shore is approximately a two hour drive from where I live, and it contains many good memories of riding the waves, tasting the salt water for the first time, the sounds and smells of the boardwalk, and wonderful family vacations.

During the summer of 1916, when vacationing at the "shore" became a new experience, a rouge shark thrown out of the gulf stream into the Atlantic ocean shore, caused five attacks and deaths. Little was known about the great white shark at the time. And those who were "experts" disbelieved that a shark would be capable of chomping off the legs and body parts of human prey.

Even the ichthyologist John Treadwell from the New York Museum of Natural History was challenged to confront what he thought was true compared to what actually occurred. The first attack in July of 1916 occurred at Beach Heaven, NJ. The target was a seasoned swimmer, and son of a wealthy Philadelphia physician. From there, the shark hugged the coast northward as a farrm boy in the Matawan Creek who, with his pals frequently took a dip to cool themselves became another target.

Not only does the author vividly portray the attacks, but it is obvious that he has done his homework and researched the behavior of the great white! This fascinating true life story occurred at a time when jazz was new, Philadelphia high society carved a niche as New Jersey shore became their playground, while the poor who road the trains to the water for relief from the high temperatures were deemed unfit for the company of the wealthy. Swimming in the ocean was a novelty, and none thought that death could be a part of their experience. ( )
  Whisper1 | Jul 30, 2016 |
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Epigraph
"The beach was such a novel experience that most were completely unfamiliar with the health hazards--and risks to life and limb--it posed." -Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek "The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth"
"We're not just afraid of predators, we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters." -E.O. Wilson
Dedication
To my father, William, who was born in the time of the shark and died while I was writing this story; my wife, Teresa, first ever in my heart, who turned the nightmares of predators into dreams; and finally Cosmo, a beagle, who sat on my lap all during the writing, watching for prey moving in the fields.
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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.
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