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America's Obsession With Sharks Has A Long History


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It's high summer time. Get to the beach. Swim in the ocean. Flop around on the waves. Do a little freaking out about sharks.



UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Shark week. It's a bad week to be a seal.

SIMON: That's an ad for cable TV's Shark Week, which begins next weekend following the movie "Sharknado 2." Jim O'Grady of member station WNYC reports that America's preoccupation with sharks may date to 1916 and a series of attacks along the Jersey shore and includes a forgotten act of courage.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: If you go to Matawan today, it's still a sleepy hamlet in northern New Jersey. You'll find the town's official historian Al Savolaine.

AL SAVOLAINE: Hi, yeah. Hi.

O'GRADY: Nice to me.

SAVOLAINE: Yeah, you too.

O'GRADY: He spent decades researching this grim bit of local history, which begins with two attacks off the Jersey shore in early July and two men dead from shark bites that removed their legs. But Savolaine's main interest is the attack that followed on July 12, 1916, when a group of boys went swimming in Matawan Creek, including 11-year-old Lester Stillwell.

SAVOLAINE: Lester Stillwell was one of the poorest boys. The other boys were bigger and stronger. He was on the frail side.

O'GRADY: Lester is floating on his back when a shadow rises from below, strikes him and lifts him into the air before taking him under. One of the first to arrive on the scene is Stanley Fischer. He's 24-years-old - the son of a sea captain. And he knows Matawan Creek is tidal two miles inland from the beaches of lower New York Bay. It would be rare but not impossible for a shark to a have swam up this far. When Stanley gets there, he knows Lester must be dead. But Stanley dives in the water anyway.

SAVOLAINE: What he did on that day was very much in character.

O'GRADY: But why risk your life to recover a body which is, after all, a lost cause?

SAVOLAINE: There was this concept of what they called a good death that the body is recovered so they can have a Christian burial and at least do that for Lester.

O'GRADY: Over and over, Stanley Fischer fills his lungs before plunging underwater. Over and over, he finds nothing.

SAVOLAINE: Stanley made one last dive, went down, located Lester's body - but when he was down there, he noticed something was moving around by the body. So he grabbed the body and he started lifting it up. And on the way up, the shark attacked Stanley and took a huge gash out of his right leg, actually, you know, severing the artery - a really horrible mess.

O'GRADY: Stanley fights off the shark and struggles to shore. He's then taken to a hospital where he lives only another hour.

SAVOLAINE: His last words, according to the doctor with him, was that, I got Lester away from the shark. I did my duty.

O'GRADY: Despite the drumbeat of pop culture, these kinds of attacks are not typical shark behavior. Most scientists believe they were carried out by a very unusual animal.

RICHARD FERNICOLA: Rogue, so to speak - not a sharkula, not a vampire of the deep, but perhaps an atypical, injured, sick or otherwise estranged individual.

O'GRADY: That's Richard Fernicola, author of a book about the shark deaths called "Twelve Days Of Terror." He says the series of attacks were one-of-a-kind. Since 1916, no one has been killed by a shark along the Atlantic seaboard except in the movies like "Jaws."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: It's a 20-footer.


O'GRADY: The shark in Matawan Creek was eight feet long. Two days later, a pair of fishermen netted it in Lower New York Bay. One of the men took the shark to his home in Harlem, embalmed it, then put it on display in the ground floor window of a newspaper office. The display included human bones removed from the shark's stomach. Thirty thousand people lined up to gaze on what the press was calling the man eater. It was the 1916 equivalent of a blockbuster movie and for sharks as a species, their public debut as a monster. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim O'Grady
Jim O'Grady is a contributor to NPR's Planet Money podcast.