When a rogue shark began attacking swimmers at the Jersey Shore in 1916, there was utter confusion about what, in fact, it was.
Many people simply called it, "the sea monster." Among the general public - and even among scientists - it was widely believed that dangerous, "man-eating" sharks didn't swim in the waters off New Jersey or New York at all.
Some people thought it might be a huge mackerel. Others insisted that it was a giant sea turtle. A few even speculated that it was not a living creature at all, but a German U-boat spying off the East Coast of the U.S.
A Coast Guard superintendent told the press that it couldn't be a shark because "sharks are timid as rabbits." The New York Times, in what must be one of the vaguest (or perhaps cautious) headlines ever written, called it a "fish." Even those who witnessed the shark attacks didn't understand what they saw.
As a boater and longtime resident of the Jersey Shore, I've been aware of the story of the 1916 shark for a long time. The sudden appearance of the shark, which killed four people and severely injured a fifth, all in less than two weeks, upended life here. People still talk about it, and I suppose they always will.
The 1916 shark attacks became a huge, national news story because they were unprecedented in U.S. history, and people were caught off-guard. Another reason, however, was the location of the attacks. The Jersey Shore was the favorite summer vacation spot of many wealthy and powerful Americans. This included President Woodrow Wilson, following a tradition begun many years earlier by Ulysses S. Grant, who owned a home in Elberon, a part of Long Branch, NJ.
Scholarly articles and nonfiction books have been written about the 1916 shark, and arguments remain. Was it really a great white? Was it sick or injured? But the real story, to me, is how people reacted to the sudden arrival of the sea monster in their midst.
I wanted to tell the story as historical fiction from the perspective of those experiencing the events as they unfolded, and without any of the knowledge we now have of ocean creatures. Disbelief, confusion, terror, denial, defiance, and even conspiracy theories are explored in my forthcoming book, Silent Came the Monster.
In 1916, many people accepted the idea that mankind is superior to all other creatures, an assumption that a growing number of us now realize is both arrogant and ignorant. The fact is, we are not at the top of the heap, although we may think we are, and indeed we have used our power mostly to make a total mess of things for most other creatures, among them, sharks.
In this way, one could say that the Jersey Shore shark which shocked and confused the nation continues to be a reminder that what we know, both then and now, is not only limited but biased. The shark should humble us, not make us angry. Regardless of what humans do, the fact is that Nature plays by its own rules.