Shark Stories and the Archive

ECHO underway, posted Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The image for this post may be seen at Connecticut History Illustrated.

Historians are trained skeptics. A letter could be genuine or fake. A newspaper article may contain errors. A photograph could be altered. How historians confirm what has happened may be, and often is, an exercise in frustration.

So it is when it comes to researching shark attacks in Connecticut. Sources agree that there has been one authenticated shark attack in the state, and that it took place in the waters off Bridgeport. But they disagree on the date. In Shark Attacks, the year is 1960; in Shadows in the Sea the precise date offered is August 24, 1961. And we learn that the victim was attacked 76 yards offshore and that he survived.

And so your intrepid historian started digging. The University of Florida maintains the International Shark Attack File containing some 2700 investigations of reported incidents. Access to the File is restricted due to the confidential nature of some of the materials, and there’s a long wait for a reply—too long to meet this blog’s deadline.

Newspapers are a logical choice, but none in the state carried a story about a shark attack at Bridgeport in either year.

But what I did find was a hearty and sustained interest in sharks. Sharks have always been news. Since the late nineteenth century newspapers have dutifully reported sightings and captures. Some summers were filled with shark reports; in other years, not so much. The Naugatuck Daily News, for example, reported on August 4, 1900, that “Milo Tuttle of Fair Haven, an oyster dealer, saw a shovel-nosed shark in the harbor Thursday afternoon. It looked to him to be about 12 feet long. These are supposed to be maneaters.”

Sightings outnumbered captures, but capturing a shark was itself a spectator sport. According to the Daily News on August 8, 1902, the “excitement at Walnut Beach” that week featured the “bloody battle” between a “monster” caught up in a fishing net and “its excited captors.” “The shark seemed to realize its fate,” the reporter observed, “for it fought desperately and made several attempts to get at its captors. … The life was finally knocked out of it by its captors who had been hammering it with sticks, oars and clubs.” The trophy was then “paraded around the beach in a lumber wagon. Its jaws were then cut out for souvenirs and the body which had started to decay was interred in a secluded spot some distance from the beach.”

Are these shark stories, or fish tales? Back into the archives….