January 9, 1493 Mermaids

Mr. Columbus seems not to have been impressed with his mermaids, describing these particular creatures as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Pax Romana”. The “Roman Peace”. A period between the 1st and 2nd century AD when the force of Roman arms subdued nearly all, who would stand against them.

Unsurprisingly, the conquered peoples described the period, somewhat differently. Sometime around 84AD Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland said, “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, a time when one could travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

Over time the “Black Death” and Mongol fracturing along political lines brought the Pax Mongolica to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, cats would have pushed everything over the edge by now.

The fact that the world is round was understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass while the Americas were left out, altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him, in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but by 1492, they were ready. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By the new year the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola on January 9, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were almost certainly Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors fell into hypnosis, dashing ships on the rocks in vain efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these particular mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail and weigh in at 800 to 1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, probably a Manatee. The creature was “by no means unattractive” Smith wrote, but I’m not so sure. Maybe Mr. Smith just needed to get out a little more.

December 23, 1884 American Hippo

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Only hours from now, families will gather far and near around, the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in that silver tray the golden brown, delicious, roast hippopotamus.

Wait…Umm…What?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of delicate purple and blue flowers floating across tranquil ponds on a mat of thick, dark green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans and remain viable, for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

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During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  Lake Bacon.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that a free-range hippo herd could produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, those things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  And heaven help anyone caught between a cow, and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only slightly less than Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

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Be that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

Back to Broussard’s bill, what could be better than taking care of two problems at once?  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be averted.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for four years for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Forget the Dos Equis guy. Frederick Burnham really was the “most interesting man in the world“.

Fritz Duquesne? Well that’s another matter. Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to become a German spy it is he who lends his name to the infamous Duquesne Spy Ring.  Frederick Burnham described this, his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

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During the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what was already happening, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbugs”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the hippopotamus came out of the oven.

December 10, 1986 Toxic Sanctuary

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone.

The accident began as a test. A carefully planned series of events intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10 the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

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Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

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View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

Today the descendants of those dogs, some 900 in number occupy an exclusion zone some 1,600 square miles, slightly smaller than the American state, of Delaware. They are not alone.

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In 1998, 31 specimens of the Przewalski Horse were released into the exclusion zone which now serves as a de facto wildlife preserve. Not to be confused with the American mustang or the Australian brumby, the Przewalski Horse is a truly wild horse and not the feral descendant, of domesticated animals.

Named by the 19th century Polish-Russian naturalist Nikołaj Przewalski, Equus ferus przewalskii split from ancestors of the domestic Equus caballus some 38,000 to 160,000 years ago, forming a divergent species where neither taxonomic group is descended, from the other. The last Przewalski stallion was observed in the wild in 1969. The species is considered extinct in the wild, since that time.

Today approximately 100 Przewalski horses roam the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone one of the larger populations of this, possibly the last of the truly wild horses, alive today.

In 2016, US government wildlife biologist Sarah Webster worked at the University of Georgia. Webster and others used camera traps to demonstrate how wildlife had colonized the exclusion zone, even the most contaminated parts. A scientific paper on the subject is linked HERE, if you’re interested.

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone. Wildlife spotted within the exclusion zone include wolves, badgers, swans, moose, elk, turtles, deer, foxes, beavers, boars, bison, mink, hares, otters, lynx, eagles, rodents, storks, bats and owls.

Not all animals thrive in this place. Invertebrates like spiders, butterflies and dragonflies are noticeably absent, likely because of eggs laid in surface soil layers which remain, contaminated. Radionuclides settled in lake sediments effect populations of fish, frogs, crustaceans and insect larvae. Birds in the exclusion zone have difficulty reproducing. Such animals who do successfully reproduce often demonstrate albinism, deformed beaks and feathers, malformed sperm cells and cataracts.

Tales abound of giant mushrooms, six-pawed rabbits and three headed dogs. While some such stories are undoubtedly exaggerated few such mutations survive the first few hours and those who do are unlikely to pass on the more egregious deformities.

Far from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of imagination the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving preserve for some but not all, wildlife. Which brings us back to the dogs. Caught in a twilight zone neither feral nor domestic the dogs of Chernobyl are neither able to compete in the wild nor are many of them candidates for adoption, due to radiation toxicity.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America.

For most there is no future beyond this place and a life expectancy unlikely to exceed a span of five years.

Thirty five years after the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster a surprising number of people work in this place, on a rotating basis. Guards are stationed at access points whose job it is to control who gets in and to keep out unauthorized visitors, known as “stalkers”.

BBC wrote in April of this year about the strange companionship sprung up between these guards, and the dogs of Chernobyl. Jonathon Turnbull is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge. He was the first outsider to recognize the relationship and gave the guards disposable cameras, with which to record the lives of these abandoned animals. The guards around this toxic sanctuary had but a single request: “please, please – bring food for the dogs”.

November 15, 1873 Forever Faithful

When it comes to loyalty, it’s hard to beat the love of a dog.

According to National Geographic, “Wolves were the first animal to be domesticated, sometime between 33,000 and 11,000 years ago“. The first wolf may have approached some campfire, looking for a morsel.  Maybe someone took in a sick or injured pup. Wolf packs may have shadowed human hunting parties, the two groups learning to work together for their own mutual benefit. The facts are lost to history, but one thing is certain. When it comes to loyalty, it’s hard to beat the love of a dog.

Miguel Guzmán of Cordoba Argentina, died in 2006. The following day Capitán, the family’s German Shepherd, disappeared. Mrs. Guzmán and the couple’s son searched all day, until the dog arrived at the cemetery. Forty-five minutes away. No one knows how he got there. The family claims they didn’t bring him. Cemetery director Hector Baccega remembers when he first saw the dog: ‘He turned up here one day, all on his own, and started wandering all around the cemetery until he eventually found the tomb of his master”.

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Capitan. H/T Guardian, for this image

Capitán was brought home but he came back, the following day. Baccega describes what has since become, routine: “During the day he sometimes has a walk around the cemetery, but always rushes back to the grave. And every day, at six o’clock sharp, he lies down on top of the grave [and] stays there all night”.

Capitán lived to fifteen or sixteen, old for a large breed, and died in February 2018, in the cemetery in which he had lived. He was crippled and mostly blind by the time he went to join his “Dad”. 

Who knows. I certainly don’t. Maybe they really Are, together again.

“Greyfriar’s Bobby” was a Skye Terrier in 19th-century Edinburgh, who waited 14 years by the grave of his owner, Police night watchman, John Gray.  He died there in 1872 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from where his master lay.

Artist William Brodie created a life-sized likeness atop the Greyfriars Bobby Fountain in Edinburgh. Paid for by local aristocrat Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the memorial was formally unveiled on November 15, 1873

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Greyfriars Bobby

Hidesaburō Ueno taught agriculture during the interwar years at Tokyo University. Every day, Ueno would take the train to work from Shibuya Station. In the evening, the professor’s golden colored Akita “Hachikō” would always be there waiting, at the station.

Hidesaburō stopped coming home one day in May 1925 after a cerebral hemorrhage took him away, in the middle of a lecture. Every day for nine years, nine months and fifteen days, the Akita appeared at Shibuya Station, precisely on time for that evening train.

Japanese children know the golden colored Akita as chūken Hachikō. “Faithful dog Hachikō”.

Ruswarp was a fourteen-year old Border Collie who went hiking with Graham Nuttall on January 20, 1990 in the Welsh Mountains, near Llandrindod.

On April 7, a hiker discovered Nuttall’s body near a mountain stream. The dog had been standing guard, for eleven weeks.

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Ruswarp, the Border collie

Ruswarp was so weak he had to be carried off the mountain and died, shortly thereafter. Can there be any doubt the dog would have expired right there by Graham’s side, had he not been discovered.

Today there’s a small monument erected in the memory of this extraordinary animal, on a platform near the Garsdale railway station.

In the early morning hours of August 6, 2011, 30 American military service members including 22 United States Navy SEALs were killed along with eight Afghans, SEAL Team 6 handler John “Jet Li” Douangdara and his Military Working Dog (MWD) “Bart”. The Chinook helicopter in which they were all riding was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Kunar Province, of Afghanistan.

To anyone around at that time, the images of “Hawkeye”, together for the last time with slain Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson,  are hard to forget.

Hawkeye-and-Tumilson

In 1936, a sheep dog called “Shep” belonged to a herder whose name is now, lost to history. This was near Fort Benton, in Montana.

The man fell ill and was taken, to a local hospital. For over a week, Shep waited at the hospital, for his master to return. On the 11th day the man died, his casket taken to the local train station and placed in the cargo hold, to be returned home for burial.

Shep was there throughout and watched the train chug away with the body of his “Dad”. He’d return to that hospital door where a kindly nun would feed him a scrap, but every time he heard that train whistle, there was a sheepdog waiting at the station.

In those days, there were four trains a day. For nearly six years, Shep returned to the station, every time he heard that whistle. He even dug a den for himself, near the track.

Passengers took the Havre to Great Falls rail line just to see the dog. Shep received so much fan mail, the Great Northern Railroad assigned a secretary to write responses.

In time, the old boy wasn’t quite as fast as he used to be, his hearing not so good. On January 12, 1942, “Forever Faithful” Shep was struck and killed on the tracks, waiting for a man who could never return.

Stories like these are enough to fill a book, if not a library. I’m not a big one for bumper stickers but, if I were, this would be my first: “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am“.

The CCC lives with his three “Chicas”, Margarita, Roxana and JoJo. They’re all rescues, from Cozumel. Of course, there has to be a margarita.

November 12, 1933 The Loch Ness Monster

Before the age of King George III, readers scoffed at the notion of a venomous, egg-laying mammal with the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the webbed feet, of an otter. Until one was discovered, in 1799.


As the story goes, the Irish priest Columba was traveling the Scottish Highlands, teaching Christianity to the Picts. He was walking along the shores of Loch Ness one day, when he came upon some local villagers burying one of their own. The poor unfortunate had swum out to retrieve a boat adrift from its moorings, when he was bitten by a water creature of some sort. The priest sent one of his followers swimming across the loch to get the boat. The monster rose from the depths once again and was just about to eat the man, when Columba commanded the beast to depart.

There’s no telling how it actually happened. The story was written down 100 years, after the fact. The events described took place on August 22nd, 565, meaning that we’ve been talking about the Loch Ness monster for about 1,500 years. At a minimum.

Loch Ness is formed by a 60 mile, active tectonic fault, where the hills are still rising at a rate of a millimeter, per year. It’s made up of 3 lochs; Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness with Loch Ness being by far, the largest. There is more water in Loch Ness than all the other lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, combined. It is 22½ miles long and varies from a mile to 1½ miles wide, with a depth of 754-feet and a bottom “as flat as a bowling green”.

Loch Ness never freezes. There is a thermocline at 100-feet, below which the water remains a uniform 44° Fahrenheit. As the surface water cools in winter, it is replaced by warmer water rising up from below, causing the loch to steam on cold days. The heat energy generated has been compared to burning 2 million tons of coal. With the steam rising off the water and the occasional seismic tremor, Loch Ness can be a very eerie place.

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Loch Ness ‘Monster’ as photographed, by Hugh Gray

The first photographic “evidence” of the Loch Ness monster was taken on the 12th of November 1933, by Hugh Gray. Some said the picture showed an otter, while others believed it was “some kind of giant marine worm”. The UK Daily Mail sent a team to look for evidence, headed by the famous big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell. There was great media excitement when Wetherell discovered enormous footprints along the shore in December. Researchers from the Natural History Museum examined the tracks, which they determined to have come from a dried hippo’s foot; probably one of the umbrella stands popular at the time. That was the end of that.

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Surgeon’s Photo

A British surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, took what might be the most famous picture of “Nessie” the following year. He didn’t want his name associated with it, so it became “The Surgeon’s Photo”, showing what appears to be a head and neck rising above the waters of the loch.

In one of history’s more interesting death bed confessions, Christian Spurling claimed in 1994 at the age of 93, that the surgeon’s photo had been a hoax.  According to Spurling, his step-father Marmaduke Wetherell, was smarting over his hippo-foot humiliation.  Spurling remembers Wetherell saying “We’ll give them their monster”, and asking his stepson to build a credible model of a marine creature.  And so he did, the photo was taken, and Dr. Wilson became the respectable front man for the hoax.

Crypto

An entire study called “Cryptozoology” (literally, the study of hidden animals) has sprung up around Nessie and other beasts whose existence is never quite proven, and never completely debunked. There is Big Foot, who seems to have made it to stardom with his own series of beef jerky commercials. You have the Chupacabra, the Yeti, Ogopogo, Vermont’s own Lake Champlain monster, “Champ”, and more.

And yet, some of these critters have proven to be, very real. The terrifying ‘Kraken’ of sailor’s lore was likely a colossal squid, now known to gain lengths up to 46-feet. Before the age of King George III, readers scoffed at the notion of a venomous, egg-laying mammal with the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the webbed feet, of an otter. Until one was discovered, in 1799. Today we know that little guy, as the duck-billed platypus. The Coelacanth was ‘known’ to be extinct since the late cretaceous, until one of them popped up in a fisherman’s net, in 1938.

Hundreds of images have been taken over the years, purporting to demonstrate that these critters do exist. Some were transparent hoaxes, for others there is less certainty. In the end, people will believe what they want to believe. The existence of these mythical creatures may never be proven, short of one of them washing up on shore somewhere. Even then, someone will take to social media, to argue otherwise.

September 19, 1862 Old Douglas, the Confederate Camel

The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. The animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help.

The Cedar Hill Cemetery, established by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, contains the final resting place of some 5,000 Confederate Soldiers who died in the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each one stands in memory of a soldier killed in the line of duty.

Even the one with the camel on it.

The story begins with Jefferson Davis, in the 1840s. We remember him today as the President of the Confederate States of America. Then, he was a United States Senator from Mississippi, with a pet project of introducing camels into the United States.

Re-introducing them might be more like it.  Today, the distribution of these animals is almost the inverse of their area of origin.  According to the fossil record, the earliest camelids first appeared on the North American continent, these even-toed ungulates ancestor to the Alpaca, Llama, Guanaco and Vicuña of today.

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Jefferson Davis’ experiment was to be the first large-scale re-introduction of these animals on the North American continent, in geologic history.

Davis envisioned the day when every southern planter would have a stable full of camels. In the kind of pork barrel tit-for-tat spending deal beloved of Congressmen to this day, the senator bslid $30,000 into a highway appropriations bill, to get the support of a fellow senator from Illinois.

Camel Corps

The measure failed, but in the 1850s, then-Secretary of War Davis persuaded President Franklin Pierce that camels were the military super weapons of the future. Able to carry greater loads over longer distances than any other pack animal, Davis saw camels as the high tech weapon of the age. Horses and mules were dying by the hundreds in the hot, dry conditions of Southwestern Cavalry outposts when the government purchased 75 camels from Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Several camel handlers came along in the bargain, one of them a Syrian named Haji Ali, who successfully implemented a camel breeding program. Haji Ali was a character and became quite the celebrity in the West Texas outpost. The soldiers called the man “Hi Jolly”.

When the Civil War broke out, Camp Verde, Texas had about 60 camels. The King of Siam, (now Thailand), saw the military advantage to the Confederacy and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln. “Here”, he wrote, “we use elephants”. The King went on to propose bringing elephants into the Northwest, to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than that one letter to the President, but the imagination does run wild, doesn’t it. The idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg….

Hi Jolly Cemetery

The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. The animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help. A camel will not passively accept a riding crop or a whip. They are vengeful, and can spit stinking wads of phlegm with great accuracy over considerable distances. If they’re close enough, they will rake the skin off your face with their front teeth. Camels have even been known to trample people to death.

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Douglas, the Confederate Camel

Cut loose, one of those Texas camels somehow made its way to Mississippi, where he was taken into service with the 43rd Infantry Regiment, who named him “Douglas”.

Douglas wouldn’t permit himself to be tethered, but he always stuck around so he was allowed to graze on his own. Southern soldiers became accustomed to the sight of “Old Douglas”. The 43rd Mississippi became known as the “Camel Regiment,” but the horses never did get used to their new companion. On this day in 1862, Major General Sterling Price was preparing to face two Union armies at Iuka, when the sight of Old Douglas spooked the regimental horses. One horse’s panic turned into a stampede, injuring several and possibly killing one or two.

The 43rd Infantry was ordered to Vicksburg during General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of the city, when Douglas was shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter. Enraged by the murder of their prized camel, the 5th Missouri’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Bevier enlisted six of his best snipers, who stalked the killer until one of them had his revenge. Bevier later said of Douglas’ killer, “I refused to hear his name, and was rejoiced to learn that he had been severely wounded.”

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So it is that there is a camel at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He is not forgotten. Douglas and other camels of the era are remembered by the Texas Camel Corps, a cross between a zoo and a living history exhibit.

The organizations website begins with: “Texas Camel Corps was established to educate the public about the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century”. I might just have to check those guys out.

Tip of the hat to www.texascamelcorps.com for the sunset image, above.

August 31, 1959 Sergeant Reckless

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations both from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

A Recoilless Rifle is a type of lightweight tube artillery. Think of a portable cannon. Kind of a bazooka, really, only the Recoilless fires modified shells rather than rockets. The back blast of the shell compensates for the mule’s kick which would otherwise be expected from such a weapon, making the rifle “recoilless”.

While it reduces projectile range, reduced gas pressures permit a thinner-walled barrel, resulting in a weapon light enough to be served by a 2 to 3-man crew and shoulder fired by a single infantryman.

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The “RCLR” weapon system has provided the punch of artillery to mobile troop formations since the early days of WWII including Airborne, Special Forces and Mountain units.

The problem arises when combat operations consume ammunition faster than the supply chain can replace it. Mountainous terrain makes the situation worse. Over the last 20 years in the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan, there were times when the best solution for the problem, is horsepower.

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Ah Chim-hai was a chestnut mare of mixed Mongolian and Thoroughbred lineage, a race horse at the track in Seoul, South Korea. Her name translated as “Flame of the Morning”.

Lieutenant Eric Pedersen of the recoilless rifle platoon, anti-tank company of the 5th Marine Regiment, needed a pack animal to carry the weapon’s 24-pound shells up Korean mountain passes. In October 1952, Pederson received permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, to buy a horse for his platoon.

Lt. Pederson and stable boy Kim Huk-moon agreed on a price of $250, and Pederson paid with his own money. Kim cried on watching his “Flame” leave the stable, but the sale had a higher purpose.  The boy’s sister had stepped on a land mine, and badly needed a prosthetic leg.

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The Marines called the new recruit “Reckless” – a nod to the weapon system she was meant to serve, and to the fighting spirit of the 5th Marines.

Pederson wrote to his wife in California to send a pack saddle, while Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham and Private First Class Monroe Coleman provided for her care and training.

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Navy Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell provided most of Reckless’ medical care, Latham taught her battlefield skills: how to step over communication wires, when to lie down under fire, how to avoid becoming entangled in barbed wire. She learned to run for cover at the cry “Incoming!”

The platoon built her a bunker and fenced off a pasture, but soon Reckless was allowed to roam freely throughout the camp. She’d enter tents at will, sometimes spending the night if it was cold.

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She’d eat anything: bacon, mashed potatoes, shredded wheat. She loved scrambled eggs and just about anything else a Marine wasn’t watching closely enough. Reckless even ate her own horse blanket once, and she loved a to have a beer. Mitchell had to warn his fellow Marines against giving her more than two Cokes a day, which she’d drink out of a helmet. One time, Reckless ate $30 worth of winning poker chips.

General Randolph McCall Pate, a veteran of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Korea, served as the 21st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 – ’59.  Pate wrote: “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”  Reckless was a Marine.

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Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t do much as bother to look up, happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

Recoilless rifle tactics call for fire teams to expend four or five rounds, and then relocate before the enemy can shoot back. Reckless usually learned the route after one or two trips, often traveling alone to deliver supplies on the way up, and evacuate wounded on the way down.

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In February 1953, Captain Dick Kurth and his Fox Company were fighting for a hill called “Detroit”. Reckless made 24 trips by herself, carrying a total 3,500-pounds of ammunition over 20 miles. She made 51 solo trips that March, during the battle for Outpost Vegas. Reckless carried 9,000lbs of ammunition in a single day, over 35 miles of open rice paddies and steep hills. At times, artillery exploded around her at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. That night, she was too exhausted to do anything but hang her head while they rubbed her down.

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations both from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

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On August 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. 1,900 of her 5th Marine comrades attended, as did two of her sons, “Fearless” and “Dauntless”. A third, “Chesty”, was unavailable to attend.

General Pate wrote: “In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless.”

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Life Magazine published a collector’s edition in 1997, listing 100 heroes from American history. Alongside the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Sally Ride and Abraham Lincoln, was that of a small Mongolian horse. Sergeant Reckless.

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July 31, 1920 Jackie

Jackie marched with his company in a special uniform and cap complete with buttons, regimental badges, and a hole for his tail.

In 1915, Albert Marr and his family lived at a farm called Cheshire just outside Pretoria, South Africa. It was there that he found a small Chacma baboon and adopted the monkey, as a pet. He called the animal, “Jackie”.

The Great War had not yet reached it second year when Marr was sworn into the 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade.  He was now Private Albert Marr, #4927.

Albert Marr, Jackie

Private Marr asked for permission to bring Jackie along.   Mascots are good for morale in times of war, a fact about which military authorities, were well aware.

To Marr’s great surprise, permission was granted. It wasn’t long before Jackie became the official Regimental Mascot.

Jackie drew rations like any other soldier, eating at the mess table, using his knife and fork and washing it all down with his own drinking basin. He even knew how to use a teacup.

Jackie drilled and marched with his company in a special uniform and cap complete with buttons, regimental badges, and a hole for his tail.

He would entertain the men during quiet periods, lighting their pipes and cigarettes and saluting officers as they passed on their rounds.  He learned to stand at ease when ordered, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back, regimental style.

These two inseparable buddies, Albert Marr and Jackie, first saw combat during the Senussi Campaign in North Africa. On February 26, 1916, Albert took a bullet in the shoulder at the Battle of Agagia. The monkey, beside himself with agitation, licked the wound and did everything he could to comfort the stricken man.  It was this incident more than any other that marked Jackie’s transformation from pet and mascot, to a full-fledged member and comrade, of the regiment.

Jackie would accompany Albert at night, on guard duty.  Marr soon learned to trust Jackie’s keen eyesight and acute hearing.  The monkey was almost always first to know about enemy movements or impending attack, sounding an early warning with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.

The pair went through the nightmare of Delville Wood together early in the Somme campaign, when the First South African Infantry held its position despite eighty percent casualties. 

The third Battle of Ypres, known as the battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The pair experienced the sucking, nightmare mud of that place and the desperate fighting, around Kemmel Hill.  The two were at Belleau Wood, a mostly American operation in which Marine Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, was famously informed he was surrounded, by Germans.  “Retreat?” Williams snorted, “hell, we just got here.”

Through all of it, Marr and Jackie come through World War 1 mostly unscathed.  That all changed in April, 1918.

Withdrawing through the West Flanders region of Belgium, the South African brigade came under heavy bombardment. Jackie was frantically building a wall of stones around himself, a shelter from the hammer blow concussion of the shells and the storm of flying metal buzzing through the air, as angry hornets. A jagged piece of shrapnel wounded Jackie’s arm and another all but tore off the animal’s leg.  Even then, Jackie refused to be carried off by the stretcher-bearers, trying instead to finish his wall as he hobbled about on the bloody stump which had once been, his leg.

Jackie Portrait

Lt. Colonel R. N. Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps described the scene:  “It was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, ‘You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery’. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm.  We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds…It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could.  He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: ‘He is on army strength’. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station”.

No one was quite sure that the chloroform used for the operation, wouldn’t kill him. When the officer commanding the regiment went to the aid station to check on him Jackie sat up in bed, and saluted.

As the “War to End All Wars” drew to a close, Jackie was promoted to the rank of Corporal and given a medal, for bravery. He may be the only monkey in history, ever to be so honored.

The war ended that November. Jackie and Albert were shipped to England and soon became, media celebrities. The two were hugely successful raising money for the widows and orphans fund, where members of the public could shake Jackie’s hand for half a crown. A kiss on the baboon’s cheek, would cost you five shillings.

Fundraising, in London

On his arm he wore a gold wound stripe and three blue service chevrons, one for each of his three years’ front line service.

Jackie was the center of attention on arriving home to South Africa when a parade was held, officially welcoming the Regiment home. On July 31, 1920, Jackie received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal, at the Peace Parade in Church Square, Pretoria.

All thing must come to an end. The Marr family farm burned to the ground in May 1921.  Jackie died in the fire. Albert Marr lived to the age of 84 and passed away, in 1973.  There wasn’t a day in-between when the man didn’t miss his little battle buddy Jackie, the baboon who went to war.

July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K9, of WW2

“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network

By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   

Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”

He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life.  It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.

July 6, 1916 Jersey Shore

Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins. That information was unavailable in 1916.

As Spring gives way to Summer, kids of all ages exchange school bags for beach bags. Sports practices and homework are over, for now. We grown-ups can enjoy the last hours of the weekday, under the warmth of the sun.

Gone are the days when the warmth of summer brought with it, the horrors of polio.  We have no idea how fortunate we are.

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In pre-1955 America and around much of the world, Summer was a time of dread. TIME Magazine offered what solace it could, in 1946: “for many a parent who had lived through the nightmare fear of polio, there was some statistical encouragement: in 1916, 25% of polio’s victims died. This year, thanks to early recognition of the disease and improved treatment (iron lungs, physical therapy, etc.) the death rate is down to 5%.”

Polio is as old as antiquity but major outbreaks are all but unknown, until the 20th century. The 1916 outbreak was particularly severe. Nationally, some 6,000 died of the disease that summer. New York City alone suffered 9,000 cases of polio, forcing a city-wide quarantine.

“Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.”

Richard Rhodes, A Hole in the World

To make matters worse, the epidemic took place during one of the hottest Summers in memory, the twin threats of heat and disease driving millions to seek relief at nearby lakes, streams and beaches.

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On July 1, 1916, twenty-five-year-old Charles Epting Vansant of Philadelphia was vacationing with family, at the Engleside Hotel on the Jersey shore. Just before dinner, Vansant took a swim with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, who was playing on the beach. Vansant began to shout and bathers thought he was calling to the dog, but shouts soon turned to screams. As lifeguard Alexander Ott and bystander Sheridan Taylor pulled the man to shore, they could see the shark, following.

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Charles Vansant’s left thigh was stripped to the bone. He was brought to the Engleside hotel where he bled to death on the front desk.

Despite the incident, beaches remained open all along the Jersey Shore. Sea captains entering the ports of Newark and New York reported numbers of large sharks swarming off the Jersey shore but such reports received little attention.

The next major shark attack occurred five days later, on July 6. Forty-five miles north of Engleside, Essex & Sussex Hotel bell captain Charles Bruder was swimming near the resort town of Spring Lake. Hearing screams, one woman notified lifeguards that a red canoe had capsized, and lay just below the surface.  Lifeguards Chris Anderson and George White rowed out to the spot to discover Bruder, legless, with a shark bite to his abdomen. The twenty-seven year old Swiss army veteran bled to death before ever regaining the shore.

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Authorities and the press downplayed the first incident. The New York Times reported that Vansant “was badly bitten in the surf … by a fish, presumably a shark.” Pennsylvania State Fish Commissioner and former director of the Philadelphia Aquarium James M. Meehan opined that “Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to bite the dog and snapped at the man in passing“.

Response to the second incident was altogether different.  Newspapers from the Boston Herald to the San Francisco Chronicle ran the story front page, above the fold. The New York Times went all-in: “Shark Kills Bather Off Jersey Beach“.

A trio of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History held a press conference on July 8, declaring a third such incident unlikely. Be that as it may, John Treadwell Nichols, the only ichthyologist among the three, warned swimmers to stay close to shore, and take advantage of netted bathing areas.

Rumors went into high gear, as an armed motorboat claimed to have chased a shark off Spring Creek Beach.  Asbury Park Beach was closed after lifeguard Benjamin Everingham claimed to have beaten a 12-footer back, with an oar.

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New Jersey resort owners suffered a blizzard of cancellations and a loss of revenue estimated at $5.6 million in 2017 dollars.  In some areas, bathing declined by as much as 75%.

Scores of people died in the oppressive heat.  Newspapers reported twenty-six fatalities, in Chicago alone.  Air conditioning, invented in 1902, would not be widely available until the 1920s.  Rural areas had yet to be electrified.

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Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins.

That information wasn’t available in 1916.

As the heat wave dragged on, lakes and rivers crowded with bathers from Gary, Indiana to Manchester, New Hampshire.  In New Jersey, ocean beaches remained closed with the exception of the 4th Ave. Beach at Asbury Park, enclosed with a steel-wire-mesh fence and patrolled by armed motorboats.

Eleven miles from the ocean, Matawan New Jersey had little to fear, from sharks. Locals sought relief from the heat in Matawan Creek, a brackish water estuary in the Marlboro Township of Monmouth County.  With fresh waters flowing from Baker’s Brook down the salinity gradient to the full-salt waters of Keyport Harbor, Matawan Creek seemed more at risk for snapping turtles and snakes, than sharks.

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“Photo showing the Matawan Creek near its mouth in Keyport and Aberdeen Township, New Jersey. Photo taken from the Front Street / Amoby Road (County Route 6) bridge looking north”. H/T Wikipedia

On July 12, several boys including eleven-year-old epileptic Lester Stilwell were swimming near Wykoff Dock when the boys spotted an “old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log.” The boys scattered when that old log turned out to have a dorsal fin, but Lester Stilwell wasn’t fast enough.

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Many dismissed the rantings of five naked, hysterical boys, believing that no shark could be this far inland.  Twenty-four year old tailor Stanley Fisher came running, knowing that the boy suffered from epilepsy.  Arthur Smith and George Burlew joined in the effort, by now clearly a recovery and no longer a rescue. The trio got in a boat and probed with an oar and some poles, but…nothing. They were about to give up the search when Fisher dove in the water.  He actually found the boy’s body, and began to swim to shore.

Matawan Creek
Matawan Creek

Townspeople lining the creek looked on in horror, as Fisher now came under attack.

Stanley Fisher made it to shore though his right thigh was severely injured, an eighteen-inch chunk of his thigh gone, and an artery severed. The man would bleed to death at Monmouth Hospital, before the day was over.

The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 claimed a fifth and final victim thirty minutes later, when 12-year old Joseph Dunn of New York city was bitten a half-mile from the Stilwell and Fisher attacks. A savage tug-of war ensued between Dunn’s brother Michael and sixteen-year-old Jeremiah Hourihan, with local attorney Jacob Lefferts jumping into the water, to help. The boy survived but the damage to his left leg, was severe.  He wouldn’t be discharged from the hospital, until September 15.

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Based on the style of the attacks and glimpses of the shark(s) themselves, the attacks may have been those of Bull sharks, or juvenile Great Whites.  Massive shark hunts were carried out all over the east coast, resulting in the death of hundreds of animals.  Whether all five attacks were carried out by a single animal or many, remains unclear.

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At the time, the story resulted in international hysteria. Now, the tale is all but unknown, but for the people of Matawan. Stanley’s grave sits on a promontory at the Rose Hill Cemetery, overlooking Lester’s grave, below. People still stop from time to time, leaving flowers, toys and other objects. Perhaps they’re paying tribute. A small token of respect. Homage to the courage of those who would jump into the water, in the face of our most primordial fear.

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