In August of 1640, an English-born laborer stepped off from the sandy shoreline of one of Maryland’s tidal rivers — and into the maw of history. He had only just begun wading in when a “huge fish” sunk its jaws into his thigh and tore away a giant chunk of flesh.
The man died, but a written record of his gory demise survived. The only physical copies, though, were inscribed in Latin and shipped back to Europe, soon to be forgotten.
Flash forward nearly 400 years. A pair of unlikely collaborators — a former federal marine scientist and a physician who moonlights as a history book author — has rescued the account from obscurity to make a bold claim: This was the first documented fatal shark attack in North America. (Read their research paper here.)
The 1640 incident predates by two years an attack off what is now New York City, currently listed by the Shark Research Institute as the earliest recorded unprovoked shark attack on the continent. And there’s strong reason to believe that it was a fiction sprung from the mind of Washington Irving, who wrote about it in an 1809 work.
Kent Mountford, the retired scientist, and Richard Fernicola, the physician, assert that the report of the deadly encounter in the Chesapeake appears credible. And they’re reasonably sure what type of shark did him in: a bull shark.
“We’re almost guaranteeing that this is the shark that killed this man,” Mountford said.
As a senior estuarine researcher with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mountford was an early architect of the science behind the Chesapeake Bay Program, the multi-state and federal effort to restore the Bay. He retired in 2000. By then, he had already begun penning a column for the Bay Journal. Dubbed “Past as Prologue,” it often explored the region’s environmental history.
One of those columns led to the shark project. In 2010, he dove into the history behind Maryland’s then-recent purchase of more than 4,000 acres of land from the Society of Jesus, Maryland Province. Mountford devoted most of his related column to detailing the state’s Catholic origins. The shark story only made a cameo in the 26th paragraph.
Years passed before Fernicola stumbled across the column online. “I was completely struck by it in passing because it converged with multiple interests of my own,” Fernicola said.
The New Jersey-based physician had made a name for himself in the shark research community with the publication of a book, Twelve Days of Terror. It is one of the most complete accounts of the spate of deadly incidents off the Jersey Shore in 1916 that set into motion the nation’s fascination with — and fear of — sharks.
“He just went bonkers when he saw this in the Bay Journal,” Mountford recalled.
Bull Sharks do come into the bay in summer, and are occasionally caught in pound nets. As far as I know they've not been caught on hook and line, probably because they bite off, or simply over power and break off the tackle normally used for our usual targets. Everybody has a story of the big one that got away.
The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Late Night With Bri Teresi up on time at The Other McCain.
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