This Was Then: Shark!

On the hunt for the monster of the sea.

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Up-Island fisherman Dan Look (1867-1924) stands beside a rare Great White Shark. Menemsha, circa 1910-20.

About 1840, a Dr. Gale of Holmes Hole found several oversized shark teeth in a roadside excavation in the north part of Chilmark, on the road to Tisbury. The largest was an astonishing 4 inches by 4 inches in size. He showed it to Edward Hitchcock, state geologist of Massachusetts, who soon learned about similar teeth found in Gay Head.

“What a monster!” wrote Hitchcock. “The lowest estimate would make this shark more than 60 feet in length. What a mouth! With an opening 6 or 8 feet wide, thickly serrated with several rows probably, of these enormous teeth … It would seem that such huge fishes were not uncommon once on the coast of Massachusetts. In comparison, it will hardly be proper for us to speak of any present puny inhabitant of the ocean as monsters of the deep, unless the famous sea serpent should prove as gigantic.” His assessment of the length of megalodon, as it would soon be named by scientist Louis Agassiz, was right on the money — most modern scientists estimate the maximum length of this creature at about 60 feet. A gargantuan, predatory cousin of the great white, megalodon became extinct several million years ago.

But modern sharks can hardly be described as “puny.” About 15 species swim in our waters today, from the common sandbar shark to the rare, endangered scalloped hammerhead. They range from small dogfish, just 3 or 4 feet in length, to the massive basking shark, which can be as long as 40 feet — longer than a full-size school bus.

Sharks made tempting prey for sport fishermen. “Amateurs in sea-ports are having great fun amongst the sharks in the vicinity of Martha’s Vineyard,” reported a number of newspapers in 1847; “Two gentlemen with a boat hand succeeded in taking 40, from 10 to 12 feet in length. One shark weighed 500 lbs.” A reporter for the New-York Evangelist wrote of Edgartown in 1853, “Sharking is made a business by some of the residents … The livers are tried for oil, and the bodies used for manuring the land. I saw two mounds which covered, together, 123 carcasses of the slain, decomposing to be scattered on the soil.”

One massive behemoth, a 28-foot basking shark, beached itself at Menemsha Bight in 1858. Six yoke of oxen were hitched to the beast to haul it to higher ground, but they could not budge it. They reportedly tried its liver to yield six barrels of oil. The New Bedford Standard concluded, “We don’t recommend Gay Head as a ‘watering place,’ as it would be rather a poor place for bathing with such monsters around.” (Shark’s liver oil, it should be noted, was commonly sold as “cod liver oil” by the early 20th century. In 1912, it was selling for $73 a ton.)

Another huge basking shark beached itself in Menemsha Creek in 1921. “A party of fishermen was gathered there, spinning yarns, when a fin that looked like the conning tower of a submarine came into sight, speeding into [Menemsha] lagoon,” reported the Boston Globe. “The great shark sent the fishermen scurrying to shelter.” Linus Jeffers of Gay Head and Benjamin Mayhew of Chilmark finally killed the poor animal, which became stranded after the tide went out. The 26-foot, 6-inch monster was stuffed by local artist Frank West, and the massive specimen was delivered to the Boston Society of Natural History’s museum.”

The artist’s son, Pat West of Vineyard Haven, told the story to Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in a 1999 interview: “It was a big job. ’Cause we’re going to keep the same skin, the natural skin, and put it over a mannequin. I was a kid then, and I helped my father move that big skin around a lot. And we were paring it down thin, and every time we cut through the skin we had to sew it up tight again. What a job! That skin was partially cured with salt so that it didn’t get rotten. We kept working salt into it and carving it down thinner and thinner so it would stretch over a mold. My father made a shark-shaped body out of wood and put that skin over it. As far as I know, it’s the only shark of that size that was made with its own skin. Big job!

“It was quite a spectacular exhibit there. When you went into the front hall in the museum, there was a big flight of stairs, and the big shark was up at the head of the stairs and it looked quite spectacular. It looked like it might be very dangerous to a human being, with a great big mouth, but there were no teeth in it. (chuckle) No teeth in it.”

Basking sharks feed on plankton, and are harmless to humans. They still beach themselves periodically at Menemsha and Aquinnah. “During my time on the island,” writes biologist Dr. Greg Skomal, “I dissected two beached basking sharks — one, close to 30 feet, in Aquinnah in the early 2000s; and one about 20 to 25 feet, circa 1990, on Lobsterville Beach.”

One wealthy young inventor and gun enthusiast, Samuel Mead of New York City, planned a “shark-shooting frolic” at Martha’s Vineyard with some companions in 1875. The 24-year-old Mead had patented a number of firearms improvements, including an explosive shell used for big game hunting, and a Gatling gun in which the recoil from one shot would automatically load the next, provided the cartridge hopper was kept filled. As he rushed to leave his house and embark on this Vineyard expedition to obliterate sharks with his homemade machine gun, Mead’s hair-trigger weapon struck a piece of furniture, discharging a bullet into his forehead and killing him instantly.

Today, Massachusetts law prohibits the hunting of basking, white, and many other species of shark. “I often wonder what became of that shark in the years that followed,” West told Lee about his father’s exhibit in Boston. “I think they discarded it. I can’t imagine that skin lasted forever. It began to smell.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.