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When People Thought Sharks Were Harmless

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In 1891, businessman and millionaire Hermann Oelrichs had some friends over to his seaside home to prove once and for all that sharks were as harmless as kittens. They simply didn’t have the desire for human flesh, he believed, and he jumped into the water with one to prove it. Oelrichs settled a $250 bet with his party stunt—and furthermore, he offered $500 to anyone who could offer proof of a real shark attack.

By the time Oelrichs died in 1906 (liver problems, not sharks), the money had gone unclaimed. Unfortunately, had he lived another 10 years, he would have had to pay up.

The first of the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks happened on July 1, 1916, when tourist Charles Vansant was bitten in the waters off Beach Haven. Though the shark let go of Vansant after its initial attack, it grabbed him again as men attempted to pull the 25-year-old to shore. Witnesses later swore the shark stayed latched on almost until Vansant was pulled onto the beach. His femoral artery severed, Vansant died at a nearby hotel.

Another attack happened on July 6, 1916 in Spring Lake, New Jersey. At first, when the water turned red, people were confused. One woman believed a man in a red canoe had tipped his boat. When lifeguards got to him, they discovered that both of his legs had been bitten off at the knee [PDF]. The man, later identified as a local bellhop named Charles Bruder, died on the beach before more help could arrive.

Even these horrific deaths weren’t enough to convince everyone that sharks were responsible. The attacks were the work of sea turtles, some theorized, or perhaps a large mackerel. And why would the public be concerned? The Fish Commissioner of Pennsylvania himself, James Meehan, was quoted in the Philadelphia Public Ledger as saying, “I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters.”

So, people kept swimming—and dying. The following week, it was 11-year-old Lester Stillwell, who was playing in Matawan Creek 16 miles inland. Local businessman Watson Stanley Fisher was trying to bring Stillwell in from the water when he, too, was attacked by the shark. Fisher bled to death hours later at the hospital; Stillwell's body wasn't recovered for several days. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn was also bitten that afternoon, but lived to tell the tale.

The tide of public opinion turned rather quickly. Many of the same people who had been proclaiming sharks as misunderstood less than two weeks before now called for the destruction of the fish. What followed, according to the book Twelve Days of Terror, was "the largest scale animal hunt in history." Hundreds of sharks were killed, including the one believed to be the "Jersey man-eater." The animal was captured by Barnum & Bailey animal trainer Michael Schleisser, who was armed with nothing but a net and an oar. An examination of its stomach revealed at least 15 pounds of human body parts.

On July 14, The New York Times printed what was now painfully clear: “SCIENCE ADMITS ITS ERROR,” the headline read. “No Longer Doubted That Big Fish Attack Men.”

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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