When People Thought Sharks Were Harmless


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.”

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at

Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]


More from mental floss studios