Contact: Alana Watkins, 212-782-8941
|Now in paperback, the acclaimed New York Times bestseller
A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence
"Deserves a place among the adventure classics."
--The New Yorker
"A powerful page-turner that will keep you out of the water for another year."
"A remarkable storyÉa flash photo of the moment when our fascination with sharks transformed from awe into mortal dreadÉWhat you have here, folks, is the first great beach book of the seasonÉjust be careful which beach you read it on. A-."
In July 1916--almost sixty years before the movie Jaws ignited
a nationwide shark phobia--a single "rogue shark" terrorized the
New Jersey shore, sparking a panic that kept beach-goers out of
the water, inciting frenzied coverage in the press, and launching
the greatest shark hunt in history. While talk of the "sea monster"
and "man-eating shark" dominated the headlines at the time, even
overshadowing reports of the European war that would soon involve
the United States, few today know the incredible story of America's
first documented cases of deadly shark attacks on swimmers--until
In CLOSE TO SHORE: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence
(Broadway Books; May 8, 2001; Hardcover; $24.95), Michael
Capuzzo presents a thrilling, richly detailed account of the shark's
killing spree and the people and society forever changed by it.
A four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and accomplished feature writer
for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald, Capuzzo conducted
exhaustive research into the shark attacks of 1916, drawing on a
wide range of cultural, historic, and scientific sources. Re-creating
the shark's journey and describing the natural instincts that motivated
its ceaseless hunt for natural prey, he sheds light on the long-standing
mystery of what led a shark to turn into the equivalent of a serial
killer. He also portrays in vivid, colorful fashion America in the
last summer before it went to war, showing why the public was so
unprepared for these attacks--and then so devastated by them.
In Part One, Capuzzo cleverly -- and ominously -- alternates between
depictions of the shark's relentless journey north in search of
food and the arrival of its first victim and his family at a beach
resort community that, in light of what is to come, is rather ironically
named "Beach Haven." Incorporating fascinating information about
sharks (for example, that "pups" in the womb attack one another),
Capuzzo describes the shifts in currents and temperature that bring
the shark close to the New Jersey shore, and its distinctive physiological
traits that make it nature's most perfect killing machine.
Simultaneously, Capuzzo portrays the arrival of Philadelphians Dr.
Eugene LaRue Vansant and his family, with their steamer trunks and
servants in tow. Beach-going was a relatively new fashion at the
time, both for the Vansant family, part of a rapidly growing affluent
middle class looking for ways to spend their newly acquired leisure
time, and the burgeoning immigrant and working classes, now able
to take day trips thanks to improvements in transportation. With
record numbers of visitors, the beach of 1916 was where "the dissolution
of the formal nineteenth-century world was first revealed," the
site of such "shocking" modern developments as scandalously revealing
swimming costumes and the trend for both sexes to enjoy themselves
in the open waters. For Dr. Vansant's son, Charles, swimming was
an opportunity to show off his masculine athleticism, and at day's
end, he happily began a swim -- and met a gruesome fate.
Even though onlookers on shore witnessed the fatal attack on Charles,
the idea that a shark was responsible was met with skepticism, and
the story was barely picked up in the press. At the time, the notion
of a "man-eating shark" was considered as much a myth as anything
out of Jules Verne, and even expert scientists claimed it impossible
for a shark to bite through human bone. Thus no warnings were issued
to other coastal areas, and the shark was free to continue its hunt,
first near the wealthy community of Spring Lake (and President Wilson's
summer residence in Long Branch), and then, quite incredibly, some
fifteen miles from the sea, in a creek near the small town of Matawan.
In an all-too-real version of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf," a local
youth who while swimming in the creek felt the shark's razor-sharp
skin brush against him in the murky water screamed "Shark!" only
to be met with disbelief. The shark, even more disoriented and agitated,
was thus able to resume its spree, claiming several more victims,
including, most tragically, the town's favorite son in the midst
of a rescue attempt.
With a string of victims now confirmed, attacks became an early
media event. The "American impulse to make entertainment out of
tragedy," the author writes, resulted in the shore being inundated
not only with reporters but also with curious onlookers and packs
of amateur bounty hunters determined to destroy the shark by any
means necessary. One visitor, and one of the many compelling individuals
whom Capuzzo artfully brings to life, was John Treadwell Nichols,
a distinguished ichthyologist working for the American Museum of
Natural History. Functioning like a beachside detective, Nichols
was determined to identify the creature responsible for the killings,
initially believing it to be a killer whale. What he witnessed in
Matawan would soon change his own views dramatically, as well as
those of the scientific community at large. Sharks, the world would
quickly learn, were quite capable of attacking humans. And, as the
final harrowing battle between man and shark demonstrates, man could
Capuzzo's extensive journalistic experience is put to effective
use in re-creating this dramatic true story, as his riveting descriptive
prose continually creates a "you are there" intensity for readers.
Nowhere is this more apparent, and more gripping, than in the book's
descriptions of the various shark attacks. ("The great jaws rose
from the water, a white protective membrane rolled over the eyes,
fifty triangular teeth closed with more than six tons of pressure
per square inch, and man and fish splashed in a spreading pool of
blood."). Capuzzo is just as skilled in instilling a vivid sense
of time and place, putting readers directly in this distinctive
historical moment. The book is filled with insightful observations
about American history and culture, from the rise of feminism expressed
in bathing costumes to the arrival of a menacing German U-boat that
summer in Baltimore Harbor that Americans associated with the man-eating
shark. Both, Capuzzo writes, were seen "as invading twins of darkness
on an innocent American shore."
With CLOSE TO SHORE, Michael Capuzzo succeeds in weaving
an utterly electrifying nonfiction narrative, one rich in period
detail but with all the action and thrills of a summer movie blockbuster.
About the Author
Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize four times, and a National Magazine
Award Finalist, Michael Capuzzo has been a feature writer
for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald.
His stories have also appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated,
Life, and Reader's Digest. He lives with his wife
and two children in rural New Jersey.
CLOSE TO SHORE: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence
By Michael Capuzzo
Published by Broadway Books
On sale: May 21, 2002
ISBN: 0-7679-0414-1; $14.95; Trade Paperback Reprint
For more information, contact:
Alana Watkins, Broadway Books, 212-782-8941, firstname.lastname@example.org.