Toothy tales: A very incomplete history of sharks on Cape Cod

Sharks make headlines all the time on Cape Cod these days, so I started to wonder: have they always been in the news? That led me to the awesome Sturgis Library's digital newspaper archive, an incredible resource for Cape Codders who enjoy taking a look at local history.

The archive includes issues of the Barnstable Patriot (from 1830 to 2017) and the Yarmouth Register (from 1836 to 2017). So I took a spin back in time and followed the sharks. Below, you'll see some of what I came up with on a journey from 1848 to 1936, ending with coverage of a fatal shark attack in Mattapoisett in 1936.

Menemsha fisherman Stanley Larsen holds the jaws of a great white shark he caught in 1983 while swordfishing off Georges Bank. He said the fish was 20-feet long and weighed 3,000 pounds.
Menemsha fisherman Stanley Larsen holds the jaws of a great white shark he caught in 1983 while swordfishing off Georges Bank. He said the fish was 20-feet long and weighed 3,000 pounds.

While a lot of news coverage today is about conservation and swimmer safety, back then it seemed folks liked to fish for sharks and were also frequently irked when they got caught in weirs and nets. The articles also touch on the rise of "bathers" enjoying a swim in Cape waters.

Editor's note: The spelling, punctuation and format of the following news excerpts have not been edited or corrected before reprinting. The original text has been preserved for accuracy reasons. 

Shark and seal safety guidelines: What Cape Cod beachgoers need to know

Barnstable Patriot, Wednesday, July 05, 1848

A real shark, a man eater, was captured off Cape Cod, on the 23d ult., after great trouble, and doing considerable damage to the boat in which his captors were. He measures about 18 feet in length, and 7 feet around the body. He will be exhibited at the old Museum building, corner of Bromfield and Tremont streets, tomorrow.

Yarmouth Register, Thursday, August 03, 1848

SHARKS.—The good people of Nantucket have recently entered a new branch of business — no other than fishing for Sharks! About a dozen persons have captured during the last month some 1,100 of these fish, realizing about $800 therefrom. The fish yield each over a gallon of oil, worth 40 cents per gallon, and the carcasses bring 10 cents apiece. The above we gather from the Nantucket Mirror, but what use is made of these carcasses the Mirror does not state. A man must be rather "sharkish" to eat them.

Barnstable Patriot, Wednesday, October 18, 1848; Page: 2

Fishy, but true — A shark, about six feet long, caught a short time since in Buzzard's Bay, on being opened, was found to contain a puffing pig (not of the human species,) and 66 menhaden, whole, unmarked and unbroken by teeth. — Nantucket Mirror.

Reporter's note: Harbor porpoises were sometimes called "puffing pigs" because of the sound they make when they breathe.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution study: Can humans, sharks and seals coexist on the Cape? These folks say yes.

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, January 29, 1850

A Prize. —  A large winter Shark was drove ashore in the storm of the 20th, at Cotuit Port. It was 15 feet in length, and his liver made 15 gallons of oil.

Yarmouth Register, Friday, January 26, 1855

Mr. Flint spoke of the bodies of sharks in Nantucket weighing eight, tell, or twelve hundred weight. These, were sold to farmers at ten cents apiece to convert into fertilizing matter, after the captors had taken out the liver with the oil. These might aid in causing moisture.

Yarmouth Register, Friday, June 05, 1857

BONE SHARK. — A bone shark, thirty feet in length, was taken in a mackerel net in Provincetown, last Monday morning. He yielded one and a half tons of liver. This filled twelve barrels, and will make about eight barrels of oil. It is the largest shark ever taken in that harbor. He enfolded himself in the net and sunk it to the bottom, but was pulled up alive and then killed. It is thought the skin of this shark may be preserved and presented to the Boston Natural History Society. A gentleman went from Boston to Provincetown on Tuesday to take an accurate drawing of this shark.

Reporter's note: Basking sharks were sometimes called bone sharks.

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, September 20, 1859

On Thursday of last week, Mr. J. Smith, of Long Point, espied a large shark swimming close in by the Point into our harbor. Seizing a harpoon, he waded off up to his middle, and threw the iron completely through him, and, after a little tussle, dragged him ashore. The shark was one of the real man-eating species, with an enormous mouth, and three rows of teeth as sharp as needles. He measured nine feet in length, and four round his body. [Provincetown Banner]

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, September 15, 1874

As Mr. Alonzo Bassett was fishing for cod off Chatham on Tuesday of last week, he caught a shark which bit his finger severely, tearing the flesh from the bone, while he was unhooking it.

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, July 02, 1878

Mr. Almeran Hallett went out fishing the other day, as is his custom, and while standing up in his boat, a large shark, six feet or more in length, came alongside and suddenly made a spring for him, leaping three feet out of the water. The shark just touched him but failed to get a bite, and as he went down struck his jaw against the gunnel of the boat and left his card behind in the shape of a tooth, which Mr. Hallett has preserved as a memorial of his visit. Our neighbor is to be congratulated that he escaped a more intimate acquaintance with the jaws of the voracious monster.

Where to swim on Cape Cod: Calm water? Fierce surf? Family-friendly? Here are six options

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, September 03, 1878

Master Charlie Healy of Wood's Hole, while out fishing recently, caught a good sized shark and took it into his boat and was attempting to reach a club which he had in the boat for the purpose of dispatching the monster, when the shark grabbed his arm closing his jaw upon it and then letting go at once. Charlie felt the bite very sensibly and soon became faint, but was discovered by a neighboring fisherman who rendered necessary aid. He is now doing well.

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, May 08, 1883

Capt. William Law caught in his weir at Provincetown, a large shark, about 20 feet long. Prof. N. E. Atwood called it Somniosis, a species quite rare in these waters.

Reporter's note: This story appears to refer to a Greenland shark, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls "the longest-lived vertebrate." They can live for hundreds of years. Research on one caught in a fishing net resulted in an estimate that the animal was between 272 and 512 years old.

Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, October 30, 1883

The keepers of bathing houses along the beach say that bathers are much afraid of sharks; but each is eager to aver that, while there may be some danger at other places, there is not any at his.

'This is how you die': One year later, Michael Packard recalls escape from whale

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, September 13, 1890

Calvin D. Hammond caught a big shark at Chatham last week in his net, and having the curiosity to see what his stomach contained, found a large Plymouth Rock hen.

Barnstable Patriot, Monday, May 27, 1912

The boats Annie & Cecelia, Dora and Sea Gull, are bringing In mackerel as high as 60 to a boat. Sharks and dog flsh make bad work destroying fish and nets. Prices are high here and In Boston and New York markets.

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, August 12, 1916

PROVINCETOWN  — Judging from the crowds who go in bathing every day, the sharks reported off our coast are not giving much anxiety to them. Indeed, bathing grows more and more popular.

Rip currents: What you need to know for safer swimming on Cape Cod

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, September 16, 1916

PROVINCETOWN —  A ten-foot mackerel shark weighing 400 lbs. was taken from Captain Jackson Williams's weir trap In the harbor Thursday morning, where he became entangled. He was not harpooned or wounded, but worried to death therein. These sharks are the cause of much mischief In the traps, tearing the nets and letting out the fish.

Hyannis Patriot, Monday, July 09, 1917

David C. Stull, the Provincetown oil refiner, is showing samples of leather made from the skins of sharks, dogfish and other denizens of the sea.

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, September 30, 1922

PROVINCETOWN — A shark measuring 11.5 feet in length was killed near the bathing beach at the West end by Rlchard O'Donnell, Charles Bennett and W A. Williams.

Sharks and seals: Here's what you need to know about the animals off Cape Cod

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, August 28, 1926

WEST YARMOUTH — Capturing a blue nosed shark 14 feet Iong by looping a rope around his tail was the thrilling experience of two Finnish lads In West Yarmouth. While fishing at the mouth of Mill Creek, the boys found the shark, which is not one of the "horrible" variety. It had been swept in by the tide and was thrashing about in the shoal water at the creek mouth. With a line about its tail and another fixed about its head the lads managed to tow the shark up on the beach, where many persons viewed it.

Yarmouth Register, Saturday, August 08, 1931

An 18-foot blunt nosed shark weighing two tons caught in weir traps in Provincetown harbor, was brought to the town wharf Saturday by Captain George Brier who handles a trap boat for the Colonial Cold Storage company, with his crew of men. About 20 men aided in hauling up the shark to the V. H. Heller company plant where it was on display.

Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, June 01, 1933

While swimming back from the Wianno Beach Club pier, Earl Mossey was scraped by a sand shark, He received gashes about the arms and legs.

Yarmouth Register, Friday, November 08, 1935

Nate Ellis, young Skaket fisherman, took a Nantucket sleighride Saturday behind a nine-foot shark weighing nearly a half ton. Snared in a fish weir, the fish put up a terrific battle and towed young Ellis four miles before it was finally subdued. With his dory half full of water after repeated charges by the shark, Ellis finally towed the dead fish ashore to realize a nice profit for his work.

Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, July 30, 1936

A general war on sharks, even the harmless sand shark, is being carried on now since Joseph C. Troy of Dorchester was fatally mangled by one at Mattapolsett Saturday. Congressman Gilford has asked government and the coast guard has cruised in the vicinity looking for sharks with high powered rifles. All along the Cape shore sharks of every possible kind are being hunted.

Yarmouth Register, Friday, July 31, 1936

Congressman Gifford has asked the United State Department of Commerce to make an investigation of the shark menace, following the death of Joseph Troy, Jr, of Dorchester after he had been attacked 100 yards off Mattapoisett beach Saturday.

Study shows Cape Cod sharks spend nearly half their time in shallow water

Armed with harpoons and high powered rifles, Coast Guard patrol boats are cruising in the vicinity for sharks and every effort is being made to give protection against the menace. The United States bureau of fisheries reported that Troy's death was the first of its kind in New England waters.

Yarmouth Register, Friday, August 07, 1936

Believing that the newspaper stories of the shark scares would not affect bathing at Cape Cod beaches, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, on Sunday, Aug. 2, checked on the attendance at all public beaches from Falmouth to Provincetown, and found that each beach had an increase in attendance on Aug. 2 as compared to July 27 when the first shark story appeared.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod newspaper archives: Articles about sharks in the news