Shark! Shark!

A book. While my daughter Vera and I were doing research on Cape Lookout, N.C. in the 1910s and ’20s, we found a little known memoir by a big game fisherman who hunted sharks on the North Carolina coast.

Wm. E. Young with a hammerhead shark in the Virgin Islands.

Wm. E. Young with a hammerhead shark in the Virgin Islands. From Shark! Shark!

The shark hunter was named William E. Young, and his book, published in 1934, is called Shark! Shark! The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter.

Capt. Young usually pursued sharks far from the North Carolina coast, in places like Hawaii, Australia and Somalia. But for a brief time in 1921, he worked for the Ocean Leather Company’s shark factory in Morehead City, N.C.—and his memoir includes fascinating accounts of shark fishing, the factory and the company’s fishermen.

Young’s memoir is full of exciting battles with man-eating sharks and raucous tales of his adventures with the local fishermen.

Most of the shark factory’s fishermen, and maybe all of them, came from the Promise Land, a fishermen’s neighborhood in Morehead City. Led by Capt. Charlie Willis, a legendary figure who once took Teddy Roosevelt on a giant manta ray hunting expedition, they caught dozens of big sharks a day with massive, heavy nets and long lines.

Capt. Charles W. Willis and his wife at their home in the Promise Land, ca. 1920.

Capt. Charles W. Willis and his wife at their home in the Promise Land, ca. 1920. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Chatham, Va.

Young even describes how he and Capt. Willis recovered 20 boxes of whiskey thrown overboard by the whiskey boat Adventure when she ran aground and had to lighten her load at Cape Lookout in 1920– a tale that inspired a song that the county’s beloved folklorist/singer (and my cousin), Connie Mason, once called “the Carteret County national anthem.”

Sung to the tune of “The Side Walks of New York,” the song’s chorus goes–

This way, that way, to the Cape they run
Now the coming of the
put the fishing on the bum.
Some folks lost their religion
They back-slid by the score,
The king lock stopper still stood ace high
When the booze yacht run ashore!

Vera and I enjoyed all of Capt. Young’s exciting tales, but what has really stayed with us most is just a little passage about the shark fishermen’s wives.

According to Young, the fishermen’s wives used to come down to the shore when the factory workers disposed of the shark carcasses, after they had taken the skins for leather and the livers for oil.

He describes how the women waded into the shallows next to the factory, which was on Bogue Sound, in the western part of Morehead City, down near where the community college is now.

In those shallows, great masses of blue crabs gathered to dine on what was left of the sharks. The women stepped into the water with dip nets and caught all the crabs they could.

They carried the crabs home  and used them as fertilizer in their corn patches, one crab for every stalk of corn.

Shark fishing was a new thing then, pursued by only a small group of fishermen working for a firm based in New Jersey— but that scene, those women burying crabs in their gardens, we thought that was special.

Like Capt. Willis, those women came from the Promise Land. Most had been born and raised on Shackleford Banks, a remote island where fishing, whaling and boat building families lived until a series of devastating hurricanes drove them away around the turn of the century.

Many had moved across the sound and settled in the Promise Land.

Laying the crabs in their fields must have been something the women did back on the island, a way to make those sandy soils give them sustenance. Maybe it was something their ancestors had done for generations.

Shark fishing and booze yachts, Vera and I thought, were all well and good, but those women burying crabs in their plots of corn, that, we thought, was a glimpse at what life was really like.


2 thoughts on “Shark! Shark!

  1. As much as the stories themselves, I am drawn to the craft of the historian that you chronicle so well in these pieces. The interviews, the letters, the research trips – such an active participant in the past. And not the least – the writing. Much obliged, and indebted…


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