This is chapter 13 of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.
When I learned about Russell Coles and the shark factory in Morehead City, N.C., I thought immediately of the first pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, when all the fishermen have returned to shore in a Cuban port and are cleaning and packing their catches.
“Those who had caught sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out.”
The shark factory was the last chapter in Russell Coles’ life at Cape Lookout. Two decades earlier, he had started by hunting sharks and other big game fish, rod and reel in hand, looking for sport and the exhilaration of overcoming struggle and danger.
He never lost his passion for sport fishing, but his interest in sharks, rays and other fish grew more complex. He became a remarkable amateur biologist—what we might call a “citizen scientist” today.
His research and observations on sharks and rays appeared in journals published by the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.
Several of the country’s leading ichthyologists also acknowledged their debt to him for sharing his knowledge of those marine species, providing specimens and/or hosting them while they did research at Cape Lookout.
Coles’ interest in at least one group of fish took yet another turn in 1918—and this time it was not to sport or science, but to profit and exploitation.
His life at Cape Lookout had always been filled with wild excess, but this time it went further: his new enterprise contributed to the commercial slaughter of thousands of sharks and untold disruption to marine ecosystems.
The Ocean Leather Company
The story of the shark factory begins in the spring of 1918. As part of his effort to encourage the utilization of “unusual marine fishes” among the American public during World War I, Coles met with a number of business, government and scientific leaders in and around New York City.
His friend Teddy Roosevelt helped to arrange at least some of those meetings.
During that time, Coles’ campaign also received favorable attention in the New York Times and other newspapers. Those articles emphasized Coles’ background in shark hunting and always referred to him as the man that had taken Roosevelt on the manta ray expedition in Florida.
Inevitably, the press put Coles’ efforts in a patriotic light—he was a good citizen doing what he could for the war effort.
One of the businessmen that Coles met while he was in New York was a Czech immigrant named Alfred Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich had founded the Ocean Leather Company in the spring of 1917.
At that time there was a great deal of interest in the commercial utilization of the oils, skins, glands and other parts of many different marine species—and there was a general, but wholly wrong assumption that the populations of most marine species were inexhaustible.
Ehrenreich was interested in new chemical processes that produced high quality leather from the tough skins of sharks and some other marine species.
Working with a pair of Danish brothers that had recently patented a process for tanning the skins of sharks and whales, Ehrenreich first set up an experimental lab in Newark, New Jersey.
At that lab, he and his partners began to experiment with methods of refining the Danish brothers’ process of tanning the hides of sharks.
The stumbling block was the shagreen—the “placoid cells” that give the skin of sharks its toughness and durability.
Drawing on the research of two other chemists, Theodore H. Kohler and Allen Rogers, the company perfected at least two different processes for using hydrochloric acid to remove the shagreen and soften the leather.
The Ocean Leather Company was the first to utilize sharkskins for leather and for many years had a monopoly on sharkskin products. The company’s goal was to harvest large quantities of sharks and produce a leather that it would sell to commercial manufacturers of boots, shoes, wallets, brief cases, harnesses, upholstery and other products.
The company’s leaders aspired to find commercial uses for other parts of the shark as well. They sought to extract a medicinal oil from the animals’ livers, for instance, and they aimed to make gas bags for dirigibles from the inner lining of their stomachs.
Ehrenreich approached Coles in New York even before the experimental lab in Newark was operational.
While the company’s chemists worked on improving the tanning process, Ehrenreich sought the help of Coles with two other matters.
The first concerned the supply of sharkskins. At that time, there was only a very limited commercial fishery for sharks in the U.S. Coles was one of the very few fishermen known to hunt sharks on any scale at all anywhere on the East Coast. Ehrenreich wanted to buy his expertise.
He wanted more though. He also wanted Coles to encourage his friend Teddy Roosevelt to promote the company’s products. Ehrenreich apparently dreamed of the world seeing Teddy in sharkskin boots– he thought it would lend credibility to the Ocean Leather Company and might well spur a fashion trend in shark leather products.
The Stuff of Heroes
The first mention of the Ocean Leather Company in the papers that my daughter Vera and I read at Coles Hill was in a letter from Coles to his sister-in-law Eliza on the 25th of April 1918.
In that letter, he informed Eliza that he had decided to work with the Ocean Leather Company. He and his old crew were preparing to go shark fishing at Cape Lookout on the company’s behalf, though at that point Ehrenreich was not yet outfitted to use the skins for commercial products. He was still setting up the lab in Newark, and he was going to use the skins in the company’s tanning experiments.
Coles must have done a good deal of planning with the captain of his local fishing crew, Charlie Willis, as they considered how best to supply Ehrenreich with large quantities of sharkskins. According to Coles’ letter to Eliza, he was having dinner every night with Willis and his family at their home in the Promise Land.
A little more than a month later, on May 28, Coles wrote Eliza again. Ehrenreich had just visited Coles and his crew in Morehead City. He had bought shark and dolphin skins from Coles and the two men had apparently agreed on a more far-reaching business relationship.
“It is a big company and they are crazy to get my Roosevelt publicity,” Coles confided to Eliza.
He told her that he was working the “good for suffering humanity” angle. He and the company wanted it known that he was volunteering his time and was only thinking about the war and patriotism, not profits.
Coles told Eliza that he wanted his efforts for the Ocean Leather Co. to be seen as part of a selfless and patriotic campaign to encourage the development and use of unconventional marine products—among them, shark meat and shark leather that would save other kinds of meat and cow leather for American soldiers overseas.
For that reason, he told her, he declined Ehrenreich’s offer to have an executive position with the company.
In reality, however, Coles confided to Eliza, he struck a “secret deal” (his words) with Ehrenreich. He would be paid a large amount of company stock in exchange for promoting the company’s products and for giving shark leather shoes to Roosevelt, President Wilson and other leading political figures.
Ehrenreich of course intended to feature Roosevelt, Wilson and any other popular political figures who wore shoes made with the company’s shark leather in his advertising.
“I was afraid that I would feel kinder [sic] mean about using my hero stuff for money, but I made the deal last night and this morning I am feeling real fine and in line to become a regular crooked grifter,” Coles wrote Eliza.
Appearances were what mattered. “However,” he added, “I can still wear the hero face as it is a sworn secret.”
As the summer advanced and the war came closer to its end, Coles grew more deeply involved in the Ocean Leather Co. He did not hide that fact from Roosevelt.
“I am a member of the Company, holding a large block of its stock, and I have sold them my entire outfit including my yacht, but I retain entire control of the yacht to use at any time as my own or for the entertainment of my friends…,” Coles wrote Roosevelt on August 8, 1918.
Over that summer, Coles made arrangements for hiring fishing crews and for establishing shark processing facilities in Morehead City and also near Punta Gorda, Florida, where he and Roosevelt had gone giant manta ray hunting the year before, in March of 1917.
He reported to Roosevelt:
“I have been very busy for the past few weeks for them, buying boats and plants for the opening of shark fisheries and reduction plants along this coast and the Gulf Coast of Florida. I am giving year contracts at good salaries to all of the seamen who have served me best in the past, including, of course, Charlie, Roland, Mart and Captain Jack McCann of our historical devil fish expedition.”
You may remember that I introduced Capt. Charlie Willis, Roland Phillips and Mart Lewis in chapter 2 of this story, “The Promise Landers.” They were all from Morehead City, N.C.
I introduced Capt. Jack McCann in chapter 9, “King of the Devil Fishermen.” Originally from the Florida Keys, he was living in Punta Gorda, Florida, when Coles and Roosevelt went on their manta ray hunting adventure there.
A Shark Hunting Summer
Coles and his crew did a great deal of shark fishing that summer.
In an article on great whites, hammerheads and tiger sharks that he wrote for the May 7, 1919 issue of Copeia, Coles described their work on behalf of the company.
“In May, June and July, 1918, at Cape Lookout, North Carolina, I handled large numbers of sharks of many kinds for leather, food, oil and fertilizer, having established a shark-fishing station at that point now controlled by the Ocean Leather Company of New York, with which I am associated. The work was so intensive that it was impossible to make the scientific study of the material that I would have wished.”
Nevertheless he took advantage of the large numbers of sharks that he and his crew caught that summer to make arguably the most thorough study of all three kinds of those sharks to date.
J. C. Bell, a specimen preservation specialist at the American Museum of Natural History, also joined him at the shark factory for part of that summer.
Together, as sharks arrived at the factory’s dock, they measured their size and weight and did dissections to examine their stomach contents and document features of their anatomy.
Based on that research, Bell and a colleague, the ichthyologist John T. Nichols, wrote an article called “Notes on the Food of Carolina Sharks” that appeared in Copeia on March 15, 1921.
Nichols also assisted Coles in preparing an article titled “The Large Sharks of Cape Lookout, North Carolina,” which appeared in Copeia two months later, on May 7, 1921. The research for both articles came from that one frantic summer of commercial shark fishing.
At the end of that summer, Coles left Morehead City and returned to his tobacco business in Danville. By that October, the “shark factory,” as local people called it, became fully operational at a site on Bogue Sound.
For a brief time, the enterprise flourished. The fishermen experimented with long trot-lines and other ways of harvesting the sharks, but ultimately settled on using very large mesh nets heavy enough that the thrashing of the sharks in the nets would not tear them apart.
(They also intended to experiment with blasting schools of sharks with dynamite, but the schooner carrying the dynamite wrecked at Beaufort Inlet, all cargo lost.)
At the factory on Bogue Sound, workers did just like Hemingway’s shark fishermen in The Old Man and the Sea: the sharks: “were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out.” They sent the skins by rail to the company’s facility in Newark.
When they had finished removing the skin, livers and fins, they tossed the rest of the shark into the shallows next to the factory.
There throngs of blue crabs descended on the carcasses. According to one account, the fishermen’s wives waded into the water with dip nets to catch all the crabs they could. Most of the women were from the Promise Land neighborhood, and they carried them home to use in their gardens.
Neither the Promise Landers nor many other local people ate blue crabs in those days, but they gladly fertilized their gardens with them, one crab for every stalk of corn.
From Morehead City to the Gulf of Mexico
By 1921 the Ocean Leather Company had opened another factory at Sanibel Island, southeast of Ft. Myers, Florida, and the tanning facility in Newark was handling approximately 1,000 sharkskins a week.
While expanding its operations to other parts of the Eastern Seaboard, the company continued to enjoy a monopoly in the shark leather industry.
All the same, the company never grew as large or as prosperous as the company’s founders had hoped.
According to company documents cited by Dr. Jose Castro in his landmark historical study of humans and sharks, the supply of sharks was always the limiting factor in the Ocean Leather Company’s growth. Coles’ fishermen in Morehead City soon realized that, in fact, there was not an inexhaustible supply of sharks in the sea. Wherever they went, the company’s fishermen eventually learned that same lesson.
I have no record of Coles’ further involvement in the company after December of 1918, when the Tampa Tribune indicated that he visited southwestern Florida on shark factory business.
He may have remained a stockholder, board member and/or “honorary president” of the company, as the Tribune’s story called him, but the documentary record is unclear. Few of the documents that Vera and I found at Coles Hill were dated after 1920, and the ones we did find were silent on this subject.
In the early 1920s, the Ocean Leather Co. employed another famous shark hunter, William E. Young from California, to oversee its operations in Morehead City.
Young did not stay in Morehead City for long, however. Dwindling catches led Ehrenreich to close the plant there in 1923 and to shift fishing efforts to Florida and to other parts of the world.
Sea Monsters and Demons
In 1923 the Florida Quarterly Bulletin, a publication of the state’s Department of Agriculture, boasted that the Ocean Leather Company’s shark factory at Sanibel Island, Florida, processed 75-100 sharks a day.
In one five-week stretch, the Sanibel Island factory processed approximately 2,600 of the “sea monsters.”
The way in which the Bulletin referred to sharks as “sea monsters” is telling. It was not unusual though. In other places the Bulletin’s report referred to sharks in an even more derogatory way, using terms such as “sea vermin” to describe them. The report largely reserved that kind of language to describe sharks, but also referred to dolphins, porpoises, giant manta rays and sea turtles in a similar vein.
At the time, the Ocean Leather Co. was offering bounties to fishermen in that part of Florida for all those marine species.
The company’s agents sold leatherback turtle shells, for instance, to button manufacturers. They likewise sold the unique oils found in the jaws and melons of bottlenose dolphins to specialized refiners of lubricating oils for watches, clocks and other fine instruments.
Press coverage of the company was extensive. Taking their cue from the company’s promotional materials, national magazines and newspapers referred to sharks and those other marine species in the same derogatory way.
The company’s publicity often made the killing of sharks, dolphins and other marine predators seem like a public service. By ridding coastal waters of them, the company argued, fishermen would be leaving more fish for fishermen to catch and more fish for the general public to eat.
The company’s publicity reserved its strongest vilification for sharks. That was because a series of shark attacks on the Jersey Shore in 1916 had led to a kind of hysteria at beaches on the East Coast.
On that occasion, a shark of unknown species killed four people and injured another over a 70-mile stretch of coastline. The attacks unfolded over a 12-day period and led to widespread panic at resorts on the Jersey Shore. They were a national media sensation.
Newspapers and magazines began to talk about sharks in demonic terms, in a way that had not been true previously.
Many marine scientists were flummoxed. Prior to that summer, they had apparently not documented a single shark attack on a human being in U.S. waters. Many of the country’s ichthyologists even believed that aggression against humans was not in a shark’s nature.
Some even hypothesized that the jaws of sharks did not have the physical characteristics necessary to bite a human being.
The shark attacks on the Jersey Shore turned those notions upside down and led to the widespread demonization of sharks throughout the coastal U.S. Some people even called for the extermination of sharks.
The incredible overreaction contributed to a reluctance to regulate shark fishing that lasted for generations.
Even some leading ichthyologists got on the shark-bashing bandwagon. Coles’ frequent collaborator, John T. Nichols at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was one of them.
“There is something peculiarly sinister in the shark’s make-up. The sight of his dark, lean fin lazily cutting zigzags in the surface of some quiet, sparkling summer sea, and then slipping out of sight not to appear again, suggests an evil spirit. His leering, chinless face, his great mouth with its rows of knife-like teeth, which he knows too well to use on the fisherman’s gear; the relentless fury with which, when his last hour has come, he thrashes on deck and snaps at his enemies; his toughness, his brutal, nerveless vitality and insensibility to physical injury, fail to elicit the admiration one feels for the dashing, brilliant, destructive, gastronomic bluefish, tunny, or salmon.”
Russell Coles played an important role in the Ocean Leather Co.’s early success, but Vera and I never read historical documents in which he referred to sharks or other marine species in that way.
To our knowledge, he never called them “sea monsters” or “sea vermin.” He never talked about their “evil spirit” or exterminating them. He never used derogatory human terms such as “leering” or “brutal” to describe sharks, and he never believed that he was engaged in a battle of good versus evil.
Across the Seas
That 1923 article in the Florida Quarterly Bulletin focused on the Ocean Leather Co.’s shark factory at Sanibel Island, Florida.
However, the story indicated that Ehrenreich and his business partners intended to open new shark factories in Beaufort, S.C., Brunswick, Ga., the Bahamas, Jamaica and Cuba.
A few years later, William E. Young even established a shark fishing operation for the company in French Somaliland (now the Republic of Djibouti), in the Horn of Africa.
Wherever the company went, the fishermen soon discovered that neither the sharks nor the other marine species that the company’s publicity called “sea vermin”—dolphins, porpoises, rays and sea turtles—lasted long.
The company’s shark factory in Cuba, by the way, was actually the one that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s opening scene in The Old Man and the Sea that I quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
-To be continued-