Shark fatality still hits home

75 years later, some recall it

The New Bedford Standard-Times reported the shark attack that took the life of Joseph Troy, Jr. He was 16. The New Bedford Standard-Times reported the shark attack that took the life of Joseph Troy, Jr. He was 16. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

MATTAPOISETT - As a crowd gathered on Hollywood Beach that summer afternoon in 1936, some speculated that a bleeding teen pulled from the water had been bitten by a big fish - a “man-eater.’’

Others thought it was a hoax. Still others thought 16-year-old Joseph Troy Jr. had simply drowned. After all, such sharks - now known as great whites - were practically unheard of around Buzzards Bay.

Troy, a visitor from Dorchester, died later that night, 75 years ago today. It was the last time a shark attack in Massachusetts proved fatal.

“We just knew that one of the fellows was in bad trouble,’’ said Martin Smith, 88, whose family’s summer cottage was across the street from that of Troy’s uncle, whom the boy had been visiting. Then 13, Smith had been eating lunch when he heard a commotion at the pier. He didn’t initially know what happened, “just that he had been bitten by something large.’’

Today, great white sightings make instant headlines, and horror stories of shark attacks abound - all due, some say, to Steven Spielberg.

Nearly 40 years after the attack on Troy, the blockbuster movie “Jaws’’ turned “great white’’ into a household name. Spielberg’s depiction of a savage monster terrorizing a small resort town was so chilling that public awareness of sharks went from zero to paranoia, said Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium.

“In 1936, the word ‘shark attack’ wouldn’t even be in anybody’s vocabulary,’’ said Tom “Captain Tom’’ King, 76, a charter boat fisherman from Scituate who has made studying sharks his life’s work.

“Jaws,’’ LaCasse said, made the shark “both mythical and iconic at the same time.’’

But, he emphasized, there’s a reason no one has died from a shark attack here in 75 years: They’re rare.

The University of Florida-run International Shark Attack Files reports one nonfatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1620, when records were first kept, but the resource does not say when or where.

Although increasing numbers of great whites have been spotted around Cape Cod during the past three summers, probably drawn by the area’s resurgent gray seal population, swimmers have little to fear if they employ common sense, LaCasse said.

Troy knew none of this.

A Catholic boy from Dorchester, whose father served as an attendance officer for a local high school, he and a family business partner, Walter Stiles, had decided to swim out to meet an incoming sailboat, the Black Cat. It was a clear, sunny day.

When they were about 150 yards offshore, swimming in 10 to 15 feet of water, Stiles saw a 6-foot creature seize Troy by the left leg and drag him under the water, news accounts said.

When the unconscious boy resurfaced in a pool of blood, Stiles began towing him to shore while shouting for help. Black Cat owner Hubert Fisher helped Stiles bring Troy to shore in a dinghy.

“When I got there, he was lying in the boat, twitching once in a while,’’ said Smith. “It looked like they’d taken out a 5-pound chunk . . . from his leg.’’

Using an old door as a stretcher, neighbors carried Troy to a car that took him to St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, about 12 miles away.

Doctors decided to amputate his leg, but he had lost too much blood and was dead by 8:30 p.m.

Because Troy’s femoral artery was not severed, shark specialists speculate that today, with quicker medical attention, he could have survived.

While medical services have improved, scientists’ understanding of great whites had not progressed much since 1936, said Greg Skomal, a state marine biologist. That’s in part because they are so rarely spotted, especially around New England.

Until now.

Off Cape Cod, resurgent populations of gray seals, a favorite prey of great whites, have attracted greater numbers of the sharks to the area, affording Skomal and other scientists a chance to study multiple sharks for the first time and sparking a buzz of interest among tourists.

Since May 6, the state has tracked nine shark sightings, while more than 25 were spotted each of the past two summers, Skomal said. Both the seals and great whites are protected species. Skomal has tagged and tracked several to winter haunts around Florida - a researching breakthrough that has put Skomal in the national spotlight.

“It’s exciting,’’ Skomal said. “It’s allowed us to take what we knew, which was virtually nothing, and increase the volume of info we’ve got on this species exponentially in two years.’’

Great whites here grow up to 19 feet long, Skomal said, and can be identified by the abrupt transition from gray to white along their sides. (The longest shark ever reliably measured was 21 feet, he said.) Though they prefer preying on large marine mammals such as sea lions and gray seals, they also scavenge dead whales and feed on large fish, he said. Along with tiger sharks, they pose the main shark threats to humans in the area. Several relatively harmless species also live in Cape waters, including basking and blue sharks.

Great whites normally attack humans because they mistake them for seals or other prey, shark specialists believe.

“Anything that mimics the visual cues or the behavior of a seal,’’ such as the silhouette of a surfboard on the water, could trigger an attack, Skomal said.

Swimmers should stay out of areas that seals frequent, avoid deep water, and stay with others. They should avoid swimming at dusk, when visibility is lower.

Last summer, numerous shark sightings off the Cape and islands forced officials to temporarily close several beaches, including South Beach in Chatham, where seals gather.

Crowds of sightseers began boarding tour boats and pointing binoculars at the water in hopes of glimpsing one, and the sharks’ presence proved to be a boon to local tourism, said Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce.

Documentary crews have descended on Chatham to film shark tagging and research, she said, and shops along Chatham’s Main Street are stocking shark T-shirts and other souvenirs.

“They can’t keep the stuff stocked,’’ Franz said. “People are eating it up.’’

Despite all the positive interest, town officials won’t be screening “Jaws’’ for the public any time soon, she said.

“I wouldn’t go into the ocean for the longest time because of that movie,’’ she said.

After Troy’s death, mothers around Buzzards Bay warned their children not to swim, and beaches emptied for a few weeks, Smith recalled.

But Mattapoisett eventually quieted down, with shark sightings clustered around Chatham and the Cape islands instead of Buzzards Bay, and Troy’s uncle kept returning to the cottage on Hollywood Beach.

Smith met his future wife on the same stretch of sand where he had scrubbed Hubert Fisher’s dinghy clean of Troy’s blood.

And life went on for him - except in one small way.

“To this day, I don’t swim in water over my head if I can help it,’’ Smith said.

Vivian Yee can be reached at