Friday, May 9, 2008


Let's dig into the mail bag, shall we?

Brian from La Grange asks...
I heard on a boat tour a while ago that there are some kind of sharks in Lake Michigan. Is this true?

Interesting question, Brian!

Short answer, no. Long answer, it's not impossible.   (answer updated since the original post)

Sharks are salt-water creatures, and couldn't survive in the great lakes - the exception would be bull sharks, which can live in freshwater, and have occasionally been known to swim up the Mississippi River to the great lakes. In the 1955, there was even an attack - a boy named George Lawson swimming in the lake south of Chicago and ended up with a limb bitten off. We've no idea whatever became of George Lawson - he lost a limb, but gained a story no one will EVER believe.

Or, anyway, so goes a report in the Global Shark Attack File. Which gives the date as January 1st (presumably a place-holder for an attack in which the exact date isn't known, since no one is going swimming in the lake on January 1st). The file  lists their source as "F. Dennis, p 52," and poking through their bibliography, it turns out that the specific source is a 95 page book called Man Eating Sharks! by Felix Dennis from 1975. It looks like the kind of book you would see on the juvenile nonfiction shelves of libraries when I was a kid. As an writer and historian, I'd be very hesitant to cite that sort of book as a source. I'd want to find out where Felix got the story, and cite that.

I haven't tracked down the whole thing, but in a snippett view on Google books, it does appear that Dennis gives a fairly detailed account of Lawson's attack, saying that witnesses saw the dorsal fin of the bull shark swimming away, and doctors who examined the wound had no hesitation in saying it was a shark.

Still, lacking an exact date, it's difficult to look up a contemporary account of the story. It wasn't written up in the Chicago Tribune, but if we had an actual date I could check some of the defunct papers in the microfilm rooms.

So there's SUPPOSEDLY been a shark in Lake Michigan on at least one occasion, half a century ago. It's unlikely that there are any of them now, but not NECESSARILY impossible. Sophisticated damming techniques make it harder and harder for them to get into the river nowadays, though.

Hence, you're probably pretty safe down at the Oak Street Beach this summer. BUT......There were also once reports of a sea monster in there...which is a whole 'nother story.


Gord Barentsen said...

Not to say I disbelieve this, but you should know this story is highly contested to the point of urban you have any proof of your assertion?

Adam Selzer said...

I've seen a couple of old articles describing the attack in some detail, but I've no way to verify them for sure other than tracking the guy down. It didn't make the Tribune when it happened.

I wonder if the scene in the newsroom was like something Jaws "No, we're not running that story! I don't want people to be getting scared of sharks right in the middle of tourist season!"

Mark said...

I actually just finished reading 'Man Eating Sharks! by Felix Dennis' last night. This book was written by somebody who doesn't understand the concept of research. In short, lots of errors. I've been reading and researching animal attacks for over 40 years, and last night was the first I had heard of George Lawson's shark attack. If it happened, it would have been reported in a Chicago newspaper. No article, no attack.

Anonymous said...

This should not be that hard to verify. The kid must have had a family, and 1955 wasn't the dark ages, the US Census very likely captured their existence. Finding relatives of this family -- or even George, himself, if he's still alive -- would help establish the veracity of this story. As far as the likelihood of a Bull Shark in Lake Michigan, it's completely possible. Veeeery unlikely, but the concept of a Bull making it into the lake in 1955 is not out of the realm of possibility.

Adam Selzer said...

Well, maybe. Census data from the 1950s won't be public for a while yet, but there could be a city directory or something.


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