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Getting to the Bottom of Lake Michigan's Legendary 'Shark Attack'

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Rumor has it a young George Lawson was attacked by a shark while swimming at a Chicago beach in 1955. Is it true, or just a bunch of bull shark?

Rumor has it a young George Lawson was attacked by a shark while swimming at a Chicago beach in 1955. Is it true, or just a bunch of bull shark? (Logan Jaffe/WBEZ)

It’s the kind of “fact” that makes you blink and wonder if you read it correctly. The Global Shark Attack File, a listing of every documented shark attack in recent history, compiled by the non-profit Shark Research Institute, lists a shark attack in Lake Michigan in 1955. The details are thin. The name of the victim: George Lawson. The species: bull shark. Lawson was bitten on the right leg. The bite was unprovoked and non-fatal.

It sounds impossible, right? Sharks live in the oceans, and while you sometimes hear of them in brackish rivers, Lake Michigan is nearly 2,000 navigational miles from the nearest ocean. The story persists in various mythbusting columns, and while most experts think the story is probably an urban legend, Chicagoans keep bringing it up. Curious City got two very similar questions, one from Adam Kovac of Chicago, and another from Hilary Winiarz of Hawthorn Woods. Winarz’s wording summons the frustration of many Chicagoans about the ongoing lack of a satisfying answer.

Can we please get a final ruling on whether or not one young George Lawson was actually attacked by a shark, in Lake Michigan in 1955?

We’d love to help Hillary, Adam, and the unsatisfied masses. The problem is, there’s very little evidence either way. And it can be very difficult to prove that something did NOT happen. Nevertheless, we took a three-pronged approach to answering this question.

Approach 1: Find a witness or participant in the event itself.

Approach 2: Locate the original source of the story, and evaluate its reliability.

Approach 3: Examine the scientific plausibility of a mature bull shark entering Lake Michigan, surviving long enough to attack a person in 1955.

Following this trajectory, we found a few clues about the origins of the story, and learned that a shark in Lake Michigan may not be as implausible as you would think.

Approach 1: Can I get a witness?

The Shark Research Institute sent us the names of the two people involved in the Lake Michigan shark attack; the victim, a boy named George Lawson, and the rescuer, John Adler. We searched public records for those names (including spelling variations) in the Chicago area, and found two George Lawsons and two John Adlers who could have been the right age in 1955; the Lawsons would have been under 16 and the Adlers over 18. We called the listed phone numbers. One phone line was disconnected, and we left messages on the other three. We heard from one respondent that he was NOT the John Adler we were looking for. Nobody else returned our calls. It seems clear that if a remaining John Adler or George Lawson were involved in a shark attack, they were not interested in discussing it with Curious City. Nor does it appear that any George Lawson or John Adler has ever given an interview about the shark attack.

Approach 2: Where did this bull shark story come from anyway?

The book Man-Eating sharks, which we purchased for exactly 1 cent. (WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

The Global Shark Attack database actually does list a source as “F. Dennis P  52”. After a little sleuthing, we found a picture book published in 1975 called Man-Eating Sharks: a Terrifying Compilation of Shark-Attacks, Shark-facts and Shark-Legend! “F. Dennis” refers to Felix Dennis, who, as it turns out, is a famous and eccentric book and magazine publisher in the UK. He is known for founding several successful magazines including Maxim, Blender, PC World, and several others.

Unfortunately, he died of cancer in 2014, but his estate kindly put Curious City in touch with one of the authors of Man-Eating Sharks, Christopher Rowley, now based in upstate New York. Rowley remembers the book quite clearly: “Felix wanted to carve out a chunk of the enormous money flowing due to the Jaws phenomenon in 1975.”, he says.

Of course, he means Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit film, which sparked tremendous fascination and fear of sharks. In the midst of the Jaws craze, Dennis hired Rowley and two other writers to find out everything they could about sharks. “When Felix wanted something like that, it was like crash diving,” he says. “Klaxons are roaring, go out and buy everything you can. It was all about being nimble and quick in those days.”

Rowley spent five weeks at the library, reading about sharks, compiling information, and writing passages of the book. He doesn’t remember where the story of the Lake Michigan shark attack comes from, but definitely recalls reading about bull sharks. He admits they may have made up some of the details — fast and loose fact-finding didn’t begin with the internet age — but doesn’t think they made up that particular story. “There’s too much little detail there,” he says. “On the other hand, I can’t remember how much invention went into it, and how much we found in the libraries.”

So if you believe Rowley, it suggests there may be another mysterious source of the Lake Michigan shark attack, possibly in another newspaper or magazine somewhere. If so, nobody involved with Man-Eating Sharks remembers what it was. Or, it’s possible Rowley or one of his collaborators just made up the story out of whole cloth, possibly after reading of the bull shark’s notorious habit of swimming up freshwater rivers. Which brings us to our next approach ...

Approach 3: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

While most shark species can only survive in saltwater, bull sharks have the unusual ability to survive in freshwater, too. (Illustration from the book Man-Eating Sharks)

Scientists enjoy a good hypothetical situation, and several we spoke with indulged us by entertaining the possibility of a shark entering and surviving in Lake Michigan. Phil Willink, the Senior Research Scientist at the Shedd Aquarium, says the bull shark — the kind of shark named in the Global Shark Attack File — is notorious  for entering freshwater: “It is able to control the salt and other compounds in its blood, to maintain a balance with the water that’s around it, and is able to move back and forth between freshwater and saltwater. So, yes, bull sharks can swim into freshwater and we think they can stay there for several years possibly.”

Furthermore, Willink says bull sharks have been documented as far as 2,000 miles upstream in the Amazon River, a few hundred miles farther than the distance between Lake Michigan and the nearest saltwater. So it is theoretically possible for a bull shark to swim to Lake Michigan, if it could find a viable route.

One path a shark could take to Lake Michigan is the St. Lawrence seaway, entering the St. Lawrence River north of New Brunswick, Canada, and swimming through Lake Ontario, The Wellend Canal near Niagara Falls, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and finally into Lake Michigan. Scientists agree this is probably impossible because of the great distance, the navigational obstacles, and most importantly, because the water of the Gulf of St. Lawrence  at the entrance to the Seaway is far too cold for bull sharks. Their northernmost range is Massachussets, seven hundred miles to the south.

The more likely route, according to scientists, would be via the Mississippi River and Illinois River and Canal System. There are few obstacles to prevent a bull shark from reaching the Illinois River, and in fact, bull sharks have been occasionally spotted near St. Louis. But if you're curious what all it would take for a shark to get from the Mississippi River Delta to Lake Michigan in the first place, we’ve put together the details:

If the shark did somehow manage to get through all eight locks and gates, it would face another immediate problem:The water is too cold. Bull sharks prefer water warmer than seventy degrees fahrenheit, and Lake Michigan’s water is only that warm during a few weeks each year. That means the bull shark would have to accomplish all of this in a very short period of time, or, as Kevin Irons points out, find one of the places warm water is discharged into the lake by power plants. Neither Irons nor the Shedd Aquarium's Phillip Willink will go so far to say a shark could never make it to Lake Michigan and survive long enough to attack a person, but both consider the odds to be outlandishly high.  

Of course, the shark may have had help. A shark could certainly have been brought to Lake Michigan  in a water tank on a truck, an airplane, or helicopter, perhaps in a similar scenario to the one faced by Batman in the 1966 film, Batman. We know this kind of thing happens, because at least two dead saltwater sharks have been found in Lake Michigan.

One of the two known hoaxes involving sharks in Lake Michigan. (Source: Chicago Tribune, 1969)

One was later revealed as a prank, and scientists think the other may have been a prank, or possibly a discarded pet. Phillip Willink admits the Shedd aquarium has several sharks swimming in tanks just a few feet from the waters of Lake Michigan, but promises “We keep them in the building at all times.” Kevin Irons allows a baby shark could arrive in a cargo ship’s ballast water tank, but it would most likely die in the lake. It would need to survive several years, living through the frigid winters, avoiding predation, until it was large enough to attack a child. Again, all of this is exceedingly unlikely.

The um, shark’s tooth in the coffin?

Shark attacks make the news. Editors and reporters know there’s something fascinating and horrific about toothed death emerging from tranquil waters in a vacation spot to ruin somebody’s week. If a shark did attack somebody in Chicago, you would expect to see it in the Chicago newspapers. You would expect anniversary stories, stories pegged to “Shark Week”, and “where are they now?” stories about Lawson and Adler. We have access to searchable archives for major Chicago newspapers and we found that none carried a shark attack story. This, more than any other piece of evidence, really makes the case that the bull shark story is an urban legend

And one further point. Often, urban legends have their grounding in some true but prosaic story. Over time the details are exaggerated and enhanced into an enduring fiction. But there appears to be absolutely nothing CLOSE to the 1955 shark attack in any records. Until 1975. There are references to Lawson in the Tribune’s “Action Line” column, and the earliest one: October 1975, and it references a magazine called Killer Sharks: The Jaws of Death, also published in 1975, the same year as Felix Dennis’ Man-Eating Sharks. All three verifiable references of George Lawson occur in 1975, the year of Jaws, and a year characterized by intense shark interest world wide. This cluster of references suggests a likely scenario: Somebody, possibly one of Felix Dennis’ authors, possibly the Jaws of Death publishers, possibly the publishers of another mysterious book or magazine designed to capitalize on the Jaws phenomenon; somebody just made the whole thing up to sell magazines and make a quick buck. If that fabricator would only come forward, it would save our questioners, and the city of Chicago, a great deal of frustration.

Producer Jesse Dukes, left, and questioner Hilary Winiarz.

Our questioners

Adam Kovac asked his version of the question back in 2012, in the early days of the Curious City project. He was surprised and pleased when he heard we were finally tackling his question, three years (and several swimming seasons) later. We were unable to talk to him due to scheduling difficulties. Hilary Winiarz's day job is as a writer in corporate communication and a mother of a ten year old boy, Matty, who also likes sharks. In what spare time she can scrape up, she writes fiction. Perhaps, it’s the romance novelist in her that makes her say she wants the shark story to be true: “I would, actually. I mean he lived, so it’s not terribly tragic.” Still unsatisfied, she mentioned the possibility of going through hospital records to find a patient named George Lawson in 1955.  When we suggested that may prove a wild goose chase, she wasn’t sure: “The jury is still out on the goose chasey-ness of this of this, but it’s enough potential for a goose chase to say I might be spinning my wheels.”

Jesse Dukes is Curious City’s audio producer, and he knows a thing or two about sharks. Thanks to Emily Charnock for sharkival assistance.

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