Modern history

Like a Cat Shakes a Mouse

In the low gloom of a factory by the railroad tracks, the hammer blurred as if trailing sparks, and in less than a minute the battered hands of William Stilwell held a delicate but sturdy round basket. Swiftly, Stilwell struck another basket into existence and stacked it with the others. The shouts of the line boss and the thudding of hammers wielded by men and boys along the bench filled the scorching, humid air. Bill Stilwell's chest and arms dripped with sweat, but the line boss paid fifty cents for a hundred baskets and Stilwell worked with the speed of a man who had a young wife and five young children to feed and could take home three dollars that day if he raced.

There were worse jobs along the creek than making baskets. Hauling tile and clay in the baking yards; breathing paints and varnishes or cooking scalding columns of flaked rice, which was invented in Matawan. The basket factory and its long, low line of wooden warehouses lettered ANDERSON'S BUILDING MATERIALS & BASKETS had its own sawmill, a huge and dangerous blade that sent rafts of logs to the Chesapeake. Basketwork was comparatively safe and paid well. Occasionally, Frank Anderson himself came through the basket factory, and the men were glad to see him, for Frank upped the pay to seventy cents for a hundred baskets at the peak of the summer market. Fashionable ladies preferred their summertime bouquets of flowers in lovely baskets, like Anderson's, and New Yorkers used them to carry home the season's Jersey peaches and tomatoes.

Bill Stilwell's work wasn't easy, but despite the labor struggles of the era, the good, honest workman was widely romanticized. “William Stilwell is of the sturdy type of American workman,” the New York Herald wrote, “with a large and happy family, occupying their own cottage, surrounded by a pretty garden.”

Now and then Stilwell watched his oldest son, Russell, getting the hang of it at age sixteen, and kept an eye down the line on Lester, his youngest boy. When he saw Lester, small and struggling, he could only hope the boy wouldn't get the shakes and hurt himself. Bill worried about Lester especially. His youngest boy did well in school and was ambitious, not only making peach baskets but selling a weekly magazine as a “subscription agent”—saving enough money to keep himself in clothes and books for a year. But the boy seemed weak and suffered from epileptic fits Doc Reynolds couldn't do much about. Stilwell also worried because President Wilson was talking about a child labor law setting a minimum work age of fourteen, and what would the Stilwell children do for extra money if they couldn't make baskets?

As the sun slanted over the creek and Bill Stilwell had passed a couple of hundred baskets, he saw the line boss give a nod, and the younger boys dropped their hammers and made for the door, Lester with them. Bill hated to lose the money, but Lester had already earned seventy-five cents making peach baskets that morning. Besides, it was brutally hot, and it was a tradition for the boys to sneak away to the creek on summer days. It was a break Bill Stilwell had enjoyed himself on many a lazy summer afternoon thirty years before. Lester dutifully ran up to his father to say good-bye, and Bill told him to be careful and stay near the dock in case the shakes came.

Shortly before two o'clock, Lester Stilwell, who wore knickers and suspenders to school and a cap over his Dutch boy, was running free on Main Street. Lester was one of the youngest and poorest boys who played in the creek, but soon all confinements and distinctions would disappear. In the waters of the creek, noted the New York Herald, Stilwell swam with boys who were “all of the same age and types of the best kind of American boys. They spend their school vacations working in a basket factory mornings and playing in the afternoons.” Near the small library, Lester met Albert O'Hara, eleven, and Anthony Bublin, thirteen, whose older brothers also worked in the basket factory. Another thirteen-year-old, Charles E. Van Brunt Jr., joined the group.

On Main an older boy joined them—Frank Clowes, nineteen, taking time off from his work at his father's gas station, the first in the area. Frank was a mechanic and a carpenter and moved with a knowing swagger.

Young Johnson Cartan, from Cartan's Department Store, trailed along, and the boys moved quickly now, since their fathers and bosses cut them only a few minutes. If Johnson was afraid of going in the water after what had happened the previous day, he didn't show it to the other boys. Everyone agreed that his cousin Renny was as crazy as old Captain Cottrell, whose story of a shark in the creek had made its way around town.

The six boys went down Main to Dock Road, cutting behind the barn to the creek. It was bright and hot and the boys threw their clothes on the banks and began diving off the dilapidated docks at the old Wyckoff steamboat landing. One by one, Clowes, the older boy, then Cartan and O'Hara and Stilwell, dived and stroked to the middle of the creek and swam back to the docks and dived again in a ragged chain.

Some two hours earlier, unknown to the boys, Captain Cottrell had sailed through Matawan warning of the shark he had seen. A few swimmers had been warned away. But that had been during the noon hour, when most people along the creek were at luncheon, and Captain Cottrell did not spread the alarm far enough. Convinced Matawan was safe, Cottrell had motored down the creek to warn others.

Now as boys took turns diving and swimming back to the docks, Albert O'Hara had taken the lead in the chain. He was swimming ahead of Johnson Cartan, Frank Clowes, and Lester Stilwell back to the dock to make another dive. O'Hara was about to climb out of the water when Lester Stilwell cried, “Watch me float, fellas!” Lester gingerly laid his body on the surface of the creek and achieved the small miracle of floating, a proud moment for him, for the boy was so weak that he usually had trouble staying afloat. In the next instant, Charlie Van Brunt saw what he called “the biggest, blackest fish he had ever seen,” streaking underwater for Lester. Lester screamed, and Charlie saw the shark strike, twisting and rolling as it hit Lester, exhibiting its stark white belly and gleaming teeth. To Johnson Cartan, the sight was something he found words for only later. Something huge, something that looked like “an old black weather-beaten board,” rose up out of the water high over little Lester Stilwell. As the boys looked on in horror, they saw Lester's arm in the mouth of the shark and “Lester, being shaken, like a cat shakes a mouse, and then he went under, head first.” Both Lester and the shark disappeared. As the shark jerked the boy underwater, it gave such a mighty swish through the water that its tail hit Albert O'Hara and knocked him against the pilings supporting the pier. Too shocked to feel the painful scrape, O'Hara stared at the reddening circle on the creek and cried, “Oh, Lester's gone!” For a horrific second, Lester Stilwell reappeared, rising out of the water screaming and waving his arms wildly. Then, in an instant, he was pulled back under and disappeared for good.

Small waves had upset the waters of the creek, but they were smoothing and the water was crimson where Lester had been. Suddenly, boys cried, “Oh my God, he's gone!” and swam and stumbled and scrambled out of the water and up on the muddy banks, crying, “Shark! Shark!” Rushing in a group past their heaped clothes, the five boys ran naked down Dock Road and turned right on Main. Frank Clowes was leading them, for he was the oldest, but they were all running dripping wet and wild-eyed into the heart of town, shouting that a shark had taken Lester Stilwell.

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