In the summer of 1896, Hermann Oelrichs and his brother Charles made a fanciful bet: That the they were such powerful swimmers that no man, armed with a regular fishing rod and line, could bring either of them in.
The brothers were among the most prominent members of American high society, both dashing and handsome men with fine careers and finer figures.
And so high society showed up in droves on August 28 to see them. The cliffs of Bailey's Beach were lined with women in their dresses and crowned with broad hats topped with ostrich feathers and men in slack suits and straw boaters, cigars inevitably protruding from their lips.
On the sands they stood rich and thick a beneath a tent. The life saving raft was out to sea, packed with men and women in bathing costumes—the men in black briefs and tanks, same as the human fish were wearing; the women in short-sleeved, mid-length black dresses, bloomers, and stockings.
All these eyes, including Vanderbilt eyes, Whitney eyes, Fair eyes, the eyes of Foxhall Keene, America's finest polo player, were fixed to a catboat out on the water. Standing on the deck of the single-masted sailboat was Samuel Powel, Jr., of the eminent Philadelphia family. In the water was Charles Oelrichs, the first man to play the fish, the line secured to his belt. He was flanked by a flotilla of safety swimmers—O.H.P. Belmont, famed Philadelphia swimmer Robert Ralston, and his brother Hermann—who are to provide him with assistance should he flounder.
Charles began the contest by pulling hard away from the boat, his powerful strokes causing Powel to rapidly lose line. He and his rod bent double as they withstood a first flight worthy of a sailfish. Swimming hard, Charles managed to keep his distance from Powel and the catboat, but eventually, he began to falter.
Charles slackened, his great steam engine arms slowed, his legs seemed to be moving in syrup, as if the entire Atlantic has suddenly become viscous, and Powel pounced, and began to reel the human fish back in. Charles was pulled agonizingly closer to the now sinister-looking sailboat, losing one foot, then another ... now six, now a dozen!, he seemed doomed to the deck soon.
No! There he went! The wily fish with brain of man was using his brain, perhaps? Merely resting? No one on shore could know for sure, but with a mighty dash he violently regained all of the ocean he had ceded, and was pulling hard, like a marlin!, his great arms and broad chest and handsome face locked in exertion, until, snap!, the line broke, and Charles Oelrichs won his bet. The cliffs and sands rang with the thunderous ovation.
Hermann was next to play fish. His belt was fashioned and once in the water he similarly drew out Powel's line, pulling it taut.
Perhaps no sea-faring man was as emblematic of the masculine ideal of the times as Hermann Oelrichs. Standing roughly six feet tall and weighing close to 200 pounds, Hermann was built like a mackerel shark, with a broad, powerful chest and tapered waist. His handsome face was accented with a lustrous mustache, argent eyes, and crowned with short, neat hair.
Hermann was considered to be among the best hammer throwers and baseball players in New York City, as well as among the most talented amateur boxers in the entire nation. He helped introduce the game of polo to American, and was an influential player, and then president, for the New York Lacrosse Club. But it was as a swimmer that he developed the greatest reputation. He was famous for his incredibly long floats, wherein he would bring lunch, reading material, and simply drift out to sea. Hermann was jokingly referred to as a hazard to shipping, or as the captain's first warning that landfall was imminent, Noah's dove.
Hermann, being a literal captain of industry as an agent for the powerful North German Lloyd Steamship Company, seemed to aspire to nothing less than mastery of the sea, and in 1891 his Neptunian ambitions reached their zenith. Fueled by then cutting-edge science and the wide-ranging reports of his steamship's captains and crews, he set out to debride the public of their innate fear of sharks. He began by calling out the beasts in the pages of the Times, offering $500 for anyone who could prove a shark attack in temperate waters, defined here as the Atlantic north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. A man of action, he took it upon himself to confront the creatures in their own element, swimming well off-shore of the New Jersey coast to roust the creatures and returning to triumphant headlines of his victories
His ultimate battle with the sharks occurred in July of 1891. While entertaining aboard his yacht Hildegard, Hermann set the entire floating party nervously atwitter when he announced, a hundred miles offshore, that their little pleasure cruise was, in fact, a search for sharks. He planned to jump in to the water and prove, once and for all, who was truly the mightiest creature in the ocean.
A rumble of fear and then action rippled through the deck, as those on board crowded the rails and began to place wagers. Upon spotting several large sharks off the starboard side, Hermann changed into his bathing clothes and leapt from the yacht into the rolling sea.
Hermann made a beeline directly for the sharks, which scattered as he thrashed about defiantly. As his foes disappeared into the depths surrounding him, the man climbed back aboard the Hildegard to the raucous cheers of the crowd; born, in smoke and diamonds, was a Star of the Sea.
Five years later, his battle against Powel was not quite so dramatic, though no less impressive. After holding the line taut for twenty minutes, he, too, was declared the victor, toughest fish in the sea, the money changing hands on the shores of Newport like the tide.
The spectacle was a success—the Times declared it "the most interesting incident of the summer"—and another challenge was arranged for the very next morning, with the Oelrichs brothers facing a more worthy opponent.
Only at Newport could a spectacle like this occur, men fishing for men with massive sums on the line with the eyes of the most fashionable, rich, and powerful upon them, and an enthralled nation to read about their exploits a day later.
It was the beachfront home of America's wealthiest and had been ever since the merchant and slave-trader Godfrey Malbone entertained George Washington there on his 24th birthday. From the late 1880s to the turn of the century (and slightly beyond), the Vanderbilts, Astors, Fishes, Tiffanys, Drexels, Whartons—the great American roll call—made Newport, and the Gilded Age, their own. These were families of industry, capitalist royalty, and in the summer, spectacle was their chosen business.
Denizens of the Queen of Resorts, the "haunts of wealth and fashion," as the Times called it, set the standard for and recreation. There was fierce competition over who could throw the most lavish parties, who could land the most distinguished guests, who could book the finest entertainments, and as the grande dames of Newport flexed their political and social power, their husbands took to sport.
The push for general physical fitness had begun to take hold in the 1850s, spurred in part by the "muscular Christianity" of English writers Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, who argued that vigorous exercise need not cause moral or spiritual decay. By the Gilded Age, sport had risen to become a regular aspect of American society, particularly as a way to combat what was perceived to be the general "feminization" of men in light of the advances of the Industrial Revolution. Where once the office-bound life of the executive—echoes of European royalty—was considered the most desirable station of a man, the concern was that the young boys of America's bootstrapping millionaires, having missed out on both the back-breaking labor and the soul-sharpening meritocracy by virtue of their last names, would grow to be soft and weak.
And so, in addition to being a veritable Athens of partying, Newport became a leading center of sport. Newport can lay claim to the popularizing of golf, tennis, lacrosse, and polo; later, auto racing would plant its flag in America in the City by the Sea. The quintessential Newport sport, however, was yachting; the wind-whipped waters of Narragansett Bay were frequently the site of the America's Cup, while the opulent and beautiful steam yachts owned by wealthy families—J. P. Morgan's Corsair, J. J. Drexel's Sultana, William Astor's massive 201-foot Nourmahal—helped to usher in the age of the motor yacht.
No stranger, less seminal moment more perfectly combined Newport's penchants for spectacle, sport, and self-indulgence than the Oelrichs brothers' bet.
Morning dawned on August 29, 1896, warm and fair, the nascent sun shattering off the gentle breaks of Narragansett Bay. Theodore A. Havemeyer had been at the struggle for about five minutes, planted on the deck of a boat, working the fishing rod and using all the talents and gifts of an expert bass fisherman to land a most unusual and exquisite catch.
Havemeyer—bald, with fat muttonchops joined by a mustache and with millions of dollars to his name—was the consummate sportsman capitalist. Already a fine yachter and polo player, Havemeyer became quite taken by the then-obscure game of golf on a vacation to the south of France in 1889; landing at Newport with clubs, balls, and burning passion, he went on to establish not only a course and country club but was instrumental in the creation of the United States Golf Association, of which he was first President. Indeed, his baby, the U.S. Open, had just held its inaugural tournament the past fall, making Havemeyer both sporting and sugar royalty.
Now Havemeyer was trying his hand at Newport's latest sports curiosity, as Powel's replacement for round two of Hermann and Charles's bet.
In the beginning, Havemeyer looked to have a fight on his hands, his rod bent double as the prize rapidly took out the line. An experienced and effective angler is a patient one, however, and Havemeyer, a few minutes into the contest, pulled taut and began to to regain line. By about six minutes into the struggle, the Sugar Baron was making slow but steady progress, the reeling in of his prize moving with measured certainty, his rod finally lifting its head from its bowed position, forced genuflection replaced with arched effort.
He pulled against the considerable weight at the end of the line, before finally, after ten minutes of epic contest, his foe emerged from the sea sans fins and gills, its flippers replaced by strikingly pale limbs ending in strangely ineffective paddles, all crowned by a curious and handsome head of hair, a man, a man on the end of the line, on the bottom of the boat, at the Sugar Baron's feet!
The man was none other than Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, scion of the Belmont banking family, as in the Stakes, who kept his horse's stables on the ground floor of his mansion Belcourt, bedding them on white linen embroidered with the family crest. An American playboy—handsome New World Royalty—landed off the coast of Bailey's Beach like a marlin!
Next came the truly fearsome human fish, Charles and Hermann.
Two times Havemeyer tried, his rod arching like an agitated cat, but he could not pull in either of the Brothers Oelrichs, who kept the fishing line tight as piano wire for twenty minutes apiece and immeasurably proved that they were indeed the mightiest beasts of the sea.
Sure, the Sugar Baron landed resort sport Oliver Belmont, who was no slouch in the swimming department, but he was no Oelrichs, either—neither Charles nor Hermann. And so the big game on the line chummed the waters with that which was most synonymous with their city by the sea.
The challenge went out! A thousand dollars to any man who could land Hermann Oelrichs, the human marlin, shipping magnate, handsome and strapping Captain of the Gentleman Sportsmen, and member, in good, doe-eyed standing, of Society, within half an hour!
A special thank you to Leslie Varrecchia and the staff at the research desk of the Newport Public Library, who were instrumental in helping me comb through microfilm of the turn-of-the-century Newport Daily News. Abigail Stewart and Paul Miller, the Research and Interpretation Coordinator and Curator, respectively, of The Preservation Society of Newport County, provided crucial details about the Oelrichs' lives and the milieu of Gilded Age, cottager Society Newport. Abigail's office, in the stately, bleached bone-white Italianate mansion "Chepstow," gave me a brief but thrilling taste of Newport's castles of capital.
Rachel Oakes assisted my understanding of Rhode Island geography and put me up while I visited Newport, a place best understood by traveling Bellevue Avenue and Thames Street, getting caught in luxe orbit of the palaces while catching flashes of the bay and the brilliant, sharp low clouds of sailboats between flush colonial homes and narrow streets.
Dr. Gaea Leinhardt, Cleveland Amory's step-daughter, checked her thoroughly annotated copy of her father's book to help me nail down some details, and Jonathan Burton, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, helped me to identify human fisherman Samuel Powel Jr., with an enthusiasm that buoyed my confidence and the entire piece.
Barbara Little described Gilded Age Society fashion to the stitch for me.
Finally, a thank you to Michael Capuzzo, whose book about the 1916 New Jersey great white attacks, Close To Shore, provided both my first encounter with human fishing and the daring shark scuffle 100 miles out to sea.
The single most important non-human resource were the archives of the New York Times; the Times devotion to chronicling New York Society—especially at the Queen of Resorts—meant that wide ribbons of everyday life were catalogued and revealed to me, and by bundling these up I attempted to compose the most contextual and colorful, as well as accurate, account of human fishing possible. Almost all of the anecdotes and knowledge either came to me from the Times, or was found in there by another author's book.
The 1896 microfilm archives of the Newport Daily News allowed me to better understand the mindset of the Queen at the time of the Oelrichs' ludicrous bet; the paper was dominated by talks of the Horse Show and "base ball" scores, articles about William Jennings Bryan and Booker T. Washington, and the visit to the United States by Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang.
The following sources were also used:
Amory, Cleaveland. The Last Resort. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
Auchincloss, Louis. The Vanderbilt Era. New York: Scribner, 1989.
Capuzzo, Michael. Close to Shore. Broadway: New York, 2001.
Davis, Deborah. Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, 2009.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem paperback. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2008.
Gallup, Katerine and Mayer, Eve. Abstract of The Powel Family Papers, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2003.
Gilbert, Tom. "Deeper Look at Domino History." The Brooklyn Paper. Community News Group, August 4, 2007. Web. August 23, 2015.
The website of The Preservation Society of Newport County, www.newportmansions.org.
Rader, Benjamin G. American Sports From The Age of Folk Games to The Age of Televised Sport, fifht edition. Pearson/Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2004.
Shrock, Joel. The Gilded Age. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 2004.
Silverman, Jeff. "Summer in Rhode Island." Travel + Leisure. Time Inc/Affluent Media Group, April 28, 2009. Web. August 23, 2015.
Williams, Robert. Great Moments of the U.S. Open. Firefly Books: Buffalo, 2013.
Wolfe, Tom. The Pumphouse Gang. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1968.