PETA urges name change for Delaware’s Slaughter Beach

Slaughter Beach is a sleepy little southern Delaware town situated along the Delaware Bay in Sussex County. (Charlie O'Neill/WHYY)

Slaughter Beach is a sleepy little southern Delaware town situated along the Delaware Bay in Sussex County. (Charlie O'Neill/WHYY)

What’s in a name? The Shakespearean question is being raised in the small Delaware town called “Slaughter Beach.”

In a letter sent to Slaughter Beach Mayor Harry Ward, the animal rights group PETA urged the town to change its name to the more pleasant-sounding “Sanctuary Beach.” That name, the group said, would better reflect the town’s status as a certified wildlife habitat and a sanctuary for horseshoe crabs.

Slaughter Beach is a sleepy little southern Delaware town situated along the Delaware Bay in Sussex County. As of the 2010 census, 207 people live in the town with the grim name.

Mayor Ward admits he gets questions about the town’s grisly-sounding moniker from time to time throughout the year, but he calls the PETA letter “self-serving” and not a realistic attempt to start a conversation about the name. “The heavy handed, presumptuous manner in which they did this didn’t leave much room for positive dialog.” Another sign that the effort was just a PETA stunt was the fact that five minutes after emailing the letter, the group posted a press release on the website describing their effort, Ward said. “The bullying method doesn’t make for a good start for a good conversation.”

Slaughter Beach sits on Delaware Bay in northern Sussex County. (Charlie O’Neill/WHYY)

Ward bristles at a national group dictating what his small town should do, and he says about 25 residents emailed him to express their support for the town and its unusual name. “All of them, without exception, they all were adamantly opposed to what PETA was stating,” Ward said.

But the name does raise eyebrows with visitors and even some residents. “Actually, it’s a frightening name,” said Slaughter Beach resident Jimmy Dalton. “When people come through here, everybody wants to know the derivation of Slaughter Beach.”

The name could be worse.

Resident Cynthia Lyons has to explain the name to family members who live out of state. “I have a niece who lives in Texas, and the first time I sent her a Christmas card she said, ‘Aunt Cynthia, how can you stand living in Serial Killer Beach?’” Lyons said. “Slaughter Beach is pretty bad, but serial killer is a lot worse.”

As a sleepy beach town, the name may be helping keep Slaughter Beach from getting overcrowded like some other Delaware beach towns. “We kind of like the name,” Dalton said. “We like the town to be kind of out of the way. The name Slaughter Beach is kind of a deterrent.”

Even without changing the name, protecting the town’s status as a nature sanctuary is a top priority for Slaughter Beach residents. “The people that live here year round, and even the summer people, are really into the environment, and protecting it, and keeping it the way it is: a sleepy little fishing village.”

There is lots of folklore stories surrounding the origins of the name. “There was a sailing ship that ran into foul weather out here in the bay and sunk, and it had a load of pigs on it, and the pigs all drowned, hence Slaughter Beach,” Dalton said of one tale he’s heard.

Hundreds of horseshoe crabs lay their eggs on Slaughter Beach shores every year. (Charlie O’Neill/WHYY)

There also are stories about a Native American slaughter on the site of the town hundreds of years ago. Perhaps the name traces to the horseshoe crabs that lay their eggs on Slaughter Beach shores. “If we had a lot of wave action during their mating season, they’d get flipped over and be literally slaughtered because they don’t have an easy time flipping themselves back over,” Mayor Ward said.

The real source of the name is likely linked to the town’s first postmaster: William Slaughter. “There are creeks and streets and other areas around here — Slaughter Neck, Slaughter Creek — and the family was prominent down here and he was a post master, so it’s most likely,” Ward said. The truth may not be as good of a story, so town residents keep telling the legends for entertainment. “I tell my grandchildren tales around the campfire about how it got its name, and believe me, that’s not an accurate story either,” Ward said.

Ward doesn’t plan to respond to PETA directly, because that would only bring more press attention to PETA. “That’s not my desire to assist them in their press relations.”

He’s optimistic that the attention the town is getting this week will help boost support for this Sunday’s Greenhead 5K run which will raise money for the Delaware Nature Society and the Slaughter Beach Memorial Fire Company.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.