When Sharks Became Dangerous: The Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916

By | September 28, 2019

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Shark. Source: (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is hard to imagine a time when sharks were not considered dangerous, but a little over a century ago the general view was that sharks were just generally large fish that would leave humans alone. This opinion shifted rapidly after a series of attacks by the “Jersey Man-Eater” in the early summer of 1916.

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One of the suspects, a bull shark. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The First Attack

The first attack came on the afternoon of July 2, 1916, when a 25-year old, vacationing Charles Epting Vansant was swimming less than fifty feet from the Beach Haven shore in New Jersey. According to newspaper accounts, he was playing with a red Chesapeake Bay retriever at the time when a shark attacked him. People who heard his cries were at first confused, thinking his shouts were out of play with the dog. But when they saw the shark’s dorsal fin, they shouted for him to get to shore. But it was too late, the shark drew Vansant underwater even as he cried for help. Alexander Ott, a member of the Olympic swimming team who happened to be on the shore, and others rushed to his aid, finding that Vansant was struggling to the shore with the shark still gripped on his leg.

The rescuers drove the shark off, but the leg was torn from the thigh to the knee. He was brought to the hotel where a door to an office was removed and laid over two desks to act as an operating table. Vansant’s father, a physician, was present as well as two other doctors. But the young man died an hour and a half after the attack due to shock and massive hemorrhaging.

This was the first time within memory that there was a shark attack in northern waters. It was assumed that only sharks in the tropics attacked. What is more, was that the shark attacked in shallow water -- something that seemed abnormal. Because of its unusualness, people began to doubt if it was really a shark, or that it was some sort of aberration in which the shark was actually stalking the dog.