When Sharks Became Dangerous: The Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916
WORLD HISTORY | October 19, 2019
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.
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.
The Second Attack
The second attack occurred on July 6 when 27-year old Charles Bruder was swimming off Spring Lake, some 45 miles north of Beach Haven. Bruder was a bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel and was known to be a strong swimmer who often went beyond the lifelines. Suddenly, he gave a cry of help. Two lifeguards launched a boat for him. When they arrived they found the water stained with blood. When they found Bruder, they drew him into the boat, finding him lighter than they imagined. This was because his left leg was bitten off above the knee and the right leg was bitten off below the knee. There was also a bite on the victim’s side. Bruder was dead before he reached the shore.
The attack on Bruder set off a panic. There was a continuing debate over whether or not the animal that attacked the swimmer was actually a shark. The New York Times reported July 8, “The death of Bruder renewed the controversy that has waged for years as to whether a shark will attack a man. It was suggested that a huge mackerel had killed the bather and not a shark at all…” An assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History examined the wounds and pronounced that the attack was committed by a killer whale.
One letter to the editor of the New York Times opined that it must have been a sea turtle. “These creatures are of a vicious disposition, and when annoyed are extremely dangerous to approach...:”
Speculation aside, witnesses identified and the public accepted that the attacks were by a shark or sharks and experts identified it as a great white. Even as the debate unfolded, beaches were enclosed in wire nets and motorboat patrols were initiated up and down the Jersey Shore which dragged lamb quarters behind the boat with riflemen at the ready. No shark materialized. Bad advice on what to do was also given, which was generally to make a lot of noise and splash -- something that is known to attract sharks. To add to the panic, ship captains reported sightings of unusual numbers of sharks.
The Third Attack
The third, and worst, an attack occurred on July 12 at Matawan Creek where a shark swam into waters no more than 17 feet deep. A sea captain spotted the shark, but he was dismissed since sharks were not known to go into the brackish creek. The great fish took 11-year-old Lester Stilwell by the stomach and dragged him underwater. The boy surfaced momentarily to scream. The location of the attack was about a mile from the sea. Boys who were playing with Stillwell ran back to town and got help. It was then that the 24-year-old Watson Fisher went to the creek and in trying to recover Stillwell’s body was attacked by the shark. Fisher, bitten in the thigh, lost the body and bled to death on the way to the hospital.
The shark, however, was not done that day. About 30 minutes later, the shark attacked 12-year old Joseph Dunn but was rescued by others in which they had to pull Dunn away from the shark which had its jaws clamped on Dunn’s leg.
The Hunt for the Jersey Man-Eater
The New York Times reported the mood at the time: “The one purpose in which everybody shares is to get the shark, to kill it, and to see its body drawn up on the shore, where all may look and be assured it will destroy no more.”
The people of Matawan intensified their efforts using dynamite and rifles to hunt down any shark they could. Meanwhile, swimming in the Jersey Shore became rare indeed. Businesses lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue as vacation plans were canceled. Shark fishing suddenly grew in vogue. Simultaneously, scientists from the American Museum of Natural History admitted that sharks could be dangerous after all. In an editorial, the New York Times affirmed, “the old question as to whether or not these great fishes deserve their sinister reputation is settled in the affirmative.”
The panic grew so intense, that President Wilson and his cabinet discussed the “the shark horror gripping the New Jersey Coast” and directed the Coast Guard to use its powers to drive away sharks.
The Man-Eater is Caught?
There was plenty of speculation as to why shark attacks would be happening. Some sea captains opined that due to overfishing the shark or sharks was forced to seek human prey. Others thought perhaps it was a shift in oceanic currents. Nothing then or now has provided good evidence as to why the shark attacks of 1916 happened.
But the attacks on July 12 turned out to be the last. On July 14, a taxidermist Michael Schleisser caught a seven and a half foot long juvenile great white shark. Upon examination, they found a human shinbone in the shark’s digestive tract. However, there is still some debate over whether the attacks were committed by one shark or many. Often aside from great white sharks, bull sharks are named as a possible culprit since they are known to travel far inland into brackish waterways like Matawan Creek.
While the hunt for the “Jersey Man-Eater” seemed to be over, the effects of this spate of attacks would have lasting consequences. Sharks were now truly seen as monstrous creatures. This is best seen as with the author Peter Benchley when he wrote his famous novel Jaws which became even more famous in the 1975 film adaptation by Stephen Spielberg. Benchley himself claimed not have been influenced by the 1916 events, but he most certainly was at least indirectly. Perhaps the lasting cultural impact of how people’s views of sharks transformed can be best summarized by a line from the movie describing sharks:
“What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all.”
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Joseph A. Williams