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1916 shark hunt newspaper

1916 NJ Shark Attacks: The Aftermath

Did you miss the first article:  1916 Shark Attacks: The Real Jaws

As you can imagine, news of the string of attacks sparked mass hysteria, on a national level, although it was not immediate.  After the first incident, the state fish commissioner of Pennsylvania wrote in the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

Philadelphia Public Ledger

“Despite the death of Charles Vansant and the report that two sharks having been caught in that vicinity recently, I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters. The information in regard to the sharks is indefinite and I hardly believe that Vansant was bitten by a man-eater. Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to bite the dog and snapped at the man in passing.”

After the second incident however, the news made front page of major national newspapers including the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, and Boston Herald.   The result was an approximated $250K decline in tourism which amounts to over $5 million dollars at 2015 rates.  Resort towns enclosed their beaches with steel nets but that did little to reassure the public.

1916 shark hunt newspaperThe ensuing shark hunt was sanctioned by local governments all the way up to the federal level, in many cases offering significant rewards.  Hundreds of sharks were captured and killed along the east cost in what has been described as the greatest shark hunt in history.

Mystery remains whether there was a single rogue shark responsible for the string of attacks, or if there were several animals involved.  The two most likely culprits are the Great White Shark and the Bull Shark.  Many believe that a great white was responsible, but since the final attacks all occurred in Matawan creek miles from the ocean where salinity levels are low, others feel it had to be a bull shark.

On July 14th, 2016, just days after the final attacks, a shark that was later identified as a great white, was captured in Raritan Bay, just a few miles from Matawan Creek.  Michael Schleisser offered a heroic tale of the battle with the 7.5 foot shark, stating that it nearly sunk his boat before he was able to beat it to death with a broken oar.  After getting the shark back to shore, the animal was identified as a great white shark and the contents of it’s stomach included “suspicious fleshy material and bones,” later found to be human remains.  After this catch, there were no more attacks and the media proclaimed that the rogue shark had been killed.  The only surviving photo of that shark is from the Bronx Home News.1916 nj shark maneater

There is likely to be continued debate over the number of sharks and species responsible for the incident.  The International Shark Attack File officially reports the great white as the responsible shark.  It’s director, George Burgess states:

“The bull draws a lot of votes because the location, Matawan Creek, suggests brackish or fresh waters, a habitat that bulls frequent and whites avoid. However, our examination of the site reveals that the size of the “creek,” its depth, and salinity regime were closer to a marine embaymentand that a smallish white clearly could have wandered into the area. Since an appropriate sized white shark with human remains in its stomach was captured nearby shortly after the bites (and no further incidents occurred), it seems likely that this was the shark involved in at least the Matawan fatalities. The temporal and geographical sequence of the incidents also suggests that earlier bites may have involved the same shark.”

The incident, now nearly 100 years old, single handedly changed the nations attitude toward sharks.  Before the fatal shark attacks of 1916, it was not believed that sharks could or would attack healthy bathers near shore.  In fact, some felt it attacks were more likely the result of a large sea turtle.  Much has changed in public perception and scientific knowledge, and this incident had a major impact on that.

jaws summer blockbuster

1916 Shark Attacks: The Real Jaws

Part 1/2: The Timeline & Victims

The summer blockbuster of 1975, Jaws, has captivated the imaginations of people worldwide. At the same time, it’s also nurtured our instinctual fear of the unknown, and resulted in an irrational terror of sharks. The movie, however, has some basis in reality, and here’s the story.

1916 nj shark attack mapIn a span of just under two weeks, the New Jersey coast was home to a series of fatal attacks in the summer of 1916.  From July 1 – 12, four people lost their lives and another was seriously injured.  The type of shark responsible, and the number of sharks involved, has been debated by experts since the event took place nearly 100 years ago.

Most now believe there could only have been two possible culprits: the great white shark and/or the bull shark.  Although no one can say for sure, there are convincing arguments for both species.  Whether or not there was just one rouge shark, or several responsible for the attacks, also remains a mystery, not likely to be solved.

The first incident took place in the seaside town of Beach Haven, just north of Atlantic City.  A 25 year old man from Philadelphia, named Charles Vansant was vacationing with his family at the time.  During the early evening of July 1, Vansant decided to go for a swim with his dog.  Soon after, witnesses reported hearing him begin to shout and frantically swim to shore.  The lifeguard on duty helped to pull him from the water and claimed that the shark followed him to shore.  He was brought to the Engleside Hotel where he was staying.  All the flesh from his left upper leg had been removed and he bled to death on the manager’s desk.  The time was 6:45pm. Check out this clip from the Smithsonian Channel.

1916 shark attack newspaperForty miles north of the first shark attack, Spring Lake saw the next major event on July 6th.  Also in the evening hours,Charles Bruder, 27 years old, was just a few hundred feet from shore when he was bitten in the abdomen and legs.  Witnesses there reported that the water turned red with blood.  Hearing the screams, 2 lifeguards made it out the Bruder in a lifeboat and recovered his mutilated body.  He was dead before they reached the shore.

On July 12, two people were killed in Matawan Creek, another 30 miles north of the prior attacks.  The first individual was Lester Stillwell, an 11 year old boy.  He and a few friends were playing in the creek when they noticed a shadow in the water.  At first, they thought it was an old log or piece of wood until the dorsal fin broke the surface.  Realizing it was a shark, the boys fled the creek but Lester was pulled under by the shark before he was able to escape.  His friends ran into town to get help and returned with several townspeople.  One of those who came to investigate was Watson Stanley Fisher, a 24 year old local businessman.  He dove into the creek to recover Lester’s body and was attacked by a shark in front of the others.  He suffered devastating injuries to his right leg and died a few hours later at Monmouth Memorial Hospital.  Lester Stillwell’s body was recovered just 150 feet upstream two days later.

1916 matawan journal shark attack

The final attack occurred on the same day less than half of a mile from the prior attacks.  This time was different only in that 14 year old Joseph Dunn survived the attack.  The shark clamped down on his leg and a tug-of-war ensured between the shark and Joseph’s brother and friend.  Fortunately he was pulled out of the water and rushed to St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick were he spent the next several months recovering from serious injuries.

Check back later for Part 2/2: The aftermath to learn about the ensuing panic and shark hunt!