The horrifying 12 days that made up the 1916 shark attacks along the New Jersey coast spawned a mass fear and paranoia for sharks that we still feel today.
A series of fatal and near-deadly shark attacks in 1916 New Jersey scared thousands of people out of entering the ocean. The shockwave of those 1916 shark attacks can even still be felt today when the reputation of these marine animals has been all but tainted with bloodlust and paranoia. The 1974 novel and the subsequent 1975 classic film of the same name, Jaws, did little to alleviate these fears through the decades.
Actually, it is often credited with spurring the still-raging battle of panic and paranoia on behalf of beachgoers and sharks the world over. Here is what happened in this bloody and terrifying two weeks on the New Jersey coast that July in 1916.
A Leisurely Swim At Sunset
Before the shark attacks of 1916, scientists largely thought that sharks were relatively benign. They believed sharks to be little more than large, unintelligent fish with big teeth. Marine biologists also believed that sharks wouldn’t come close to humans — at least not in the northern waters or near the tropics.
Some, including millionaire athlete Hermann Oelrichs, was so convinced that sharks were harmless to humans he twice dove into shark-infested waters to prove his point to a horrified and jaw-clenched cloud. Obviously, these experts and foolhardy millionaires were sorely mistaken, and 12 horrifying days in July of 1916 would show them just how mistaken they were.
The summer of 1916 was unusual. It was unbearably hot in New Jersey and in an era before air conditioning no less. At the same time, there was a polio epidemic which had people escaping to the beaches in droves to seek restoration, relief, and healing.
But that heat made for some unusually warm waters that year, too, and experts today theorize that those warm waters brought in sharks to the northern Atlantic to hunt.
25-year-old Charles Vansant had arrived in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on July 1, 1916. He was with his father, mother, and two sisters to celebrate Independence Day. Just after sunset, he took to the ocean. Vansant was in good shape and was a strong young man. He swam 50 yards from shore into chest-deep waters.
All the while, he was trying to convince a retriever to swim to him in the water. Witnesses said that a group of people nearby noticed a dark shape lingering in the water. They tried to warn Vansant, but he was set on getting the attention of the dog.
Vansant’s calling for the dog became shrieks of horror.
An on-duty lifeguard and friend of the victim, Alexander Ott, rushed into the water. Vansant’s sister Louise watched in shock as two people formed a human chain to help pull Vansant out of the water. The dark shape of the shark didn’t let go of the young man until its stomach scraped the sandy bottom of the shore, according to witnesses. No one could estimate the size of the shark.
Vansant was lighter than usual when finally he was retrieved. He was missing all of one leg and most of another.
Ott used a skirt from a bather to apply a tourniquet. Vansant’s father, a nose and throat physician, and a medical student rushed to help. They took the victim to the hotel where they were staying. Despite their best efforts, Vansant died at the hotel at 6:45 p.m.
His death made page 18 of The New York Times as polio remained the big news of the day. “Dies After Attack By Fish,” the article read.
Shock circulated the east coast. This was the first such incident recorded in the region. Local newspapers tried to keep the headlines quiet. The New Jersey resorts wanted to make big money during the Fourth of July holiday and fear of shark attacks would certainly dampen the mood and scare people away.
Hotel owners where Vansant died put up safety netting 300 feet from the shoreline. Too bad the next victim wasn’t anywhere near the first incident.
The 1916 Shark Attacks Escalate
Charles Bruder, age 27, was an excellent swimmer. He was taking a lunch break from his job as a bellhop at the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake on the afternoon of July 6, 1916.
Spring Lake is 45 miles north of Beach Haven, the sight of the first attack just five days earlier.
Bruder swam far out into the ocean beyond the boundaries of normal beachgoers. Witnesses suddenly heard his screams of terror. They say they saw Bruder’s body flung into the air as a shark tore his legs off. Mona Childs watched the attack through theatre glasses as she stood on the shore. She reported seeing the shark turn away from Bruder only to dart back towards him. She described it as “an airplane attacks a zeppelin.”
Two lifeguards quickly rowed out to Bruder. When they arrived, he yelled. “A shark bit me. Bit off my legs!”
Upon pulling Bruder out of the water, they saw everything below the knees had been torn away. The victim quickly went into shock and died.
Hundreds of people, mostly from the upper echelons of society, witnessed the brutal attack. Women fainted and vomited, both from the heat and the shock from what they just saw. This time, the news traveled quickly. Childs demanded that the hotel phone operator send a message to other hotels up and down the Jersey Shore to get out of the water.
Scientists and medical doctors held a news conference following this second attack. Though there were two shark attacks within five days of each other, some experts genuinely could not believe that a shark was responsible. John Treadwell Nichols, assistant curator of the Department of Recent Fishes at the museum, examined the body of Charles Bruder and concluded that an orca whale was responsible for the attack.
Other scientists also stressed that another attack was not likely because sharks simply didn’t attack people. Indeed, scientists did everything in their power to deemphasize the threat sharks pose to humans. At the press conference, journalists and attendees speculated that the attacks were from killer mackerels instead, large sea turtles, or even German U-boats as hysteria surrounding World War I was growing.
Dr. William G. Schauffler would become the voice of reason. As one of New Jersey’s most respected medical doctors, he stated unequivocally that “There is not the slightest doubt that a man-eating shark inflicted the injuries.” This voice, though, would be lost in a sea of naysayers.
But there were two more fatal attacks.
On July 12, 1916, a single shark killed two kids and almost a third. Everything was quiet in the town of Matawan despite the hysteria raging closer to the ocean. It was 11 miles inland and nowhere near the beach. No one ever saw large, man-eating sharks in the muddy waters of Matawan Creek before anyway.
Thomas Cottrell was a fisherman in the town. From his boat, he saw a menacing form swim under the town’s bridge. He had heard about the attacks and what many had dubbed shark attacks. His face turned pale.
Cottrell ran through town and warned everyone he could find. He said he had seen a shark about 8 feet long, but no one believed him as they did not think that an ocean-going shark would ever come this far inland. Cottrell had just missed warning a group of young workers from a local basket factory when an apprentice at the factory, 11-year-old Lester Stillwell, waded into the creek before a group of his friends.
It wasn’t long before the waters churned and turned crimson. The rest of the boys, still naked from skinny dipping, ran into town to get help.
The entire town came to the creek to investigate. People cautiously waded into the water but their frantic search for Lester was to no avail. Some townsfolk would still not believe that the attack was because of a shark. Some thought the boys were pulling a prank. Others thought Lester had an epileptic seizure.
Local tailor and a strong swimmer, 24-year-old Watson Stanley Fisher, swam out far into the creek to try to find the youngster. He came back from the dive and struggled to find footing near the shore. One witness claimed Fisher had Lester’s body with him, although that is not confirmed.
What happened next horrified everyone.
A dark shape slammed into Fisher from his right. It pulled him under and attacked him repeatedly. The athlete frantically pummeled the shark with his fists. It wasn’t until a rowboat beat the shark with oars that the creature finally let go.
10 pounds of flesh were torn away from Fisher’s thigh. All that was left was bone. Fisher was taken to a train en route to a hospital. He died two hours after the attack.
A Survivor, A Hunt, And A Legacy
Just thirty minutes after Fisher’s attack, Joseph Dunn was swimming downstream in Matawan Creek. He was mere feet from a dock ladder when he felt a tug on his leg. Two of his friends pulled on his arms, trying to get Joseph up the ladder. His leg was bleeding, but he lived after the shark let go. What saved Joseph was that the shark bite didn’t sever any major arteries.
Shark hysteria finally rang high when Lester Stilwell’s maimed little body was eventually found. President Woodrow Wilson called a meeting and the White House agreed to give federal aid to “drive away all the ferocious man-eating sharks which have been making prey of bathers,” according to a July 14, 1916 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ships that moved in and out of New Jersey and New York were on high alert. Some reported schools of large sharks moving through the area. At the suggestion of scientists, safety nets were erected around beaches. Ships went into the ocean armed with rifles, harpoon guns, and axes. They used sheep guts to lure sharks.
There was even a reward for boats that killed possible man-eating sharks. Thus, shark hysteria went into full swing. It was at this moment that one of the earth’s top predators got the bad rep that continues to haunt it today.
The town of Matawan was incensed. A shark killed two of its own and crippled a third. Boats took to the water to find a shark. Some people even took to dynamiting the water to find the beast. The hunt for what the papers dubbed the “Jersey man-eater” sprawled up and down the East Coast. It has since been hailed “the largest scale animal hunt in history.”
After a few days, a dragnet captured the killer. Fishermen hauled a 350-pound, 7.5-foot great white shark into their boat. It was a battle because the shark was as long as the boat itself. The shark’s death was celebrated when it was brought ashore.
Doctors allegedly inspected the innards of the shark and found inside its stomach a human shin bone and rib.
Though no one could be sure that they had captured the same shark as the one which killed the first two victims, there also were no more deaths the shark attacks of 1916. Perhaps this lone shark did kill all four people while wounding another. Shark science was in its infancy back in 1916. No one knows precisely what happened, today, we can only speculate.
“Armed shark hunters in motor boats patrolled the New York and New Jersey coasts today while others lined the beaches in a concerted effort to exterminate the man-eaters.”
Analyzing The 1916 Shark Attacks
Experts of the day thought that the shark responsible for the 1916 attacks was a loner great white who became disoriented.
Modern experts believe it could have been a sick or injured bull shark or great white simply looking for food. Rarely does a lone shark drift a dozen miles inland along a creek, as it did in Matawan, save for bull sharks which can and do swim inland in search for food, sometimes by 50 miles or more.
It could be that scientists mistook the caught and killed great white for a bull shark since shark science was so new back in 1916. Today, scientists believe that when a shark attacks a human it’s because the shark is curious. Sharks find out about their immediate environment by biting things. They bite rocks, cages, trash, boats, surfboards, and humans. It’s just that their bite happens to be excruciating, damaging, and in some cases, fatal.
While we may never know what species of shark or why the attacks of 1916 happened, one thing is certain: shark hysteria began from these shark attacks of 1916.
after this look at the 1916 shark attacks along the Jersey shore, check out these great white shark factoids that separate fact from fiction. Then, take a look at this video of one shark cannibalizing another in Florida.