The summer of 1916 was a time when Americans were concerned with politics and war. The Great War was raging in Europe.
Pancho Villa led the Mexican revolution in New Mexico, and U.S. Marines invaded the Dominican Republic.
So, as July 1916 began, people were looking forward to a relaxing summer that would give them a reprieve from the concerns of war.
On July 1, a young stockbroker taking a short holiday with his family on the Jersey Shore stepped onto the beach for a swim before dinner.
He didn’t know that it would be the last few hours of his life, and he would start a hysteria along the East Coast that would eventually inspire Peter Benchley to write his novel, Jaws.
The Summer of the Shark Begins
In 1916, sharks were seen as harmless fish unless provoked. Scientists and researchers backed this up when they published a scientific bulletin on shark behavior that same year.
The bulletin assuaged the public fear of shark attacks and noted that there had been none on the East Coast. So, as Charles Vansant swam in the waters of Beach Haven, he was not concerned about anything, least of all sharks.
He had been playing with a dog in the area before he went into the water. So when some beachgoers heard him cry out, they thought he was calling for his dog.
But when a lifeguard saw him struggling to stay afloat, the lifeguard swam out and grabbed Vansant.
As he dragged him out of the water, horrified witnesses saw his legs and thigh were missing.
They took him to the hotel’s front desk to call for medical assistance while the staff tried to control the bleeding.
After two hours, Vansant bled to death at the hotel front desk. He was only 28 years old.
As the horrible news spread, many found the story unbelievable and refused to accept it. Those who believed it called it a freak accident. They thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime incident that would not happen again anytime soon.
Unsurprisingly, many people went back to their summertime habits. They strolled the beaches and enjoyed the cool refreshing waters of the Jersey Shore. But unbeknownst to them, another attack would happen several miles north of the well-to-do area of Beach Haven.
The Second Victim
Spring Lake was another popular area for beachgoers on the Jersey Shore. Just 45 miles away from Beach Haven, the area had many resorts and hotels. On July 6, Swiss immigrant Charles Bruder, a bellboy in the nearby Essex and Sussex Hotel, was taking his break.
He went in the water with his friends and swam away from his group, going beyond the lifelines set up by the lifeguards.
Soon, people on the shore were screaming because there was a long strip of red in the water. It looked like the hull of an upturned canoe, so two lifeguards took a boat and rowed out to the area.
As they approached Bruder, the lifeguards realized there was no boat, and the red color was Bruder’s blood. The young man was struggling to stay afloat. He screamed to the lifeguards that a shark had attacked him
They grabbed Bruder’s arms and pulled him up, only to find that both his legs below the knees were gone. The young man was also losing a lot of blood, so the lifeguards quickly rowed to bring him ashore.
Bruder died before reaching the shore. Terrified beachgoers panicked when they saw the young man on the beach. Afraid, many quickly bolted out of the water.
This time, the public reaction was panic and hysteria. Many people were afraid to go to the beach even though resorts and hotels promised them the security of anti-shark barriers and coastline watches to warn them of the presence of sharks.
Everyone, even the scientists, was confused as to the strange behavior of the shark or sharks. If it was a group of sharks, it was unheard of that they would attack people. Most man-eating sharks, such as the great white and the tiger shark, were solitary and often did not hunt in groups. Many sharks in the area were also largely not man-eaters.
So, was it possible that only one shark was attacking people? This question would soon be answered in the small town of Matawan.
The Man-eater of Matawan
Matawan was 30 miles north of Spring Lake but was also 11 miles away from the East Coast and seemed safe from shark attacks. In addition, the area had many inland creeks, including Matawan Creek.
These areas were often shallow and muddy, so most people thought it was unlikely that a shark would ever swim this far inland to attack a human being.
But on July 12, local resident and retired sea captain Thomas Cottrell reported seeing an eight-foot shark near the mouth of Matawan Creek. Many in the small town refused to believe him as it was a time of year when the Creek was very shallow.
Somewhere along the Creek, farther inland, a group of boys decided to go for a swim in the afternoon. One of them was 11-year-old Lester Stillwell. All of them were playing in the shallow end of the waters. Lester was playing with another boy and a dog.
One boy, who was standing further away from the shallow end, reported feeling something like sandpaper touch his leg. But the boys continued to play, and soon Lester found himself a bit further off from the rest.
The boys on the shore then noticed a floating log in the water that started to move toward Lester. They then saw a dorsal fin and knew it was a shark. The boys screamed for him to get out, but the shark dragged the boy into the depths of Matawan Creek.
The boys all ran to town to ask for help. One of the respondents was businessman Watson Stanley Fisher. All of the rescuers swam around and looked for Lester, but they could not find him.
Fisher went to the area where the boys had last seen their friend. He swam down, and when he finally came out of the water, he was holding a part of Lester’s body.
What happened next shocked everyone. A shark came out of the water and dragged Fisher, taking him down into the water and making him lose his hold on Lester’s body. Many of the witnesses saw the shark bite off his right thigh, severing it completely.
The people on the shore did their best to save Fisher. They finally pulled him out of the water, but his injuries were very serious. He was losing a lot of blood. Fisher bled to death in the hospital later that day. He was only 24.
What the people did not know was the shark remained unsated. It continued to swim along Matawan Creek, finally ending up 800 meters away from where it had attacked Fisher and Lester.
There, another group of boys was enjoying an afternoon dip. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn was with his brother and friend. They were swimming in the creek when the shark bit Dunn’s left leg. A grisly tug-of-war between the shark and the boys commenced.
Fortunately, Dunn’s companions saved him. Although he lost his left leg, he was still alive. He was the only survivor of the Matawan man-eater, and there was no question that only one shark attacked all three victims on that fateful day.
The Hunt Begins for a Man-eater…or Man-eaters?
After what happened in Matawan, the entire Jersey Shore area mobilized to catch what they called then the Jersey man-eater.
Five attacks in a span of ten days were unheard of so people started to demand action from the government.
People started to kill any shark within the area, and even President Woodrow Wilson, former governor of New Jersey, called a cabinet meeting that requested the support of the Coast Guard and the United States Fisheries Service.
Bounty hunters went up and down the East Coast, killing thousands of sharks. Shark phobia began to grip the nation, and the hysteria never quite went away.
The Man-eater Is Caught
On July 14, Michael Schleisser was in Raritan Bay, a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek. He caught a 7.5-foot shark in the area and managed to kill it with his oar before it tried to sink his boat.
Schleisser was a trained taxidermist, so he opened the shark’s belly. He found some remains that seemed questionable, but he gathered them in a box for further examination.
When he brought the shark for scientists to identify, they said it was a juvenile great white shark, a known man-eater. Its stomach contents were identified as human, all 15 pounds of them.
Though many remained skeptical at the thought that a lone shark was responsible for all the attacks, everyone agreed on one thing: After Schleisser killed this shark, the attacks ended, and Jersy Shore returned to being a peaceful and relaxing area.
As for the shark that eventually became known as the Matawan man-eater, Schlessier stuffed it and put it in his shop for everyone to see.
But the question remains: was the serial man-eater a rogue member of its species or just a misunderstood shark that was just trying to survive?
Until today, no one knows the true nature of the Matawan man-eater, but its horrific memory inspired Jaws, a novel that still inspires fear even after nearly 50 years since its initial release.
Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror, pp. 1–9; Capuzzo, Close to Shore, pp. 88–103; Thomas B. Allen, Shadows in the Sea: The Sharks, Skates, and Rays, (1963; Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press, 1996), pp. 3–4, ISBN 1-55821-518-2.