Prior to the New Jersey shark attacks in 1916, people generally considered sharks to be a harmless fish to humans. They could hardly fathom that spend a day at the beach, much less along creeks and rivers farther inland, could end in a vicious attack from a shark. Since the incidents nearly a century ago, shark research has improved greatly. These incidents have even inspired American pop culture through editorial cartoons and even the movie Jaws based on Peter Benchley's best-selling novel.
The New Jersey shark attacks began July 1, 1916 when Charles Vansant of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was vacationing with his family at Beach Haven. Vansant decided to go for a swim with his dog before dinner. Eyewitnesses stated that Vansant began shouting not too long after entering the water. Originally people thought he was yelling at his dog. It was lifeguard, Alexander Ott that realized that he was actually in distress and swam out to save him. As Ott pulled Vansant's weakened body through the water to shore, he noticed the shark following them.
Once on shore they rushed Charles Vansant to the hotel and laid him on the manager's desk. They noticed his left leg was a mangled mess. Vansant's flesh had been stripped away from his left thigh. Unfortunately, at 6:45pm, he bled to death at the age of 25.
Despite numerous sea captains' reports of seeing sharks close to the shore and Vansant's recent death, beaches continued to stay open. Five days later, the shark strikes again. This time it was 45 miles north of Beach Haven in the town of Spring Lake, New Jersey.
Charles Bruder was the second person to fall victim to the shark attacks on July 6, 1916. He was a 27 year old Swiss bellhop at the Essex and Sussex Hotel. He was swimming 130 yards from the shore when he began screaming. The shark took a bite from his abdomen and completely severed his legs.
Two lifeguards, George White and Chris Anderson, used a lifeboat to row their way to Charles Bruder. Unfortunately, Bruder bled to death in the lifeboat on the way to shore.
On July 12, Thomas Cottell who was a Matawan resident and local sea captain spotted an 8-foot shark 16 miles inland in Matawan creek. No one believed him. In fact, the townsfolk thought he was imagining things. That is until the next attack around 2:00pm that day.
Lester Stillwell and other local boys were swimming in the creek in the Wyckoff Dock area. Witnesses remember seeing what they thought was a beaten up, weathered log. To their surprise this 'log' had a dorsal fin emerging from the water. Everyone panicked as they scrambled for the shore. Stillwell didn't make it in time and the shark attacked, dragging him underwater.
The other boys rushed to town to get help. Watson Stanley Fisher was a local businessman who decided to help the boys. Fisher dove into the water looking for Lester Stillwell's body. His search was cut short when the shark began attacking him. Onlookers pulled Fisher from the creek. His right thigh was shredded. At 5:30pm, Stanley Fisher bled to death at Monmouth Memorial Hospital at the age of 24. Lester Stillwell's body was found floating 150-feet upstream from the attacks. He was only 11 years old.
Blood in the Water
Blood in the Water is a Discovery Channel documentary on the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916. It is typically aired during Shark Week.
Only 30 minutes later, the next victim in these shark attacks would be attacked. Joseph Dunn, a 14-year-old boy from New York, was swimming with his brother Michael Dunn and a friend named Jerry. Thomas Cottrell tried to warn the boys but they couldn't make out what he was saying. Then they saw a large dorsal fin coming toward them. They swam quickly to the dock's ladder. However, Joseph was a slower swimmer compared to the other two boys. The shark bit down on his left leg. The other boys pulled Joseph from the water after what seemed like a tug-of-war battle with the shark.
Joseph Dunn was rushed to St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick. Luckily Joseph recovered from the ordeal and was eventually released September 15, 1916. Out of all the shark attack victims, he was the only to survive.
Shortly after Joseph Dunn's attack, many of the local residents decided to take their own actions against the monstrous shark. Many men armed with rifles and dynamite began an attack on the creek. A $100 reward was put out for the capture of this beast. Today that is equivalent to around $2000. This sparked a rash of shark hunts in the area. Hundreds of sharks were killed indiscriminately. Among the sharks killed were blue sharks, bull sharks, sandbar sharks, and great whites just to name a few
Dr. John Nichols, a biologist, still believed the shark responsible was a rouge great white shark. Others argued that it was a bull shark that was responsible. There is still much debate about this today.
On July 14, Michael Schleisser decided to go fishing in Raritan Bay. He threw in a dragnet and began to relax. Before too long he had caught a large catch. To his surprise he had caught a 7 1/2 foot great white shark. At 325 pounds, the shark almost capsized his boat. Schleisser was able to beat the shark to death with a broken oar and towed it to shore.
Micheal Schleisser was a taxidermist by trade and was excited to have a great white shark to add to his collection. As he began to open the shark's stomach, he found 15 pounds of flesh and bones. He sent this off to Dr. Nichols for analyzing. Scientist did confirm that the bones were definitely human.
Since Schleisser's catch, the shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 ceased. These attacks encouraged more studies to be done on sharks so we can understand how sharks work and why they sometimes attack humans.
© 2014 Linda Sarhan
Linda Sarhan (author) from Lexington KY USA on August 11, 2014:
Thanks! Not sure what channels you get across the pond, but Blood in the Water will air on the Discovery Channel Tuesday, August 12, 2014. If you get this channel, you should check you local time listings. Stateside it will air 12pm - 2pm EST. This is Shark Week documentary on the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916.
James Kenny from Birmingham, England on August 11, 2014:
Wow, I always wondered where the fear of sharks phenomenon, ingrained in us by jaws started from. Its amazing to think how recent it is. And also, how recent it was in historical terms, that people were frightened of whales e.g. Moby Dick and Jonah's whale etc.
Thank you for enlightening me today.