Blood in the Water- Remembering the 1916 Shark Attacks
July 1, 1916. Charles Vansant, of Philadelphia, is down the shore for the 4th and staying with his family at the Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, New Jersey.
In an effort to beat the heat, Vansant decides to take a quick dip in the Atlantic with his dog before dinner; a meal he ultimately wouldn’t live to see.
Those who’ve read Thicker Than Water know that the early chapters are centered around the 1916 shark attacks which occurred along the NJ coast that summer.
Today’s blog gives readers a timeline of those events, the lives’ lost, and an overview of the brutal shark hunts that followed.
*photos courtesy of National Geographic and NJ.com
Timeline and Location of the Shark Attacks
7/1/1916, Beach Haven
Back to the doomed Mr. Vansant. Onlookers reported he began shouting shortly after entering the water, with beachgoers under the impression he was calling to his dog.
Unfortunately, we know this was not the case, and that Vansant's cries were because he was under attack.
He was rescued by lifeguard Alexander Ott and bystander Sheridan Taylor, who claimed the shark followed him to shore as they pulled the bleeding Vansant from the water. Vansant's left thigh was stripped of its flesh. Sadly, he bled to death on the manager's desk of the Engleside Hotel at 6:45 PM.
7/6/1916, Spring Lake
The second attack occurred 45 miles north of Beach Haven. The victim was Charles Bruder. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Bruder was a Swiss bell captain at the Essex & Sussex Hotel.
He was swimming approximately 130 yards from shore when a shark bit him in the abdomen, severing his legs.
After hearing screams, a woman notified two lifeguards that a canoe with a red hull had capsized and was floating just at the water's surface. Lifeguards Chris Anderson and George White rowed to Bruder in a lifeboat and realized he had been bitten by a shark. They pulled him from the water, but he bled to death on the way to shore.
7/12/1916, Matawan Creek
Three attacks occurred this day, in river (yes- a river) 30 miles north of Spring Lake. Located over a mile inland, the creek empties into Keyport Harbor along the Raritan Bay.
At approximately 2:00 PM, a group of local boys, including young Lester Stilwell (who was eleven) were playing in the creek in an area called "Wyckoff Dock." The kids saw what appeared to be an "old, black weather-beaten board or a weathered log." When a dorsal fin surfaced, the boys quickly realized what the "log" really was.
Presumably a bull shark (given the Creek is brackish water), the animal pulled Stilwell under. Meanwhile, his friends ran to town for help.
Watson Stanley Fisher, a local businessman, was among the group who returned with the kids to aid their friend. He found Stilwell, however, before he could safely return the boy to shore, Fisher was bitten himself, losing the child again in the process.
Fisher's right leg was severely damaged. Like the other victims, he succumbed to blood loss at Monmouth Memorial Hospital at 5:30 PM.
Young Stilwell's body was later recovered on July 14th, approximately 150 feet upstream from the dock.
The fifth and final victim was attacked a half-mile from the Wyckoff dock nearly 30 minutes after the fatal attacks on Stilwell and Fisher. He was Joseph Dunn, a 14 year old from nearby New York City.
Dunn was the only victim to survive, but not before his brother played a dangerous game of tug-of-war with the shark in an attempt to rescue him.
He was taken to Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he recovered for over two months, and was released on September 15, 1916.
Let The Hunt Begin
The attacks sent shockwaves across the nation. The East Coast shark hunt has been described as "the largest scale animal hunt in history."
In Matawan, frightened residents bent on revenge detonated dynamite in the creek in an effort to kill the creature. Matawan mayor Arris B. Henderson ordered the Matawan Journal to print wanted posters offering a $100 reward ($2,500 in 2021 dollars) to anyone who killed a shark in the creek.
Further south, in Asbury Park, a steel-and-mesh fence enclosed the 4th Avenue beach and armed motorboats patrolled the waters.
Resort communities along the Jersey Shore petitioned the federal government to aid local efforts to protect beaches and hunt sharks. The House of Representatives appropriated $5,000 ($120,000 in 2021 dollars) for eradicating the New Jersey shark threat, and President Woodrow Wilson addressed the fatal attacks with his Cabinet.
On July 14, Michael Schleisser, a taxidermist and Barnum and Bailey lion tamer, caught a 7.5-foot (2.3 m), 325-pound (147 kg) shark while fishing in Raritan Bay. The shark nearly sank his boat before Schleisser killed it with a broken oar.
When he opened the shark's belly, he removed a "suspicious fleshy material and bones" that took up "about two-thirds of a milk crate" and "together weighed fifteen pounds." Scientists identified the shark as a young great white and the ingested remains as human.
There were no further attacks after this capture.
Hollywood Comes Calling
Author Peter Benchley published Jaws in 1974.
The novel was made into Steven Speilberg's iconic film the following year. In the movie, Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus, even references the 1916 incidents.
...it happened before! The Jersey beach! ... 1916! Five people chewed up on the surf!"
Ironically enough, the City of Cape May will be showing the blockbuster on the beach on August 11th.
For Further Reading
Shark Attacks of the Jersey Shore, by Patricia and Robert Heyer, was among the resources utilized during my research and development.
In addition to referencing the 1916 attacks, the book includes an in depth history of man versus shark through the years.
The book is available for purchase here.
Twelve Days of Terror, by Richard Fernicola, MD, may also be of interest. As the title indicates, this one focuses specifically on the 1916 attacks.
Fernicola is recognized as the foremost authority on the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916. His research became the basis for the highly acclaimed television documentaries Legends of Killer Sharks and Shark Attack: 1916, which aired on the Discovery Channel and The History Channel.
He is also actively involved in the preservation and rescue of marine mammals. Here is the purchase link.