The shark mania that grips the country each summer began July 1, 1916, when a young stockbroker from Philadelphia headed into the surf at Beach Haven, N.J. Before then, there wasn’t much fear about attacks from the deep among the innocents at the Jersey Shore.
That all changed when Charles Vansant, a 25-year-old taking the first swim of his summer vacation, struck out into the mild surf. What unfolded over the next dozen days would leave five swimmers dead or maimed and the East Coast terrified, sparking a presidential intervention and “a war on sharks” that continues to this day.
“It was the Titanic of shark attacks,” said Richard Fernicola, a New Jersey physician and author of “Twelve Days of Terror,” an account of what became known as the Matawan Man-Eater.
Only a few people on the beach noticed Vansant increasingly frantic in the water, thinking he was calling to the dog he had been swimming with. But by the time lifeguards carried him ashore, a crowd including his parents watched as he bled out onto the sand.
Less than a week later, a hotel worker named Charles Bruder was swimming with friends at nearby Spring Lake when he was repeatedly pulled, shrieking, under the surface as beachgoers screamed for help. When two lifeguards pulled him into their boat, his legs were both severed below the knee. He died minutes later.
Then came July 12. In the little town of Matawan, 11 miles inland on the tidal currents of Matawan Creek, all was calm despite the growing disquiet at the shore. Biologists had largely dismissed the first attacks as flukes, and in any case sharks were all but unknown in those brackish waters. When a fishing captain named Thomas Cottrell saw a menacing form glide under a town bridge, his frantic alarm was dismissed by the local police chief. In frustration, Cottrell literally ran through the streets warning passersby to avoid the water.
But he just missed crossing paths with a group of young workers from a basket factory who had been given the sweltering afternoon off for a swim. One them, an 11-year-old apprentice named Lester Stillwell, waded into the creek and had just shouted “Hey fellas, watch me float!” when his friends saw a dark form surge toward him. He gave a gurgled scream and was pulled into a crimson bloom of churning water.
His friends, still naked from skinny-dipping, ran through the town shouting “Shark! Shark! A shark got Lester,” Fernicola said. A crowd gathered and a group of young men began to swim warily in the shallows, hoping to find a sign of the boy’s body. One of them, a tall tailor named Stanley Fisher, dove deeper than the rest. With Lester’s parents standing with the throng of onlookers, he made a final dive, staying down a long time. Finally, he broke the surface. According to some witnesses, he had the boy’s shredded body in hand. Others said they didn’t see him holding anything. But everyone agreed on what happened next.
Nearly the entire town was watching as Fisher, struggling to get his footing in the mud, was slammed from his right. They saw the massive shark pull him down, spin him around and chew great chunks of his flesh. They said Fisher, an athlete, fought like a wild man, punching and kicking the dark beast in a cloud of blood and water. But the shark only let go when frantic rescuers in a boat beat him with an oar. When they pulled Fisher out, little was left of his right thigh. The doctor estimated that 10 pounds of flesh been torn away.
“It was just bone,” Fernicola said. “Scratched bone.”
Fisher lived about two hours. By the time he died, the shark had taken yet another victim. Joseph Dunn, a 12-year-old visitor from New York City, was swimming downstream in the creek, oblivious to the pandemonium a few miles inland. Just yards from the dock ladder he felt a rough raking along his leg and then a vicious grip on it. His brother and a friend grabbed him and pulled, feeling the shark tug the other way. But the animal released his grip and they got Dunn ashore, his leg in tatters. He alone would live.
The reaction was huge and national. Shark panic descended on most of the Eastern Seaboard. Cash rewards were offered for sharks. Beach-town mayors had their waters encircled with fences and netting. Lifeguards were given shotguns and harpoons and long lines baited with dead lambs.
President Woodrow Wilson, a former New Jersey governor who was running for reelection that summer, convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet and dispatched a Coast Guard cutter to “fish for the monsters.”
“U.S. War on Sharks,” a front-page headline in The Washington Post declared on July 15, 1916. The following day, The Post reported “Schools of Man-Eaters Seen in Long Island Sound,” while assuring readers in a separate story that the Potomac was shark free.
In New Jersey, hunters dynamited the waters around Matawan to wreak as much damage as possible.
“They wanted to kill as many sharks as they could but quickly figured out that was futile,” Fernicola said.
Many sharks were caught. Researchers disagree on what species of shark was most likely responsible for the attacks, but a juvenile great white was taken two days after the Matawan deaths with 15 pounds of human remains in its stomach.
It took weeks for swimmers to go back into the water. But with 1917 came World War I, and America’s shark fever faded.
Although shark attacks are rare, the virus was planted. It flared again with the gruesome tales of shark feeding frenzies in the Pacific during World War II. And then, following the publication of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel depicting the terrorizing of a coastal New England resort, those “Jaws” would never again loosen their grip on the country’s summer psyche.
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