The 1916 New Jersey shark attacks claimed four lives and made headlines across the United States. It was a story that gripped the state and intrigued the nation, and even now, over 100 years later, it is still talked about and has heavily influenced our opinion of sharks.
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The 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks
The 1916 shark attacks occurred between the 1st and 12th of July 2016. In that short space of time, 5 people were attacked and four died.
When was the First Attack in New Jersey?
On July 1st, 1916, Charles Epting Vansant went for a swim at Beach Haven, New Jersey. The 28-year-old* was vacationing in the area with his family and wanted to work up an appetite before dinner (*some sources claim that Vansant was 25 at the time).
Shortly after entering the water, Vansant began shouting. Initially, onlookers assumed he was shouting to a dog who had joined him for a swim, but it soon became clear that a shark was attacking his legs.
Alexander Ott, a lifeguard, and Sheridan Taylor, an onlooker, rescued Vansant and dragged him to shore, noting that the shark followed them all of the way.
Vansant was bleeding heavily and had lost most of the flesh on his left thigh. He was escorted back to the Engleside Hotel where he had been staying with his family, but he bled to death shortly thereafter.
The Second Attack
The Jersey Shore remained open after Vansant’s tragic death, and there were a few reports of sharks being seen off the coast.
On July 6, five days after the first attack, another life was claimed, this time at Spring Lake, around 45 miles from Beach Haven.
Charles Bruder was swimming close to the shore when a shark severed his legs. He was rescued by two lifeguards who dragged him onto a boat, but he was dead by the time they reached the shore.
According to eyewitness reports, women who witnessed the attacks were heard screaming, and that’s what alerted the lifeguards. Those same witnesses said that the water turned red following the attack and they fainted when they saw Bruder’s body.
The Third and Fourth Attacks
The next shark attacks occurred on July 12th at Matawan Creek, about 30 miles from where Bruder was attacked.
In the early afternoon, several boys were playing in the creek when they saw what appeared to be an old log drifting toward them. By the time they realized it was a shark, it was already too late.
Lester Stilwell, who was just 11 years old, was dragged underwater while his friends ran to get help.
A local by the name of Watson Fisher made it to the scene and was able to reach Stilwell, but the 24-year-old was bitten during his rescue attempt and lost track of the boy in the process.
Within a few hours, Fisher had bled to death from an injury to his thigh. As for Stilwell, his body was recovered two days later, taking the total victim count to 4.
The Final Attack
The fifth attack occurred roughly 30 minutes after the attack on young Stilwell and his would-be rescuer.
14-year-old Joseph Dunn was playing near Wyckoff Dock when the shark attacked. His friend and brother fought to rescue him and managed to pull him away from the clutches of the angry shark.
The youngster was rushed to hospital and survived the attack.
How Did People React to the New Jersey Shark Attacks?
Shark attacks were unheard of back then and they are still rare today. There are approximately 15 shark attacks in the US every year, with one person dying every 2 years on average. What’s more, most of these attacks occur in Florida or California.
As a result, the media went into overdrive and descended on Beach Haven, Spring Lake, and Matawan Creek. It became the talk of the state and then the nation, and as is so often the case, there were equal amounts of extreme paranoia and indifference.
In one Philadelphia newspaper, a journalist suggested that Vasant, a Philadelphia resident, was “not attacked by a man-eater”. The journalist insisted that the culprit was a small and hungry shark likely trying to eat the dog before the human got in the way.
Others believed that large sea turtles were responsible for the attacks, seemingly preferring to believe that an angry, slow-moving reptile was more likely to claim multiple lives than a hungry shark.
The Jersey Shore lost millions as tourists stayed away from the area and as the panic continued and the losses grew, many experts came forward to highlight the rarity of the attacks and even downplay their severity.
In 1974, Peter Benchley penned a novel that is said to have been based on the shark attacks of 1916. The novel, Jaws, was later adapted into a film of the same name and remains the most famous shark to appear on the big screen.
Jaws has had a big impact on popular culture and is thought to be responsible for more incidents of galeophobia (fear of sharks) than any other film or real life incident. It has also led to an increase in shark nets and general shark paranoia.
Why Were People Reluctant to Believe?
If multiple attacks occur on the Jersey Shore today and there are sightings of more sharks tomorrow, you can guarantee that everyone will stay away from the water for at least a few weeks.
So, why did the locals continue to flock to the coast mere days after these attacks occurred? Why were they so seemingly blasé about swimming in oceans and playing in creeks when sharks were sighted nearby?
To put it simply, people didn’t think that sharks were a threat. As noted by the National Geographic, Americans believed that sharks were harmless—they ate sea lions and seals, not humans.
Just a couple of decades before these vicious shark attacks occurred, a banker by the name of Hermann Oelrichs offered a reward in the New York Sun to anyone who could provide proof of a shark attack occurring north of Cape Hatteras, NC.
The reward was never claimed.
In early 1916, the director of the American Museum of Natural History, Frederic Lucas, told a PA newspaper that it was not possible for even the largest shark to sever a human leg.
When you consider that “the largest shark” includes great whites over 20-foot in length, it was a pretty absurd statement to make. Lucas referenced the unclaimed reward to prove his point that there was virtually no risk of being attacked by a shark on the US coast.
It was another case of humans believing that they are at the top of the food chain and are too big, too strong, and too important to become a meal for another animal. In many ways, the Jersey Shore shark attacks are what changed public perception and reminded everyone that we’re often just as much the prey as we are the predator.
Why Did The Shark Attacks of 1916 Occur?
We don’t know for sure why the infamous shark attacks occurred, as we can’t be sure which shark was responsible for them (more on that below).
However, there was a terrible heat wave during the summer of 1916 and this may have played into the animal’s hands…or fins.
Is meant that a large number of people were swimming and bathing, greatly increasing the risk that one of them would fall victim to a deadly shark attack.
As noted above, the public didn’t see sharks as a threat, so swimmers on the Jersey Shore wouldn’t have paid the animals as much respect as modern-day ocean swimmers and surfers would.
What Shark Was Responsible for the 1916 Attacks?
In the days that followed the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916, numerous sharks were caught and killed, with fishermen claiming to have captured the “Jersey man-eater”.
One of the most likely perpetrators was a great white shark captured by Michael Schleisser, a taxidermist and lion tamer who soon added “shark killer” to his eyebrow-raising CV. Schleisser is said to have found the shark several miles from Matawan Creek before killing it with an oar.
When he cut the shark open, he found what he believed to be human remains inside, noting that they weighed around 15 pounds in total. The shark was placed on display in a Manhattan shop window, but it has since been lost and the only thing that survives today is a picture.
Others believed that a bull shark was responsible for the attacks. Bull sharks are very quick and brutal hunters and they are also incredibly aggressive and adaptable.
The bull shark theory begins to make sense when you learn that Matawan Creek is located quite a distance from the sea and bull sharks are often found in freshwater streams and rivers.
A blue shark was captured off the Jersey coast a couple of days after the attack, and there were also suggestions that a sandbar shark could have been responsible.
Most experts agree that the great white shark and bull shark are the most likely candidates. However, the attacks occurred over a century ago and the evidence (along with the witnesses) is long gone.
We’ll probably never know which species of shark carried out the attacks. In fact, we can’t even be sure if it was one shark or multiple sharks.
Summary: The 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks
1916 was a huge year for humanity. The First World War was in full swing, and this was the year of the Verdun and the Somme, two of its bloodiest and most decisive battles. It was the year we were introduced to daylight savings time, the official 40-hour work week, and the first US billionaire.
It was an eventful year, to say the least, but if you’re from New Jersey, when you hear the year “1916”, your mind immediately jumps to the aforementioned shark attacks.
It’s a fascinating story that every New Jerseyite knows, and it’s likely one that we’ll be telling for generations to come.