Have you ever wondered where the idea for the major motion picture, Jaws, came from? Perhaps I should ask have you ever wondered what real event inspired Peter Benchley to write the book? This blog is a step back into time to the second month of World War I. The President of the United States was Woodrow Wilson, and at that point, the United States had not yet entered the war. Wilson was doing everything in his power to keep the United States out of the war, but in the end his efforts would not prove fruitful as the United States did enter World War I. That however, is a different story. In New Jersey the summer of 1916 was already something different to the state. First, the amount of people who were leaving the cities and heading to the shore was staggering in 1916 due to a polio epidemic that was occurring in cities. Second, the summer of 1916 brought on an oppressive heat wave which drew even more people to the shore. Interestingly enough, it was an election year and due to the oppressive summer, President Wilson had moved from the White House to his summer home in Asbury Park, NJ. That alone brought the eyes of the United States to the Jersey Shore.
1916 was a year that was just a few short years removed from the Victorian Period. It was a time of great scientific and technological advances for the United States and gave rise to a rather arrogant and smug attitude in many of the people. (Remember the Titanic sank in 1912 after being declared "unsinkable") With that being said, many of the discoveries that were made were not really applied. (The American Museum of Natural History had fish and insects on display together) With all of that being said, the scene was officially set for what would become the most horrific summer New Jersey had ever seen. Before I go on I feel the need to remind you all that this is an entirely true story. The events that took place from July 1st through 12th, 1916 are all described as best I can.
July 1st 1916: Philadelphia native Charles Van Sant had was staying at the Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, NJ. It was on this day that he decided to play with a dog in the water. Upon his return to shallow water, he was bitten by a shark. The lifeguard claimed that the shark was still biting Charles and following them to the shoreline. Charles Van Sant would bleed to death and his death certificate stated "Bitten by a shark while bathing". This marked the first time that a shark was blamed for the death of a human in the United States. The reaction of the attack was underwhelming. It received no national attention and didn't really appear anywhere outside of Philadelphia newspapers.
July 3rd, 1916: Bellboy Charles Bruder of the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake decided to take a swim on his break. Bruder was attacked by a shark. Before he bled to death, he stated the following words, "a shark bit me". He also described his attacker as "a big gray fellow, and awful hungry". The reaction to this attack was much greater. Beaches from Point Pleasant to Sandy Hook were all ordered to get all swimmers out of the water. This was the first coastwide shark alarm in the United States. Word of the attack on Bruder spread like wildfire and was seen on the covers of newspapers in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Scientists of the time were very reluctant to call the attack on Bruder a shark attack. Many believed the culprit was either a German U-boat, sea turtle, orca, or a giant mackerel. Governor Fielding blamed a sea monster. The director of the museum, Dr. Frederick Lucas stated that "a shark is not particularly strong in the jaws", meaning that a shark could not cause injuries seen on Bruder.
July 9th, 1916: The impact of the shark attacks faded and beaches all up and down the Jersey Shore were packed again.
July 12th, 1916: Sitting roughly 30 miles north and 16 miles inland of Spring Lake is the town of Matawan. In a time before child labor laws were around, a popular break time activity for kids was to take a swim in the Matawan Creek. Thomas Cottrell, a retired captain spotted a shark swimming in the creek. He quickly ran to town and alerted the townspeople who dismissed him, after all, the Matawan Creek was largely fresh water and was at least 16 miles from the Ocean. Young Lester Stillwell would become the third victim in the 1916 shark attacks. He would go swimming with his friends on his break from work. Lester's friends quickly ran to town to get help. The first to respond was Stanley Fisher, who while searching for Lester's body, was also attacked. About 3/4 of a mile away from the chaos, Captain Cottrell managed to get to a group of boys who were swimming and directed them out of the water. As Joseph Dunn tried to get out of the water he felt a bump and then was bitten on the foot. At first, the doctor who was treating Dunn was afraid to touch the wound because it was believed that shark bites were poisonous! Dunn would become the only person to survive the 1916 shark attacks. Finally, Dr. Lucas's associate, Dr. Nicholas, declared that it could not possibly be an orca that was attacking people as it would not fit into the creek. Thus the shark became the number 1 theory.
Aftermath: Mass chaos had erupted up and down the East Coast. Fisherman began to kill any and all sharks seen in an attempt to kill the "Jersey maneater". Sharks began to appear in political cartoons while scientists quietly changed beliefs that sharks were not dangerous. The attacks nearly crippled New Jersey's economy. Vacancies in hotels from Cape May to Spring Lake was roughly 75%. The residents of Matawan began throwing dynamite and shooting any shadow that appeared in the creek. Even President Wilson called a special cabinet meeting to figure out what to do about the "shark horror that was gripping the Jersey Coast".
July 14th, 1916: A 7.5ft great white shark was caught about four miles away from Matawan Creek. Dr. Lucas determined that 15lbs of flesh and bone found inside the shark were human, but could not conclude if they were in fact remains of those attacked.
Over 50 years later, Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws which turned later into a movie by the same name. It is no secret that Benchley became a shark advocate and stated "Today the shark in Jaws could not be the villain: it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressor". Great white sharks became one of the most hated animals on the planet as a result of these attacks. The blame though is probably undeserving. Great white sharks can simply not survive the conditions of the Matawan Creek. Bull sharks however, can. So it is entirely possible that a bull, not a great white was responsible for these attacks. One of the most staggering questions though is why did these attacks take place at all. Each one can be broken down into possible theories. Personally, I do not believe there was a man eating shark in 1916. Reason for that is each and every one of the people who were attacked were recovered. Even Lester Stillwell's body was recovered. After being alone with the shark for a good period of time, the shark could have easily eaten him, but it didn't.
In the case of Charles Van Sant: Van Sant was swimming with a dog prior to being attacked. Dogs are awkward swimmers and the noise and vibrations that sharks can detect from a dog swimming are thought to rival that of a wounded fish. The shark in all probability thought that Van Sant was a big wounded fish. To top it off, he was alone, another common factor in shark attacks.
In the case of Charles Bruder: Bruder was swimming in an area by himself. Again, this has become a common occurrence in shark attacks.
In the cases of Lester Stillwell, Stanley Fisher, and Joseph Dunn: The Matawan Creek is incredibly murky. The visibility is virtually zero. For a shark not relying on it's sense of sight, but just what vibrations it is sensing , it really would be incredibly easy to see how the shark can mistake a human for a wounded animal. Kids splashing and playing in water is very similar to a wounded fish. In the murky creek, the shark was most likely confused.
So here are some statistics now so you can all see just how freak of a twelve days these were. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been 18 shark attacks in New Jersey. Out of those, 6 were fatal. The last fatality that was blamed on a shark was in 1960. That mean 18 shark attacks in the last 342 years. On a terrible other side. In New Jersey alone, hundreds of sharks are killed every year. The 1916 shark attacks were a terrible event, but at the same time it was an incredible learning experience for scientists. As a result of these attacks, we know so much more about sharks and how to avoid shark attacks. The things I mentioned above are not reasons that I just made up. They are legitimate reasons for shark attacks. Reasons that were unknown in 1916. If we knew then what we know now about sharks, these attacks could have possibly been avoided. Also, partially as a result of these attacks, sharks have been nearly driven to extinction.
Thanks to Jaws and other movies people in the United States as well as other places around the world are still mortified by sharks. The monster that sharks have been portrayed as is one of the most undeserving portrayals in the world today. For an animal that kills on average less than 5 people every year, they have a worse reputation than animals that kill hundreds of people every year. As far as the man eaters are concerned... They simply do not exist. Well thanks for reading, I hope you understand how freak of an instance these attacks were and how far we have come since then. I also hope you read my other blogs that go into detail about the plight that sharks currently are facing.
As horrific as this story may be, their story is one that is far more horrific and disturbing. Roughly 40 million sharks are killed every year. They need our help. We are their only hope and their greatest threat. If we do not save these animals than people's greed and fear will drive these animals to extinction, which is forever.