What has become known as the twelve days of terror began on July 1st, 1916. Charles Vansant, a 25 year old man from Philadelphia was on vacation in Beach Haven, a small town that is part of Long Beach Island. Before dinner, Vansant decided to go for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Shortly after entering the water, the dog exited the water and Vansant began shouting. Originally bathers and other beachgoers thought that Vansant was simply calling out to the dog. In reality though, he was being bitten by a shark. Once they realized the peril Vansant was in, the lifeguard, Alexander Ott, as well as another beachgoer, Sheridan Taylor rushed to his aid. The two men quickly loaded Vansant into the lifeguard boat. It was there they noticed the severity of the injuries. Taylor claimed that the shark followed the lifeguard boat all the way to shore. Vansant was carried to the Engleside Hotel where he died from blood loss at 6:45pm.
News of Vansant's death made it to the newspapers, but there was no real urgency. Scientists remained reluctant to admit that Vansant was actually bitten by a shark. Some would only say that he was bitten by a large fish. Beaches along the Jersey Shore remained open. In the days following ships docking in New York and New Jersey had claimed to have seen large sharks swimming in the waters near shore. Vansant's death faded into the back of many people's minds and for a few days things were quiet. Then on July 6th, 1916 the next incident occurred. One of the bell captains at the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey named Charles Bruder, 27, was swimming just over one hundred yards from shore. It was there that a shark bit him in the abdomen. The bite was large enough so sever both of Bruder's legs. Some women on the beach heard Bruder's screams and informed a lifeguard that it looked like a red canoe had capsized. In reality the red the women were seeing was actually the blood in the water coming from Bruder's mid section. The two lifeguards, Chris Anderson and George White paddled out in their lifeboat to Bruder where they realized that he had been bitten by a shark. The two lifeguards pulled Bruder into the boat, but Bruder would bleed to death in the lifeboat.
The news of Bruder's death was picked up by far more outlets than Vansant's was. The backlash of the attack had a big impact on tourism as losses following the attack were estimated at $250,000 dollars, which was a lot more money then than it is today. Bathing in some areas plummeted by roughly 75% and the fear of sharks in the United States was really born. In the following days multiple reports of close calls and shark sightings were reported. One of the lifeguards at an Asbury Park beach claimed to have beaten off a large shark with his oar while out on his lifeboat. Armed fishermen also claimed to have chased off a large shark as well at Spring Creek. Scientists advised that that a third encounter with a shark was unlikely, but also advised swimmers to swim in netted off areas that were installed following the first attack. Despite these reports of near attacks, there had been no attacks confirmed, but the shark panic had already set in to many New Jersey beach towns.
The tense situation would continue until July 12th, where one of the more mysterious and startling things in the history of the state of New Jersey happened. Thomas Cottrell was on his boat in the Matawan Creek and claimed to have spotted an eight foot long shark in the creek. Upon seeing the shark, he rushed into town to warn everyone to stay out of the water. Matawan is a town in New Jersey that is set inland. In addition the Matawan Creek is largely fresh water which is the exact opposite of the salt water of the ocean. The people of Matawan dismissed Cottrell who returned to his boat to warn anyone who may be swimming in the creek to get out of the water. Further up the creek a few boys were swimming. At around 2:00pm a you boy named Lester Stillwell, 11, was one of the boys swimming in the area of the Matawan Creek known as Wyckoff Dock. Stillwell and the other boys attempted to get out of the water when they saw a fin and large dark shape moving towards them in the water. The other boys made it out of the water, but Stillwell was grabbed by the shark and vanished into the murky water.
The other boys ran back to town to get help. Several men, including Stanley Fisher, 24, rushed to the dock and into the water to try and rescue Stillwell whom the townsfolk believed had a seizure in the water. Fisher located Stillwell's body, but was also attacked by a shark while trying to return to shore. Fisher's left thigh was severely damaged and he bled to death at Monmouth Memorial Hospital. Stillwell's body would be recovered on July 14th. About a half hour after Fisher was attacked Joseph Dunn, 14, was swimming in the creek about a half mile away from where Stillwell and Fisher were attacked. Dunn was also attacked by a shark in the freshwater creek, but was rescued by his brother and taken to Saint Peter's University Hospital where he recovered and was released on September 15, 1916. This marked the end of the 1916 shark attacks, but not the end of the chaos that ensured.
The people of Matawan took to the creek with guns, nets, and even dynamite in an attempt to kill the shark that had attacked the three young men.
Newspapers featured the attacks with pictures of both Stillwell and Fisher who had lost their lives in the attacks.
The mayor of Matawan also put out a bounty on the shark of one hundred dollars (worth a lot back then than it is now). While the people of Matawan tried to kill the shark in the creek, elsewhere anti shark measures were ramping up. Armed boats patrolled many beaches and all kinds of theories began appearing as to just what had transpired over the last twelve days. In the days following July 12th, multiple confirmed shark catches were reported. One angler caught a blue shark near Long Branch which is not far from Matawan. Cottrell reported that he caught a sandbar shark near the mouth of the creek on July 16th. The most interesting and seemingly the one with the most impact was the catching of a young great white shark by Michael Schleisser in the Raritan Bay which is very close to the Matawan Creek. The shark was caught on July 14th and was deemed to have human remains in it's stomach by scientists. The shark was put on display in Manhattan, but at some point was lost and the only remains of that shark is this famous picture.
Despite the capture of multiple sharks, the theories continued to come in. One captain suggested that the shark was actually a Spanish shark driven to the east coast during the Spanish-American War. Others believed it to be the work of German U-Boats that were in the area. The popular theory that a single "rogue" shark was responsible for all the attacks also came to life shortly after the attacks ended. To this day nobody knows for sure just what shark was responsible for the events that took place in 1916, but knowing what we now know about sharks today, we can see that nearly all of these attacks can be looked at in different ways. Before looking at those different views it is important to remember the time. Science by no means was what it is today back in 1916. The amount that we knew about sharks then versus now is incredible and in the end we still don't know all that much.
Looking at these attacks in a different view it can be theorized that all of the people who were attacked had put themselves at a higher risk of being attacked. Vansant was swimming alone with a dog. We now know that the awkward swimming of a dog gives off strange electromagnetic pulses that sharks can detect. The shark probably arrived while hunting the dog that had gotten out of the water, still noticed Vansant and took a bite. The big thing here is that the shark did not eat Vansant. Bruder also decided to swim alone and in deeper waters and at a time of day where sharks are now known to be more active. Stillwell, Fisher, and Dunn were all victims of a really freak incident. Seeing sharks in fresh water is rare, even bull sharks are not frequently found in fresh water despite being able to survive in it. The biggest thing the three boys had going against them was the murky waters where even a shark's vision would be reduced which would cause the animal to rely even more on it's ability to detect electromagnetic pulses. In looking at these attacks in this way one could make a determination that all of these attacks really were the result of unfortunate circumstances. As is the case with basically all theories about these attacks. It's a theory and nothing more.
Since the attacks of 1916, there has been one fatal shark attack in the state of New Jersey. In one hundred years, there has been just one fatal attack. Despite that, a fear of sharks is still a very real thing and from 1916 onward, that fear has evolved and grown into one of the most irrational and over-broadcasted fears in the nation. For example, when a shark is seen swimming in the ocean, the media will often pick up on it and of course put a bit of an urgent spin on it. Just because a shark is seen in shallow water does not mean the water is "shark infested". Movies are still constantly in the works with shark going around killing people left and right. Even video games are putting people up against monstrous sharks. It's all over the place that sharks and people just do not mix and that is far from the truth. We dominate the land, they are supposed to be the ones dominating the seas.The fact that we as a species are so afraid of sharks is confusing to me. On one hand, yes, some species certainly have the ability to do tremendous damage to a human and that should be respected. On the other hand what we do to them should really turn our heads and help us realize how important these animals are.
In regards to the 1916 shark attacks and my personal feelings about them I can only say this. The 1916 shark attacks were a series of really freak and unfortunate incidents. What species of shark was responsible for the attacks may never be one hundred percent known, but I'm in the ballpark of believing that a bull shark was at least responsible for the Matawan Creek attacks. I think people today are more aware of shark than they were in 1916 and beach patrols, life guards, etc are far more vigilant in getting people out of the water as soon as a fin is spotted. When I read all kinds of articles and blogs about these attacks I find that a major thing is missing that I feel is extremely important and really puts everything into perspective as to how rare of an incident these attacks were.
To keep everything is perspective. While sharks kill under ten people per year on average, people are still killing over seventy five million sharks every year. That is a massive and I mean massive difference in the who's killing who game. Sharks kill people on accident. People kill sharks maliciously and in some of the most disturbing ways available. One example is finning in which a shark's fins are cut off and the shark is tossed back to sea. That's basically the same as a person have their arms and legs cut off and thrown on a beach. Shark fin soup continues to be a driving factor in why sharks are being hunted down, but sharks are still being killed for various other reasons including trophies, money, and fear. The 1916 shark attacks is a very important event to know about in understanding the relationship between many people and sharks. One of the biggest reasons for this is again that these attacks inspired the movie Jaws which really sent the nation into a shark fear frenzy. Remember that these animals are at the top of the food chain. They vanish, the oceans they live in will change in a big negative way forever.