The idea of a man-eating shark patrolling the coast and eating swimmers is terrifying. More terrifying is that same shark swimming into brackish water and attacking people there. More terrifying still is the idea that maybe there is more than one shark on this rampage. Luckily, this sort of thing has never happened, right? Wrong. It did in 1916 off the coast of New Jersey. An increase in polio diagnoses and heat waves drove more people than usual to the beaches, and increased the likelihood of human-shark encounters.
The attacks occurred from July 1 to July 12, 1916 in three separate locations off the coast of New Jersey and left four people dead and one person seriously injured. A summary of the attacks:
- July 1, Beach Haven, NJ: 25 year old Charles Vansant of Philadelphia was on vacation with his family and went for a swim. He was attacked shortly after entering the water, was pulled from the water and died on the manager’s desk of the Engleside Hotel.
- July 6, Spring Lake, NJ: 27 year old Swiss immigrant Charles Bruder was swimming 130 yards from shore when he was bitten in the torso. Lifeguards paddled out in a boat and pulled him from the water, but he died before reaching shore.
- July 12, Matawan Creek near Keyport, NJ:
- Lester Stillwell, 11 was playing in the creek with some friends when they thought they saw an old log in the water
- Dorsal fin appeared and they realized it was a shark. Before he could get out, the shark pulled him underwater
- Local businessman Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, among others, jumped into the water to try to find Stillwell. While trying to get his body back to shore, he was also bit and he let go of Stillwell’s body. Fisher died at the hospital.
- Stilwell’s body was found 2 days later
- The fifth and final victim, Joseph Dunn, 14, of New York City was attacked a half-mile from there nearly 30 minutes after the fatal attacks on Stilwell and Fisher.
- The shark bit his left leg and his brother had a tug of war with the shark and saved him. Dunn later recovered in the hospital and was released.
While it is unclear how many sharks were involved, Harlem taxidermist and Barnum and Bailey lion tamer Michael Schleisser caught a 7.5 foot, 325 pound shark while fishing in Raritan Bay only a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek on July 14, 1916. 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.
Naturally, the string of attacks set off a wave of panic on the American coasts and some towns even issued bounties for sharks with the goal of protecting seaside economies. Resorts enclosed their beaches with steel nets and the fear of additional attacks cost New Jersey resort owners and estimated $5.4 million in 2016 dollars. Sharks, traditionally seen as harmless, came to be thought of as ruthless killers and were used in political cartoons to represent negatively perceived political figures, German U-boats, polio, and other generally bad things. While it is still unclear what caused the shark(s) to attack so many people in such a short time, it seems like we can chalk this one up to a grumpy teenage Great White.