Over an 11-day period during July 1916, five people were attacked by a shark while swimming along the coast of New Jersey. Four attacks proved fatal. After public panic and sensationalised newspaper stories a number of fishermen and shark hunters claimed to have caught the animal responsible. While a large number of alleged culprits were caught and killed, an eccentric German-American New Yorker eventually landed a Great White that is generally considered the animal responsible. The string of attacks provided the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws.
During the summer of 1916, high temperatures had sent many New Jersey and New York residents to beachfront resorts along the Jersey Shore. One popular resort was the town of Beach Haven, located off the coast of New Jersey on Long Beach Island. On July 1st, 23-year-old Philadelphia resident Charles Vansant left his family at their hotel to swim alone in the Atlantic ocean. Other bathers later reported that the young man began shouting shortly after entering the water, but initially believed that he was shouting to a dog on the shore. After some confusion, lifeguard Alexander Ott and bystander Sheridan Taylor swam out to retrieve the struggling Vansant, to find that he had been bitten by a shark. The pair later reported that a large shark followed them as they dragged its intended victim to shore. While he was pulled from the water alive, Vansant’s left leg had been stripped of flesh and he died of blood loss shortly after.
A second attack occurred five days later off the town of Spring Lake, 45 miles from Beach Haven. Hotel employee Charles Bruder was attacked swimming around 120 metres from the shore, by a shark large enough that a bite to his abdomen severed both of his legs. Two lifeguards rowed out to his aid and pulled him from the water, but he died of massive blood loss before they were able to return to shore. Several witnesses reportedly fainted after witnessing his injuries. Following a second attack major stories ran in papers across the East Coast, contributing to a major decline in swimmers and sunbathers along the Jersey Shore.
Despite widespread news of the attacks, young residents of Keyport, located on Raritan Bay some 30 miles further north from the previous attack and some distance from the open ocean, assumed that the river outlet known as Matawan Creek remained safe. On July 12th, a group of boys playing in the creek saw a shark’s fin emerge from the water. In the scramble to get to shore one child, 11-year-old Lester Stilwell, was dragged underwater. When the other youngsters summoned help, the men were dismissive of claims of a shark, instead assuming that Stilwell has been injured or suffered a seizure. Several people dived into the creek to attempt a rescue.
Stilwell’s body was found by Watson Fisher, 24, who pulled it to the surface and began paddling back to shore with it. In front of a large group of onlookers the shark reappeared and attacked Fisher. Despite being pulled from the water and rushed to hospital he died from blood loss not long after, marking the fourth fatality.
Just half an hour after the attack on Stilwell and Fisher, 14-year-old New Yorker Joseph Dunn was attacked while swimming with his brother and friend. Despite being badly bitten he was pulled to safety by his companions, eventually recovering after spending two months in hospital.
Shark sightings along the Mid-Atlantic coast surged following the string of attacks, but no more incidents were reported. Amateur and professional hunters descended on New Jersey in what was described as the largest scale animal hunt in history, pursuing a $5,000 reward put forward by the House of Representatives (the equivalent of around $120,000 today). Several sharks that were caught and killed were claimed to be the animal responsible, including a blue shark caught on July 14th and a sandbar shark caught near to the mouth of Matawan Creek.
Also on July 14th, a New York taxidermist and lion tamer named Michael Schleisser caught and killed a juvenile great white shark. After nearly sinking his boat, he succeeded in killing the shark by stabbing it with a broken oar. Flesh and bones weighing around 15 pounds were found in its stomach, which were identified as human. Schleisser put the animal on display in the window of a shop on Broadway, but it was later lost. However, a photograph taken by the Bronx Home News survives.
With no more attacks after the animal was killed, Schleisser’s shark appears to be the most likely candidate for the animal responsible for the New Jersey shark attacks. All four victims are officially listed by the International Shark Attack File as victims of a great white.