Remembering the Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916


More than a hundred years ago, fear gripped the people of New Jersey as a series of shark attacks rattled people.

The attacks took place between July 1 and July 12, killing four and injuring another. The attacks took place during an unusually hot summer, which meant the shoreline was crowded.

The first attack took place in the water off Beach Haven on LBI on July 1, 1916. A Philadelphia man, Charles Vansant, who was staying at the Engleside Hotel, went swimming before dinner. Other guests heard him scream shortly after entering the water and believed he was yelling at a dog on the beach. A lifeguard and a bystander came out to help him and found that his left thigh had been bitten off; they took him back to the hotel, but he died on the manager’s desk.

The next attack took place on July 6 at Spring Lake. Charles Bruder, who worked at the Essex and Sussex Hotel, was swimming, as The New York Times describes it, “far beyond the outer lifelines” when he was attacked. Two lifeguards launched a lifeboat in an attempt to save him as “the crowd on the beach watched in suspense and fear”. Rescuers pulled him out of the water but his left leg had been bitten off above the knee and his right leg just below the knee. They took him to the beach and tried to dress his wounds but he died while they were trying.

The next two attacks took place in Matawan Creek near Keyport six days later. Eleven-year-old Lester Stillwell was swimming in the creek with friends. Stillwell was attacked and pulled underwater by the shark. His friends ran to town for help and one of the men who responded, Stanley Fisher, jumped into the stream to try to save Stillwell, but it was too late. The boy was already dead. As Fisher pulled the lifeless boy out of the water, Asbury Park Press writes that he was attacked by the same shark. Fisher bled to death at a hospital in Long Branch.

The last attack of the summer occurred about 30 minutes later in the same vicinity; a 14-year-old New York boy was attacked and bitten in the leg but was saved by his brother; he was taken to hospital and, after a long recovery, survived.

To say that the attacks triggered a panic would be an understatement. Jersey Shore towns have tried to lure anxious bathers back into the water by erecting nets to keep sharks out. Squadrons of boats scoured the coast in search of sharks. Coastal towns lost millions of dollars (in today’s value) because people stayed away and hundreds of sharks were killed off the East Coast. President Wilson even convened a panel to study the problem.

While some people believe Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” was based on these attacks, others claim it was inspired by a 4,500 pound great white shark that was caught off the coast of Long Island in the 1960s. For what it’s worth, Benchley was mostly living in New Jersey when he wrote the book. (and the attacks of 1916 are mentioned in the film).

The views expressed in the above post are those of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle only.

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