Shark attacks are some of the scariest seaside incidents that can happen. But rest assured if you want to go to the beach. The chances of you actually getting attacked by a shark are very, very low. Today, safety measures are in place specifically for the prevention of such unfortunate events. However, back in 1916, seaside lovers weren’t so lucky.
Although shark attacks have always been a threat, people back then knew that they don’t happen quite as often as we would believe. Today, there are more sharks killed by humans every year than there are humans killed by sharks. Given that there are roughly 72 unprovoked attacks per year worldwide, 52 of which happen in the US, you would think that we don’t have that much to fear.
However, movies like Jaws, and events like the Shark Attacks of 1916 have left the world trembling in fear at the thought of these deep blue predators. Still, one of the most important things to remember is that water is their natural habitat, so, however much we may think of them as intruders, they are actually very much at home. It is we who are intruding.
This is believed to be at the root of the disaster that struck yhe Jersey Shore back in July 1916. Sharks usually swim in the open sea, and rarely come towards the shore. Even so, when they do appear in stranger tides, seeing their fins shouldn’t alarm you, as sharks in general are quite docile, provided they are left alone.
And then there’s one other thing: blood.
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, sharks can smell human blood from many, many miles away. Once they do, they are usually sent running amok, frantically searching for the taste of human flesh. They also seem to like getting close to the shore of subtropical areas. Surprisingly, none of these conditions were met back in 1916. The 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks were, and still are, quite the large mystery. Let’s look at what exactly happened almost 100 years ago:
The Context of the Attacks
The year: 1916. The month: July. 1916 had started off quite badly. The Northwestern region of the US had been struck by a massive polio epidemic. People were battling the deadly disease as best they could. The U.S. was also preparing to enter the First World War. And on top of all this, the heatwave of 1916 left people running for the shores to cool off.
In early July, the people of the US were preparing to spend their national holiday on safe beach resorts. However, for some of the vacationers, this fateful July would turn out into something completely different. .
As it turns out, the sharks in and about the waters of New Jersey had a different idea of what a nice quiet vacation meant. While the innocent citizens of the United States were preparing to get their first taste of Coca-Cola, the sharks were about to taste something a little different – human flesh.
The Attacks that Shook the World
A succession of three separate attacks left those on vacation around the US completely awestruck and dumbfounded.
People kept asking, how could this happen ? The case of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks spread like wildfire throughout the nation, making the headlines of all major newspapers. Paranoia took over the masses of tourists crowded on all the ocean beaches.
A total of four people died that terrible month on Jersey’s shores, while one other was left severely injured. To understand exactly what drove the sharks to commit such unprovoked horrors, we have to take a closer look at each attack:
Attack No. 1 – Saturday, July 1, Beach Haven
Long Beach Island beach resort – named Beach Haven – would be the sight of the first attack. A Philadelphia man was on vacation with his family. Charles Epting Vansant was only 25. He and his family were checked in at the Engleside Hotel. The family was just about to go to dinner, when Charles said that he would like to go for a quick swim in the ocean.
Vansant saw a joyful dog playing along the shore and decided to take a bath in the water. When he began screaming, tourists and fellow bathers thought that he was shouting at the dog. This was unfortunate, since a few seconds in his case could’ve made the difference between life and death.
Vansant lay dying on the Engleside Hotel Manager’s desk later that evening. The time was 6:45 PM. Vansant had been pulled out of the water by Alexander Ott and Sheridan Taylor – the first a lifeguard, the second a bystander. The latter also claimed that they had been followed by the shark right up to the shore. It turned out that the massive shark had completely bitten off Vansant’s left thigh. This turned the water red. After being brought to the hotel, it was established that it was already too late for him. Vansant had lost too much blood.
Attack No. 2 – Thursday, July 6, Spring Lake
Despite there being a man-eating shark in the waters, and despite the giant pool of blood that was bound to attract other sharks, the beaches along the shore remained open. It seems managers did not want to lose their 4th of July profits. This proved fatal for the next three victims.
Warnings of shark sightings had been issued by various captains from both Newark and New York ports. Needless to say, they were not heeded. On July 6th, 130 yards from the shores of Spring Lake, New Jersey, Charles Bruder, the bell captain for the Essex and Sussex Hotel, had his legs bitten off and his abdomen butchered by a giant shark. A woman noticed the screams, and saw the water turn red with blood. She alerted the lifeguards who rushed towards the man.
When the boat came ashore, Bruder was already dead. As the body was taken to land, women on the beach screamed and fainted at the sight of it. Charles Bruder had bled to death on the way to shore. He was 27.
Attack No. 3 – Wednesday, July 12th, Matawan Creek
The third attack took place in a rather unusual location. Matawan Creek’s Keyport was not a beach resort. Nonetheless, it was on the shore. Thomas Cotterell, a sea captain native to the region saw what he though to be an 8 foot long shark in the Creek. He alerted the local authorities – no one listened.
Near the Wyckoff Dock, in the Creek, a few local boys were playing. One of the boys, Lester Stillwell, was an epileptic. Reports say they had seen something that seemed like a board or a log floating atop the water. When they went to investigate, they saw the unmistakable fin of the shark. Everyone rushed out of the creek, but Stillwell was not fast enough.
Those who made it scattered towards town asking desperately for help. Watson Stanley Fisher, a local businessman, and generally helpful individual, jumped at the chance of saving the boy’s life. Fisher and some of the boys dived in the water looking for Stillwell. When they found his body, they saw he had suffered a seizure. Stillwell was dead. The boy was only 11 years old.
Trying to get the body to shore, Fisher also was bitten. When the townsfolk (who had gathered at the scene in large numbers) took him to the hospital, it was already too late. Fisher died on the hospital bed. He bled to death. He was only 24. Two days later, Stillwell’s body washed ashore.
About half an hour after this incident, Joseph Dunn, a 14 year old from New York was also attacked It’s believed that the same shark was responsible. A friend came along with his brother and saved him, barely managing to tug him out of the shark’s jaws. Joseph Dunn had escaped. He recovered in the hospital in New Brunswick. He needed two whole months to recover.
What Happened Next
After the three incidents, a wave of fear and paranoia took over the US. All newspapers declared war on sharks and wrote impressive amounts of articles on the subject.
Many shark hunters took off to find the creatures responsible for the four deaths. Although there has been a massive amount of contradictory evidence, it’s generally believed that the cause of the disaster was a stray Great White. It was hunted down by Michael Schleisser, and was found to have 15 pounds of human flesh in its stomach.
Some skeptics have denied this and proposed that several sharks were involved. One letter to The New York Times even hypothesized that one of the attacks may have been caused by a giant turtle. There is no evidence supporting this claim.
Why You Shouldn’t Fear the Jersey Shore
Rest assured, the Jersey Shore is safe from shark attacks. Ever since 1916, the resorts along the coastline have improved their shark detection, and have greatly upped their lifeguard staff so as to better respond to crises such as the one in 1916.
Although one may never be too cautious, we’re pretty certain that attacks like these are not going to happen near that area in the future.
Still, it’s an interesting place to visit, and after the original paranoia faded, the Jersey Shore has benefited from increased popularity. You can check out for yourself the places where these three terrible accidents happened.