The summer of 1916 will live on forever in New Jersey history. The events that occurred along the Jersey shore that year were immortalized by the blockbuster hit, Jaws. Though movies often sensationalize actual events, the reality of this tale is just as terrifying as the film.

Shark attacks north of the Carolinas were incredibly rare, but a heatwave brought sharks up to our shores. There were five tragic attacks in the span of ten days, leaving behind just a single, mutilated survivor. The first attack occurred on July 1st, in Beach Haven. Charles Epting Vansant, 25, of Philadelphia was on vacation at the Engleside Hotel. He decided to take a swim before dinner; shortly after, bathers began to hear him scream. Initially, there was little concern as the thought of a shark attack hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. When the cause of his yelps became apparent, he was rescued by a lifeguard, but it was too late. He was taken back to the hotel while waiting for treatment and bled to death on the manager’s desk.

The second attack occurred 45 miles north, in Spring Lake. The victim was Charles Bruder, 27, a bell captain at the Essex & Sussex Hotel. He was swimming approximately 130 yards from shore when he was bit in the abdomen. Though he was eventually pulled from the water, he bled to death on his way to the shore. The next two attacks occurred all the way up in Matawan Creek, near Keyport. Even after the previous attacks, no one believed a shark could be in the creek. Reports of a large shark in the area were detrimentally dismissed. Lester Stilwell, 11, was playing in the creek with friends when he was pulled under. Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, came to his aid. Fisher attempted to recover the boy’s body but was bit as well, bleeding to death at Monmouth Memorial Hospital.

Just thirty minutes later and about half a mile from the scene of the first two Matawan Creek attacks, Joseph Dunn, 14, of New York City was bitten in the leg. Friends jumped to his rescue and were able to free him after a violent tug-of-war with the shark. He was taken to Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he recovered for two months. This was the last attack, and it spurred a major shark hunt.

Though the attacks only spanned a period of 12 days, widespread media coverage led to a national panic. Resort towns all along the east coast were taking precautions, enclosing their swimming areas with steel nets. Many beaches made the decision to close. A shark hunt was underway across the country, and hundreds of sharks were slaughtered. The shark in the photo above is believed to have been responsible for at least one of the attacks, as human remains were found in its stomach.

These attacks had a major scientific and cultural impact. Prior to reports of a “Jersey Man-Eater,” scientists did not believe a shark in temperate waters would attack unprovoked. We now know that this is not the case, though shark attacks are still not particularly common. Additionally, sharks were previously thought to be fairly harmless. Perception changed with headlines highlighting their vicious nature. Even President Woodrow Wilson was concerned, meeting with his cabinet to discuss the implications and helping to fund local hunts. Cartoons turned sharks into villains and significant amounts of media were devoted to the subject. Besides the infamous Jaws, many films and studies have covered the attacks. Most recently, Shore Thing, a fictional short film based on accounts of the Matawan events, was released.

Were you aware of the Jersey shore shark attacks? Did you learn anything new? What other interesting information can you add about the events?

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