Jersey Shore towns mark 100 years since shark massacre that inspired ‘Jaws’
The first recorded shark attack in New Jersey occurred July 1, 1916, touching off 12 days of panic that forever changed two quiet shore communities and forever instilling a fear of the water that later inspired the movie "Jaws" in 1975 and several books about the deadly encounters.
"From July 1 to July 12, there were a total of five shark attacks, four of which ended in fatalities," said Deborah Whitcraft, founder and president of the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven. The first shark attack was in the small Long Beach Island community in front of the former Engleside Hotel bathhouses on Engleside Avenue.
"We had a boardwalk at the time and a young man named Charles Vansant from Philadelphia was wading in the surf with his dog and suddenly people on the beach heard screaming. He had been attacked by a shark. Unfortunately, he had been bitten at his femoral artery and he died in the lobby of the Engleside Hotel," Whitcraft said. Vansant was 25-years-old.
A media storm followed. According to Whitcraft, many of the so-called experts at the time called it a random shark attack and predicted there wouldn't be another one for many years.
"They were wrong about their prediction that this was just an anomaly," she said.
Just five days later, a second attack happened north of Beach Haven, in Spring Lake. Charles Bruder, 27, was killed on July 6, 1916, while swimming about 130 yards from shore. He was a Swiss bell captain at the Essex & Sussex Hotel in the resort community.
Two more attacks followed, this time north of Spring Lake, in Matawan Creek on July 12, 1916. Lester Stilwell, 11, was killed while playing in the creek with other boys. Several men came to investigate and dove into the creek, including local businessman Stanley Fisher, 24. He ended up being bitten by a shark in front of the townspeople.
The creek was a tidal river that was over 20 feet deep at high tide and had a significant salt content, according to Matawan Township Historian John Allen Savolaine. "So, it wasn't exactly what we think of as being a creek," said Savolaine.
He pointed out that people assume Matawan is inland, but it's just 1.5 miles from Raritan Bay and Keyport Harbor. "Being a tidal creek, it was very close to the ocean, so it wasn't that unusual that a shark could make its way up Matawan Creek, which actually happened, on July 12, 1916," Savolaine said.
Salvolaine wrote the new book "Stanley Fisher: Shark Attack Hero of a Bygone Age." He referred to Fisher as a favorite son of the town and plans to donate all sale proceeds to the Matawan Historical Society.
"Everybody loved this man. He was a soloist in the church. He was a very, very strong athlete. Very admirable man, great values," said Savolaine. He noted the human interest aspect that Fisher, who came from one of the wealthiest families in town, gave up everything try to save Stilwell, who came from one of the poorest families.
In addition to Stilwell and Fisher dying on the same day, another boy was attacked about 30 minutes later about a half-mile away. Savolaine said 14-year-old Joseph Dunn of New York City eventually survived his wounds.
With two people dying as a result of three shark attacks in Matawan alone, Savolaine said, "it had tremendous impact on this town." He noted that the tight-knit town had just started getting numbered addresses on their homes.
The attacks prompted many towns up and down the coast to immediately start stringing wire fencing around the wading area of beaches, placing people on guard and using helicopters to patrol the ocean from overhead looking for sharks, according to Whitcraft.
"It really created a firestorm of media coverage and fears among people who visited the New Jersey Coast. It was huge," Whitcraft said.
The shark hype eventually led to the creation of movie "Jaws," but Whitcraft pointed out because it was filmed along the Cape Cod coast. Many people thought the shark attacks occurred there, and not off the Jersey Coast.
"Cape Cod was a better venue for filming than the New Jersey Coast," she said.
With this being the centennial commemoration of the shark attacks in New Jersey, both towns are keeping history alive by holding several events.
Beach Haven will hold a Shark Awareness Dinner at Buckalew's on July 6, featuring Dr. Richard Fernicola, a physician from Monmouth County who wrote the book "12 Days of Terror," and Marie Levine, president of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton. Registration to attend is required. Tickets can be purchased through the New Jersey Maritime Museum at njmaritimemuseum.org.
A commemorative event of the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 also will be held on Sept. 10, from 5 to 11 p.m., with a mechanical white shark that attendees will be able to ride, according to Whitcraft.
Whitcraft also encouraged anyone interested in the shark attacks or sharks in general to visit the free New Jersey Maritime Museum, year-round.
"We have so much documentation, photos and information about sharks in general and the 1916 shark attack in particular, so we hope people will want to learn more about this," Whitcraft said.
Matawan's observance is July 9 through 17. Click here for a complete list.
A memorial service and wreath laying ceremony to remember Fisher and Stilwell is being held on July 12. To avoid unnecessary sensationalism over hype about "Jaws," Savolaine pointed out that Matawan was very careful with the wording on its monument.
"This was a memorable event to the town. Two people died, but we also mentioned on the monument that a great deal of courage was shown that day. In fact, Stanley Fisher died, but there were a total of six men inside the water, knowing a shark was there and that required a great deal of courage. There were several people who extended themselves above and beyond to help each other out because they were neighbors and friends," said Savolaine.
"That's what we are really celebrating with this event, and also on the monument. That's what we want to preserve. That's what the town can be very proud of and that is part of our legacy that we will carry on to future years."