A growing number of shark attacks have been reported along parts of the US northeast coast in recent years, including a series of attacks earlier this month off Long Island. And it is shark week, which increases interest in the deadly fish every year. But that has nothing to do with the frenzy that started more than a century ago in New Jersey.
“It was the Titanic of shark attacks,” said Richard Fernicola, a New Jersey physician and author of “Twelve days of terror”, an account of what became known as the Matawan Man-Eater.
Only a few people on the beach noticed Vansant growing frantically in the water, thinking he was calling the dog he swam with. But by the time rescuers brought him back to shore, a crowd, including his parents, watched as he bled to death on the sand.
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Less than a week later, a hotel employee named Charles Bruder was swimming with friends in nearby Spring Lake when he was repeatedly pulled, screaming, below the surface as swimmers screamed at the ‘assistance. When two rescuers pulled him into their boat, his legs were severed below the knee. He died a few minutes later.
Then came July 12. In the small town of Matawan, 11 miles inland on the tidal currents of Matawan Creek, all was calm despite growing anxiety on shore. Biologists had largely dismissed the first attacks as flukes, and sharks were virtually unknown in these brackish waters anyway. When a fishing captain named Thomas Cottrell saw a menacing shape slipping under a town bridge, his frantic alarm was dismissed by the local police chief. Frustrated, Cottrell literally ran through the streets warning passers-by to avoid the water.
But he narrowly missed coming across a group of young workers from a basketry factory who had been given the sweltering afternoon to bathe. One of them, an 11-year-old apprentice named Lester Stillwell, waded into the creek and had just shouted “Hey guys, watch me float!” when his friends saw a dark shape rushing towards him. He let out a gurgling cry and was pulled into a crimson flower of bubbling water.
His friends, still naked after being naked, ran through town shouting “Shark! Shark! A shark grabbed Lester,” Fernicola said. A crowd gathered and a group of young men began swimming cautiously through the shallow water, hoping to find any sign of the boy’s body. One of them, a tall tailor named Stanley Fisher, dived deeper than the others. With Lester’s parents standing with the crowd of onlookers, he took one last dive, staying long. Finally, he broke the surface. According to some witnesses, he had in his hand the shredded body of the boy. Others said they didn’t see him holding anything. But everyone agreed on what happened next.
Almost the whole town watched as Fisher, struggling to get his foot in the mud, was slammed from his right. They saw the massive shark bring him down, spin him around, and chew large chunks of his flesh. They said Fisher, an athlete, fought like a wild man, punching and kicking the black beast in a cloud of blood and water. But the shark only let go when frantic rescuers in a boat beat it with an oar. When they took Fisher out, there wasn’t much left of his right thigh. The doctor estimated that 10 pounds of flesh had been torn out.
“It was just bones,” Fernicola said. “Striped bone.”
Fisher lived for about two hours. At the time of its death, the shark had made another victim. Joseph Dunn, a 12-year-old visitor from New York, was swimming downstream in the creek, oblivious to pandemonium a few miles inland. A few yards from the dock ladder, he felt a brutal rake along his leg, then a vicious grip on it. His brother and a friend grabbed him and pulled him, feeling the shark pulling the other way. But the animal released its grip and they dragged Dunn to the ground, his leg in shreds. He alone would live.
The reaction was huge and national. The shark panic has hit most of the east coast. Cash rewards were offered for sharks. Mayors of seaside towns had their waters surrounded by fences and netting. Rescuers were given shotguns and harpoons and long lines baited with dead lambs.
President Woodrow Wilson, a former New Jersey governor who was running for re-election that summer, called an emergency cabinet meeting and dispatched a Coast Guard to “fish out the monsters.”
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“America’s War on Sharks,” read a Washington Post front-page headline on July 15, 1916. The next day, the Post reported “Schools of Man-Eaters Seen in Long Island Sound,” while assuring readers in a separate story that the Potomac was shark-free.
In New Jersey, hunters are blasting the waters around Matawan to do as much damage as possible.
“They wanted to kill as many sharks as they could but quickly realized it was futile,” Fernicola said.
Many sharks have been caught. Researchers disagree on which species of shark is most likely responsible for the attacks, but a juvenile great white was captured two days after Matawan’s death with 15 pounds of human remains in its stomach.
It took weeks for swimmers to get back into the water. But with 1917 came World War I and America’s shark fever waned.
Although shark attacks are rare, the virus has been planted. It erupted again with the horrific stories of shark feeding frenzies in the Pacific during World War II. And then, after the publication of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel illustrating the terror of a New England coastal resort, these “Jaws” would never again loosen their grip on the country’s summer psyche.
A version of this story was originally published on May 31, 2017.