One of the most enduring memes on the internet is “things more likely to kill you than a shark,” which frequently include cows. Perhaps the writers can’t tell the difference between cows and bulls, or perhaps cows tend to fall on people, but in my experience they’re generally pretty placid creatures.
In any case, there are about 1.5 billion bovines in the world, versus about 100 million sharks. Cows share space with humans on an everyday basis. I’m not buying the implication that, somehow, cows are more dangerous than sharks.
The story I’m about to tell you happened in 1916, when the only respite from heat was the beach. By July 1, the Jersey Shore was full of tourists, sunbathers and swimmers.
Charles Van Sant was a native Philadelphian and a recent graduate of Penn. He was swimming about fifty feet from the shore at Beach Haven when other swimmers noticed a large shadow following him. It pulled him under. A few moments later, the area where he’d been swimming turned red with blood.
Lifeguard Alexander Ott and another guest raced to Van Sant’s rescue, but Van Sant bled to death on the manager’s desk in the Engleside Hotel.
Despite sightings of shark swarms off New York Harbor, beaches remained open. Five days later the killer shark struck 45 miles to the north in Spring Lake. Hotel bell boy Charles Bruder was swimming with friends when he suddenly screamed, “A shark bit me! Bit my legs off.” Lifeguards rowed to his rescue, but he died before reaching shore.
Mesh barriers were erected around swimming areas and motor boats filled with men armed with shotguns patrolled the area. The panic was on. The media’s response to Bruder’s death was sensational. Major American newspapers ran the story on the front page. The US House of Representatives appropriated $5,000 to eradicate the New Jersey shark threat, and President Woodrow Wilson met with his Cabinet about the fatal attacks.
Matawan is thirty miles to the north of Spring Lake, and—more importantly—not on the ocean. Locals swam in Matawan Creek, which winds its way eleven miles down to Raritan Bay.
On the afternoon of July 12, Captain Thomas Cottrell was returning from a good day’s fishing. As he crossed Matawan’s new trolley bridge, he saw a huge shark swimming up the freshwater creek. Cottrell ran into town to warn people. His story was so unlikely that his warnings were ignored as a heatstroke-induced delusion.
Lester Stillwell was 11 years old, an epileptic who worked in the local basket factory. That afternoon, his foreman told him and the other boys in the shop that they could bunk off and go swimming. They were playing in the water when Lester was violently pulled under the surface, thrashing to the top over and over in a pool of blood.
The surviving boys ran for help. 24-year-old Stanley Fischer and a friend ran to the creek and dove in, assuming the boy had had a seizure. When Fischer attempted to pull the boy’s corpse from the shark, he too was attacked. He died a few hours later in Long Branch.
The shouted warnings traveling downstream arrived barely in time for 12-year old Joseph Dunn. He was leaving the water when the shark grabbed him by the leg. His brother and two friends pulled him to safety in a furious, deadly game of tug-of-war. He survived, although seriously mauled.
Matawan offered a reward for the shark. Hundreds of sharks were caught and slaughtered in the ensuing panic. A coastal fisherman named Michael Slicher captured an 8.5 foot Great White at the mouth of another creek on Raritan Bay. Its stomach reportedly contained fifteen lbs. of human remains. Whether or not it was the Matawan Man Eater, the attacks stopped with its death.
Before 1916, scientists did not believe that unprovoked sharks would fatally wound a living person in the temperate waters off our coasts. That opinion rapidly shifted after the 1916 attacks.
The Jersey Shore shark attacks are believed to have inspired Peter Benchley’s classic suspense novel Jaws.