“Twelve Days of Terror” that inspired “Jaws”

More than a century ago, 25-year-old Charles Vansant plunged into the waters of the Jersey Shore for his first swim of the summer. The next time he came out of the water, his body was bloody and mangled and he was on the verge of death. Vansant would be pronounced dead on July 1, 1916, setting off nearly two weeks of chaos that would eventually leave four swimmers dead and one injured.

Twelve Days of Terror

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks sound like fictional stories we all grew up with (indicate the Jaws music), but at that particular time in history, sharks were the last thing most Americans worried about. The attacks came amid a polio outbreak, compounded by looming fears of possible US involvement in World War I. Add in a deadly heat wave and a hungry shark, and the perfect conditions were in place.

A warning sign on a beach following a shark attack, 2020. (Photo credit: Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Following the death of Charles Vansant, the nation went into a frenzy over the potential danger of “man-eating” sharks. Not only was the shark attack a safety concern, but it also threatened local New Jersey economies that depended on beach tourism to survive. At first, the beaches remained open after the July 1 attack, although captains in the area reported sightings of large sharks swimming offshore.

On July 6, a second victim fell prey to Jersey sharks. Charles Brudera 27-year-old Swiss bell chef at a local hotel, was attacked while swimming just 130 meters from shore.

A gray nurse shark seen under swimmers legs

What’s underneath? A gray nurse shark swimming among swimmers, circa 2000. (Photo credit: Torsten Blackwood/via Getty Images)

A shark bit his abdomen, severing his legs. As her blood dyed the water red, a woman alerted two lifeguards to a capsized red dinghy floating in the water. When rescuers approached the scene with a lifeboat, they realized something much worse had happened. Bruder was carried aboard the lifeboat but eventually bled to death on the way back to shore.

Now that the public knew the first attack was no one-time coincidence, panic and paranoia set in. As people fled local beaches and resorts, fishermen headed for the water in search of the New Jersey-terrifying shark – which they dubbed the Matawan man-eater. Two men were dead, but the worst was yet to come.

The “Titanic” of shark attacks

On July 12, the tiny borough of Matawan, New Jersey – 170 miles north of the first attack site – would become the most talked about town in America. When a local fishing master spotted a large shape moving through the water under a bridge, he reported it to local police, but his concern was not taken seriously. In an effort to avoid another attack, the captain ran through the streets shouting at passers-by to avoid the water.

A 1921 postcard shows a crowded beach at the Ritz Carlton in Atlantic City, New Jersey

A vintage color historic souvenir photo postcard shows popular beach attractions New Jersey has to offer at several luxury resorts like the Ritz Carlton, circa 1921. (Photo Credit: Nextrecord Archive/Getty Images).

Unfortunately, a group of young workers at a local factory hadn’t heard the man’s warning. After working all day in the sweltering heat, the boys looked forward to a refreshing swim at the stream to cool off. Just like 11 years old Lester Stillwell waded into the water, his friends watched in horror as a dark form pulled Stillwell under water – leaving a trail of blood in the water.

Lester’s friends immediately ran through town shouting “Shark!” A shark has caught Lester! A crowd gathered at the creek as locals searched the water for any sign of the missing boy. One of them, a tailor named Stanley Fisher, dived deep under the water and, after several moments of agony, finally surfaced holding Stillwell’s mangled body.

As he stood in the water, almost all of Matawan Creek was watching Fisher when they saw the huge shark pull him down, sinking its teeth into his right leg. Fighting and thrashing in the water, the shark refused to let go until rescuers in a boat pushed it away with an oar. Fisher was pulled out of the water with most of the flesh on his right thigh gone. He also lost hold of Lester Stillwell’s body in the attack.

The newspaper of the day after the capture of the great white shark

The front page of the Philidelphia Inquirer for July 15, 1916 – the day after Schliesser caught the tall white he believed responsible for the attacks. (Photo credit: The Philidelphia Inquirer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain)

According to Richard Fernicola. a local physician and author of Twelve Days of Terror – an account of the shark attacks – Fisher’s leg was just a “scratched bone”. Fisher remained alive for two hours before dying at a local hospital. Stillwell’s body was found 150 feet upriver from where he was attacked.

Just 30 minutes after the brutal attacks on Stillwell and Fisher, the Matawan Man Eater struck for the fifth and final time. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn was swimming half a mile from where Stillwell’s attack happened when something bit his leg. His brother engaged in a vicious standoff with the shark, trying to free Joseph from its jaws.

Eventually, they were able to rescue Joseph and take him to the hospital where he eventually recovered from his injuries – the sole survivor of the attacks, which Fernicola considers the “Titanic of shark attacks”.

What happened to the shark?

The story of the man-eating shark caused a stir in the media, but what caused these unprovoked attacks? Witnesses to the first death reported that the shark was about nine feet long. In the days following the first attack, several local fishermen claimed to have caught the shark responsible, but both were species highly unlikely to cause such destruction.

Michael Schliesser with the great white shark he caught

Michael Schliesser poses with the great white shark he captured on July 14, 1916. The photograph, featured in the Bronx Home News, is all that remains of the legendary 7.5-foot specimen. (Photo credit: Bronx Home News / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain)

July 14, an eccentric taxidermist and famous lion tamer Michael Schliesser caught a 350-pound shark while fishing several miles from Matawan Creek where the last three attacks occurred two days prior. Schliesser claimed the shark nearly sank his boat until he killed it with a broken oar.

In eviscerating the shark, he reportedly removed “fleshy material and suspicious bones” which weighed fifteen pounds. Scientists identified Schliesser’s catch as a great white shark that had indeed ingested human remains. The shark was mounted and displayed in a display case in his taxidermy shop but has since been lost. The attacks stopped after Schliesser’s incredible capture, leading many to believe that he really caught the Matawan Man Eater.

As for the origin of the shark and its fondness for human flesh, wartime conspiracy theorists had their own answers. A letter at The New York Times blamed German U-boats for the New Jersey shark problem. The writer concluded:

“These sharks may have devoured human bodies in German war zone waters and followed ocean liners to this coast, or even followed the Germany herself, expecting the usual toll of drowning men, women and children. This would explain their audacity and their thirst for human flesh.

Bull shark with open mouth

A bull shark, the likely suspect behind the Jersey Shore attacks, attacks its prey. (Photo credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Contemporary scientists suspect that the shark was not even a great white, but rather could have been the most aggressive bull shark. Researchers say the Matawan Creek incident is a likely indicator that the attacker was a bull shark. Unlike great whites, bull sharks can handle living in fresh water and are known to interact with humans according to Iranian accounts.

Biologist Richard Ellis explained that the great white “is an oceanic species, and Schlesser’s shark was caught in the ocean. Finding it swimming in a tidal creek is unusual to say the least and perhaps even impossible. The shark bulldog, however, is infamous for its soft water meanders, as well as its pugnacious and aggressive nature.

Cultural impacts

Unfortunately, those early encounters with sharks in New Jersey laid the groundwork for a big cultural shift in thinking. As a result, sharks were perceived as ruthless and bloodthirsty monsters that had to be eradicated at all costs. The belief that sharks deliberately antagonize humans has led to modern misconceptions about sharks depicted in books, television, and movies.

Specifically, the Jersey Shore attacks inspired one of the most iconic rogue shark stories, Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws – which was made into the 1975 cult classic film under the same name.

Two men lean over the stern of a boat as a shark approaches

Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in the 1975 film Jaws. (Photo credit: Universal Studios/MovieStillsDB)

The media frenzy that erupted following the attacks plunged America into mass panic. Suddenly the beaches emptied even on hot days and seasonal businesses struggled to make ends meet. According Thomas B. Allenthe New Jersey resort industry lost $250,000 that summer ($2.6 million today!). It took a while before the paranoia subsided and swimmers felt safe in the water again.

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The federal government has also become involved in the controversy. The House of Representatives sent $5,000 to New Jersey to help eradicate the “shark problem”, prompting shark hunts all along the New Jersey and New York shores. Hundreds of sharks have been killed in the East Coast shark hunt, considered the “largest-scale animal hunt in history”.

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