'Shark Summer' - New Jersey, 1916 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Shark Summer' - New Jersey, 1916

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A shark surrounded by blood.

Good ways to die are debatable, but people rarely argue about the bad ones. Being eaten alive is unlikely to be anybody's death of choice. Imagine feeling your legs being bitten clean through by a monster with teeth like razors, and tasting your blood in the water as you sink. That's a terrifying prospect, and you wouldn't be human if you didn't squirm a little at the thought.

Few people nowadays would swim in the sea if they were aware of sharks in the vicinity. It wasn't always like that, though. Great fish have cruised the Atlantic seaboard of North America since times when there were no people to see them. And 100 years ago their company didn't concern our forebears much. Folk knew that sharks out at sea would sometimes consume a floating corpse. Now and again, the remains of seals were washed ashore, their torsos half-missing, cut through as if by a giant knife. The prevailing wisdom, however, was that sharks were furtive creatures that never preyed in shallow water, and were moreover too timid to attack a living human.


The summer of 1916 was killing the populace of New Jersey well before July. In the sweltering heat, infant paralysis was endemic throughout the north-eastern USA. Today we call it polio, and know how to treat it, but in that time and place, before modern medicine, it afflicted thousands and few families escaped its depredation entirely. It wasn't only specific diseases that took their toll, though. Throughout that fateful season, the heat alone was enough to see off a fearful number of the very young and very old. Those in between it drove to the sea.

On Saturday 1 July, with the Independence Day holiday coming up, thousands poured from the trains at destinations along the coastline. In the little town of Beach Haven, one of them was Charles E Vansant. He was 23 years of age, fit, and had travelled with his family from Philadelphia. He was a strong, keen swimmer, and made for the water within an hour of his arrival. People were packed shoulder to shoulder in the shallows, so Vansant struck out some 100 yards and then turned to come back at a leisurely crawl. Something followed him in.

If the story already sounds familiar to film buffs, that's because real events often underpin fiction. Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, and thus the classic Steven Spielberg film of 1975, is a loose adaptation of the events of this calamitous fortnight on the Jersey shore.

Alex Ott was an even better swimmer than Vansant. He had already represented the USA at the Olympic Games, and would go on to become a Water Follies impresario in the 1930s. He was a lifeguard on the beach that day as the stampede from the water began, and it was Ott who pulled Vansant from the surf. He later described seeing a black shape with an ominous fin heading back out to sea. Its victim's left thigh was partly denuded of flesh and the bleeding proved difficult to staunch. The young man was carried, insensible, to a nearby hotel, where he died from blood loss about half an hour later.

Science doesn't yet wholly comprehend the sensory mechanisms of the squali1, but it's known that sharks can recognise their normal prey. Familiar food may be engulfed in a single bite. Observation suggests, however, that even very large sharks are more cautious when confronted by unusual creatures, and the first bites then tend to be exploratory. Vansant was most probably sampled in that way by a substantial but inexperienced specimen. Unfortunately for him, this tentative attack was still disruptive enough to prove fatal.

Lightning Strikes Twice

The death was very widely reported and caused some public concern, but no action was taken by the authorities, except to consult the state fish commissioner of Pennsylvania. James Meehan had heard eye-witness reports of a dog in the water near Vansant. He postulated that the shark had intended to take the animal, but had become confused and bit the swimmer instead. Since there had been no previous shark attack on a human in New Jersey history, Meehan concluded that there would never be another one. Within days, he was proved wrong.

Charles Bruder worked as a bellboy in a hotel at Spring Lake, about 15 miles north of the first attack. He was a Swiss national, 27 years old, popular, and in good health. Thursday 6 July was his day off, and the temperature was still in the 90s2. Bruder went for a swim to cool off, setting out from a moderately busy beach. There were lifelines attached to railings extending out from the shore, and the young man had only just cleared them when he abruptly disappeared from view.

A woman raised the alarm, claiming to have seen an upturned red canoe bobbing just below the surface. Lifeguards named White and Anderson rowed out and found Bruder afloat in a sea of blood. He was unexpectedly light as they pulled him aboard, and it was immediately evident why. Both legs were missing, cleanly severed at the groin. Poor Bruder nonetheless remained conscious long enough to state the obvious: 'A shark got me.' He was dead before the rescuers reached the shore.

This second death in a week elicited a far more frightened public reaction, but another expert who should've known better still chose to contradict the pathologists' conclusion. Frederick Lucas, director of the New York Museum of Natural History, pronounced that no shark's jaws were powerful enough to bite a man in two, so Bruder's demise must have a different explanation. By the end of the weekend, though, hundreds of shark-sightings had been reported all along the coast. Takings at the resorts were plummeting, and the whole summer season was in jeopardy. Several communities, starting with Asbury Park, responded by enclosing their beach bathing areas with nets of steel wire.

Even given such precautions, it was bound to take several days before visitors returned to the coast in any numbers. There were signs that a recovery in trade was beginning by Wednesday 12 July, when one of the most notorious shark attacks in history effectively killed off all remaining hope of a prosperous east coast vacation season. The same incident assured the fame of a sleepy New Jersey village, and mystifies ichthyologists to this day.

Matawan is almost ten miles from the Atlantic via a shallow and brackish creek. There's no other record of a shark attack so far inland, or of one in water of such low salinity.

Mayhem at Matawan

At about 10am, a retired sea captain called Charles Cottrell was standing on a bridge over Matawan Creek when the unmistakable outline of a shark sped beneath him, travelling upstream. He would later estimate its length at ten feet. Cottrell was admirably rational. He made sure two other people had seen it too, telephoned the harbour authority at downstream Keyport so it could warn the bathers he knew would be out in Raritan Bay, and then set off at a jog in the other direction to raise the alarm in villages along the waterway upstream. To his dismay, though, most of the people he met mocked him, and some even chided him for raising groundless fears. The coast was in the grip of shark-terror, for sure, but nobody believed that one of the monsters would ever swim up this little stream.

Cottrell's shark nonetheless ventured further upstream than even the good captain had previously thought possible. Early in the afternoon, a group of youths were in the water at Wyckoff Dock, about a mile and a half beyond the point of the first sighting and a full nine miles from the open sea. There were five of them, and the youngest, Lester Stillwell, had just been given the afternoon off from Anderson's Saw Mill, where he worked alongside other members of his family. The delivery he was supposed to be handling hadn't turned up, part of a pattern of disruption that was sweeping the flustered state.

Stillwell was 12 years old. He was standing neck-deep in the water when the older Charles van Brunt alongside him first saw, and then felt, an on-rushing dark shape. Van Brunt was bowled over by a glancing blow to his hip and probably rolled right under the shark as it struck Stillwell. Van Brunt scrambled from the water with extensive grazing to his torso and chin, caused by the rough skin of the creature.

Another boy's account described seeing the flash of the shark's pale belly and an array of gleaming teeth as it clamped on Stillwell's midriff, rolling over to take him below the surface. One moment Stillwell was screaming amid a thrashing, foaming welter of chaos. The next there was dead silence, except for a swell and a mushrooming cloud of blood.

The survivors of the party raced up the dirt track to Main Street, only about 50 yards distant. A crowd of townsfolk met them coming the other way. Would-be rescuers could hardly have been on the scene quicker.

They immediately stretched a makeshift net across the creek, trapping both the shark and its victim in the upstream reach. One of the people on the scene was Stanley Fisher, a 24-year-old tailor and proprietor of the local laundrette. Soon after came Cottrell, who procured a motor boat and went out onto the water. At first Cottrell insisted that nobody should enter the creek directly, but the villagers pleaded and the captain relented in the case of three chosen men. It would later transpire that Cottrell didn't know the shark had in all probability been corralled. A combination of his air of command and the reckless courage of the community would therefore have further tragic consequences.

The three men in the water were Fisher, George Burlew and Arthur Smith. They dived time and again, searching for some trace of Stillwell. It was about an hour after the attack when Smith, who had swum to the boat's side, felt a bump at the back of his knees. He instinctively looked toward the far side of the creek, where Fisher was wading, chest-deep. Before Smith could shout a warning, Fisher was borne half-out of the water by a violent impact. He had just enough time to give vent to a blood-curdling scream before the unseen shark dragged him below the surface.

This fight was more equal than any of the others. Not only was Fisher a large and strong man, easily six feet tall and 200 pounds, but the shark was in water that was too shallow for it to take advantage of its agility. For around two minutes, Fisher was thrown around like a rag doll, but he never allowed himself to be kept under the water and gouged and hammered at the shark's eyes and snout relentlessly. Eventually the great fish broke away, and Fisher somehow managed to wade into waist-deep water near the bank. A cheer even went up, but the onlookers didn't yet realise the dreadful extent of the man's injuries. Once Fisher was manhandled onto the shore, the womenfolk and children scattered in distress. His right thigh was more or less reduced to bone from groin to knee.

The local surgeon, Dr Reynolds, was already in attendance in case of the recovery of Stillwell's body. But he couldn't apply an effective tourniquet because Fisher's femoral artery was severed high up inside his abdomen. Still bleeding profusely, he was bundled onto a train and rushed to the Memorial Hospital at Long Branch. Fisher was a fighter. He lived for six hours and only lost consciousness when anaesthetised in the operating theatre. In the intervening time, he spoke several times, as if driven to convey his message. Fisher claimed to have had Stillwell's body in his grasp at the moment the shark struck. He said he'd taken his chance with the shark knowing it might still be in the creek, but considered this a risk he had to take when weighed against the duty of recovering Stillwell's remains.

The Last of the Victims

Although Fisher was the last to die, he wasn't the final victim of the Jersey shore shark attacks. Even before the brave tailor succumbed, another casualty was admitted to a different hospital, St Peter's in New Brunswick.

Joseph Dunn, aged 14, and three friends entered the creek at about the time Fisher was attacked. Although their bathing place was only half a mile downstream of Wyckoff Dock, they were unaware of all the commotion. Nobody was yet aware that the shark had torn through the temporary net, and it had continued in the boys' direction.

After about 15 minutes, others in the vicinity noticed the group and urged them to get out of the water. Dunn was last to make it to the bank and, in full view of several people, the shark ran into the shallows and seized his right leg below the knee. Dunn's elder brother, Michael, grabbed his arm and tore him free, at the expense of a chunk of calf muscle. Joseph was hospitalised for two months, but eventually left on two legs with a story to tell for life.

The shark headed downstream, past Keyport and out into the bay, where it disappeared into deep water. En route a couple of people discharged shotguns at it, but with no apparent affect.

The idea caught on, however, and for several weeks thereafter shotgun patrols were maintained along the creek. There's an improbable photograph of severe-looking women in full skirts pointing guns into the water.

Out in the bay, there were soon very many boat parties out hunting for revenge - so many, and so heavily armed, in fact, that it's surprising there weren't more casualties. The local authorities even had to impound dynamite because incensed townspeople were buying it up to fashion home-made depth charges.

At dawn on 14 July, nearly two days after Stillwell was attacked, the unfortunate boy's remains were found by two railwaymen among the many people instructed to scout the waters of the creek. They noticed a pale and amorphous shape under the railroad trestle, some 200 yards seawards from the dock. Closer inspection revealed a human arm was attached. Journalists in those days were far more respectful of the dead than now, so we know only that the head and one arm were substantially intact.

It may well be that Stillwell's body was browsed by the shark in a manner somewhat callously called 'donering' by modern-day morticians. Whereas very large sharks tend to bite bigger prey in two before gulping down the pieces, and small aggressive ones tend to dismember their prey by repeatedly biting out chunks, mid-size sharks, when unmolested, often prefer to ingest already-dead prey by a razor-rasping sucking action, starting at the lower end where most of the muscle is found. When this happens, a corpse's lower extremities may be reduced to a spinal column with stringy attachments.

Thankfully, the treatment is meted out to seals far more often than humans, but the remnants can certainly deliver a shocking surprise. Stripped of the low-density and fat-packed abdominal cavity, the remains sink until the decomposition of the stringy mess still attached re-floats them. What's left of the corpse then floats upside down, in which orientation it tends to be unrecognisable - looking somewhat like a pallid jellyfish. If pulled out of the water, however, there may be an untouched head still attached to the other end.

Echoes Today

The 1916 Jersey shore attacks retain some secrets to this day. Nobody can say for sure whether the havoc was wreaked by a single shark or more than one. Nor can anyone say with confidence which species might have been involved. About a dozen different types of shark could have been responsible for the relatively minor injuries inflicted on Vansant in the first attack, but only three species are considered capable of the killing of Bruder. The Great White, Tiger and Bull shark have all been observed close to shore in the vicinity, and all three are known to have bitten clean through the full girth of a man on occasion.

The culprit for the attacks is usually considered to be either a Great White or Bull shark, or a combination of both. Massive injuries like Bruder's are more often than not the work of Great Whites, and the progression from a first tentative attack to a second decisive one is an established pattern for the species. The Matawan attacks, however, aren't typical of Great Whites. The accomplished negotiator of narrow reaches of very shallow water is the Bull shark. Moreover, it's the only large species definitely identified in near-freshwater conditions.

Two days after the Matawan attack, a further event took place which only adds to the dispute about the candidate species. A nine-foot Great White was netted and killed in Raritan Bay, the body of water into which the Matawan Creek empties. When its stomach was opened, 15 pounds of partially digested mammalian tissue was recovered. A number of bones were identified as human, although the attribution is confusing. Medical records refer to an adult rib and a child's tibia. The only child victim was Stillwell, suggesting a Great White defied its usual behaviour patterns by swimming up the creek. The only victim to incur thoracic injuries, however, was also Stillwell, suggesting either that the medical assessment of the bones wasn't entirely accurate or there were more than the known five victims in that period.

The captured shark was moreover smaller than any certainly known to have bitten an adult in two. To complete the mystery, another slightly larger shark was caught in the creek itself a further two days later, although there's no reliable record of either its species or stomach contents. The catcher was the ever-enterprising captain Cottrell. Another entrepreneur put this shark on public display, charging the curious 10ยข a head to view it.

Until July 1916, sharks were just fish, albeit large ones with unwholesome scavenging habits. In that summer, and thus ever since, they became merciless hunters, thirsting for human flesh. In reality, sharks are neither of these. They're predatory carnivores occupying the head of a food chain. They've small brains and little reason to fear anything. When we venture into their environment, we're so clumsy we might seem to the shark like injured and weakened creatures, and hence easy prey. We may even be doing things that make us appear to the largest sharks like an element of their preferred diet, namely seals. In recent times, the most common type of close-to-shore attack has been on body-boarders surfing prostrate. This lends weight to the seal-semblance theory.

There's no clear evidence of sharks of any species becoming habituated bather-hunters. They'd apparently rather pursue their food further offshore than casual swimmers generally venture. Only a tiny minority of man-eating specimens are known with certainty to have killed humans on more than one separate foray. In all cases, their victims were well out to sea or in deeper water, most of them being divers.

Human deaths as a result of shark attacks are extremely rare, at around 70 a year worldwide, which is about 10 per cent of the rate of fatalities caused by the proverbially rare phenomenon of lightning. The sea itself is far deadlier than the creatures in it. Along populous coastlines in temperate climes, the deadliest of those creatures isn't sharks but microbes in sewage. On top of this, other humans inflict grievous harm on many more beach-goers than either the much-maligned shark or less forgivable sewage.

So why are we so scared of these beautiful and graceful animals? It's surely because they rule in a realm in which we humans are almost helpless, and because we discern that they kill without pity. Their lifeless eyes reinforce the absence of compassion. The tales we half-remember of human confrontation with sharks haunt us, and the manner in which they kill invokes our primal fear of being eaten alive.

Perhaps this tale, simple and directly told, will allay some of the fear and revulsion. Perhaps it will heighten them instead. No matter how horrible, though, sharks ought to be one of our more benign phobias, because avoiding them completely is easy. None of us has to enter the sea - except, of course, those of us who happen to be seals.

1The suborder of elasmobranch fish which comprises the shark.2Degrees fahrenheit.

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