Sunday, July 22, 2012


This summer has been one of the hottest summers on record. That being said it makes one think of ways to cool off. You can sit at home under an ice cold air conditioner, take a dip in the town pool or what most Americans on both coasts do and head to the beach. But the beach might not be the safest place for one to head to during the summer heat waves, just ask those that visited the beaches of New Jersey  in 1916. No, there was not some kind of early 20th century guido patrolling the boardwalks to find someone to smush with, but something much more dangerous lurking in the water. The summer would go one to spawn the movie that would scare every beach goer right out of the water for the last 40 years. Now it sounds like the cheesy movie the Sci-Fi network just let out but the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 is a piece of summer time history everyone should know.

The summer of 1916 was one hot summer. It was a record setting summer and if the heat wave wasn't bad enough there was also a polio outbreak on top of it. The New Jersey beaches was the primer vacation spot on the Atlantic coast with visitors from all over the nation, from every day Joe Shmoes to the President of the United States. It was in that year that the Jersey Shore would be stricken with a panic it has not seen since. It would be two weeks of terror and result in the death of four people and a coastal manhun...shark hunt.

The old Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, NJ is just one example of the majestic hotels that once lined the New Jersey beaches. But it was there in Beach Haven that one of the most infamous shark attacks in history would take place. Charles Epting Vansant, a Philadelphia native, was visiting Beach Haven with his family. Just before dinner Vansant took the family dog and decided to take a dip. Minutes after Vansant entered the water he began to shout, yet other beach goers thought he was calling his dog he actually was being attacked by a shark. Lifeguard Alexander Ott knew something was wrong and jumped in to save Vansant. Ott claims when he grabbed Vansant and pulled him to shore the shark continued to pursue them to shore. Vansant had not only lost his left leg but his life as well, he died on the manager's desk on the Engleside Hotel around 7:00pm.

The July 1st attack at Beach Haven was seen as nothing more than a freak attack. The beaches remained open and the mercury continued to rise. The next attack would happen 45 miles north at Spring Lake, New Jersey. On July 6 Charles Bruder a Swiss immigrant working as a bellhop at the Essex & Sussex Hotel went for a swim after work. Bruder swam out about 130 yards and began screaming. He was bit in the abdomen and as the shark continued to attack he took off Bruder's legs. The water turned so red a woman told the lifeguards that she thinks a canoe had flipped over. Upon inspection lifeguards Chris Anderson and George White were first to see the destruction the shark had caused. Bruder would bled out in the rescue attempt . The scene was reported in the New York Times, "women were panic stricken and fainted as Bruder's mutilated body was brought ashore." Now with two attacks within days, the panic was unstoppable. Beaches were empty, almost a 75% drop in tourists. The attack in Beach Haven was local news but now with a second attack it was a national event.  It is estimated that New Jersey resort owners lost some $250,000 (which is $5.3 million today).

After the July 6 attack actions were being taken all over the place. Beach towns tried to salvage the summer and netted off bathing areas. Scientists meet at the American Museum of Natural History in order to try to make sense and calm the masses. They claimed a third attack was unlikely and that the attacks were a surprise to begin with. Shark sittings jumped up and down the Atlantic from Florida to New York. And fishermen and hunters, professional and amateur took to the surf and seas trying to catch the "Jersey man eater." But no precaution could stop the attacks. On July 12 in Matawan, NJ only 30 miles north of Spring Lake, but more surprising 16 miles inland, another attack was taking place. With the oceans the most damages place to go it only made sense for people to take to rivers, creeks and streams. However, Matawan Creek would be the scene of the final attacks in July of 1916. In the early afternoon of July 12, a group of local boys jump into the creek to beat the summer heat. While swimming off Wyckoff Dock the boys saw what they described as "a weathered log" had appeared within yards of them. It turned out that weathered log was a shark. As the boys fled the water 11 year old Lester Stillwell could not get out fast enough and the shark pulled him under. The boys ran to town and got help. Men quickly left their daily routine and upon arriving at the creek they dove into the water. One rescuer Watson Stanley Fisher was attacked in the rescue attempt and he would later die in Monmouth Memorial Hospital. Stillwell's body would later wash up 150 yards upstream from the attack. However, the panic of the day was not over. After the Matawan Creek attacks, Joseph Dunn was attacked losing his left leg a half mile upstream from Wyckoff Dock but was rescued by his brother. So within 2 weeks the "Jersey man eater" took almost five lives. After the third day of attacks the hunt was kicked into full gear and that is people could talk about.

The "Jersey man eater" was not identified until July 14. After the attack at Beach Haven reports had the shark at 9 feet and possibly a Sand Tiger Shark. Others suggesting it a Blue Shark as it was caught on near Long Branch after the second attack and some that it was a Sandbar Shark as one was caught at the mouth of the Matawan Creek around the same time. Some scientist even claimed that the attacks were of a rogue Great White or even a Killer Whale. But on July 14 Michael Schleisser of Harlem reeled in a 7 and a half foot Great White in Raritan Bay just miles away from Matawan Creek. The contents of the shark's stomach were a "suspicious fleshy material and bones," which after examination would be identified as human. The shark was then mounted, as Schleisser was also a taxidermist, and displayed in a shop on Broadway in New York City. After this catch no other attacks were reported that summer. But there is some debate that still lingers today if Schleisser's shark was the actual shark, but the fact is not another attack took place on the Jersey Shore or the immediate area, in fact the next shark attack in New Jersey would not happen until 1926 in Sea Bright.

Yes, unfortunately today Jersey Shore shark attacks are being forgotten and The Jersey Shore Shark Attack may be its lasting legacy. However, even though the movie is completely ridiculous and an insult not only to New Jersey but the events it does draw attention to that summer of 1916. The shark attacks that year are immortalized in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws. As the story is loosely based on the events at the Jersey Shore as well as other shark related incidents. But either way the movie has been scaring people out of the ocean since its release, myself included. Yet the "Jersey man eater" is slowly fading from history. Today it is a tale told every summer along the New Jersey coast as a way to scare the daylights out of little kids or first timers to the Jersey Shore. It is important to remember such events as they are our history, and letting them fade away or be the basis for a spoof movie does not seem fair to those involved. Somewhere there is the family of the victims who still remember their losses, while other families retell of the heroine rescue attempts made by lifeguards and the rest of the great state of New Jersey retell the story to keep the legend, events and stories surround that hot July of 1916 alive. 


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