If not for the events of July 1916, one hundred years ago, we may not have Jaws, Shark Week, or even Sharknado so ingrained in our culture. Imagine an America without that multi-purpose phrase, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
There has been much written and filmed about those two weeks in July 1916 along the New Jersey shore. Shark attacks killed four and injured a fifth, leading to panic and uncertainty, as well as the killing of unknown numbers of sharks. The first two fatal attacks were at separate resort towns along the coast. The final three attacks were at Matawan Creek, killing two.
Map of the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks. Author: Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons
There is still controversy over the type of shark and the number involved. Was one rogue shark responsible for all five attacks? Was it a Great White or a bull shark?
In the past 100 years, there has been a lot of research and speculation about the attacks, but I wanted to see what they knew (or reported) at the time. Original reporting reveals so much about the culture and language. I went into The New York Times archives to see what was reported about these attacks.
DIES AFTER ATTACK BY FISH
C. E. Vansant Had Been Bitten While Swimming at Beach Haven
Special to The New York Times.
BEACH HAVEN, N. J., July 2 – Charles Epting Vansant of Philadelphia, who was badly bitten in the surf here on Saturday afternoon by a fish, presumably a shark, died late last night.
He was less than fifty feet from the beach and was swimming in when those on the shore saw the fin of a fish coming rapidly toward him. They called to him to hurry and yelled warning at him but before he swam many feet the fish closed with him. Vansant shouted for help and then went under. Alexander Ott, an expert swimmer and a member of the American Olympic swimming team, dashed to his assistance, but arrived too late to prevent his being bitten. After a struggle, Ott brought him ashore.
Mr. Vansant was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene L. Vansant of 4,038 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, and was in his twenty-fifth year. He was a graduate of the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Pennsylvania and was connected with the firm of Nathan Folwell & Co., of Philadelphia.
It is said that large sharks have been seen recently a few miles out.
The next attack was 5 days later, 45 miles north.
SHARK KILLS BATHER OFF JERSEY BEACH
Bites Off Both Legs of a Youth Swimming Beyond Spring Lake Life Lines
GUARDS FIND HIM DYING
Women Are Panic-Stricken as Mutilated Body of Hotel Employe (sic) is Brought Ashore
Special to The New York Times.
SPRING LAKE, N. J., July 6. – Hundreds of men and women and many children were on the beach this afternoon when a swimmer, far out beyond the outer life lines, raised a cry for help. George White and Chris Anderson, life guards, who had been watching the swimmer closely because of his distance from shore, launched a lifeboat and started for him while the crowd on the beach watched in suspense and fear.
As the life guards drew near him the water about the man was suddenly tinged with red and he shrieked loudly. A woman onshore cried that the man in the red canoe had upset, but others realized it was blood that colored the water and women fainted at the sight. As the life guards reached for the swimmer he cried out that a shark had bitten him and then fainted.
They dragged him into the boat and discovered that his left leg had been bitten off above the knee and the right leg just below the knee. The shark also had nipped his left side, for there were marks of teeth beneath the arm. Women fled when the man was placed on the beach, but the life guards and other men tried to bandage his wounds while a doctor was called. Before one arrived however the man was dead. He was recognized as Charles Bruder, a bell boy in a local hotel, who had the reputation of being a strong swimmer who often went out beyond the life lines.
The news that the man had been killed by a shark spread rapidly through the resort, and many persons were so overcome by the horror of Bruder’s death that they had to be assisted to their rooms. Swimmers hurried out of the water and couldn’t be induced to return.
So far as the life guards and old residents could recall, Bruder’s was the first death due to a shark at this resort. Sharks have been caught occasionally in fish pounds, but none was ever seen near shore before.
A few days ago a boy had one leg bitten off while swimming off Beach Haven, and a movement was started here tonight by Colonel W. G. Schauffler of Governor Fielder’s staff to have the waters patrolled in an effort to kill off the big fish.
Colonel Schauffler purposes to organize a squad of motor boatmen to patrol up and down the coast. Experienced shark fishermen will be in command of the boats, and it is hoped that the commotion will drive away such fish as the fishermen do not catch.
Matawan Creek near the mouth. Photo: Mr. Matté via Wikimedia Commons
And then the final attacks six days later, 30 miles up the coast in Matawan Creek. I’m not going to post the entire article because it’s so long, but you can read it here (click to download PDF).
SHARK KILLS 2 BATHERS, MAIMS 1, NEAR NEW YORK
Swims Ten Miles from Sea Through Raritan Bay, and Into Small Creek for It’s Prey
BOY TORN FROM HIP TO KNEE
Another Dragged Down to Death by Monster Fish – Leg of Third Twice Bitten
TOWN SCORNS 2 WARNINGS
Man Eater Seen in Matawan Creek on Sunday – One Boy Seized in Three Feet of Water
Special to The New York Times.
MATAWAN, N. J., July 12 –
Tonight the whole town is stirred by a personal feeling, a feeling which makes men and women regard the fish as they might a human being who had taken the lives of a boy and a youth and badly, perhaps mortally, injured another youngster. The one purpose in which everybody shares is to get the shark, to kill it, and to see its body drawn up on the shore, where all may look and be assured it will destroy no more.
The death of the boy and youth and the injury to the other youngster were due to the refusal of almost every one to believe that sharks would ever enter the shoal waters where clamdiggers work at low tide. As long ago as Sunday, Frank Slater saw the shark and told it everywhere. He stopped repeating the tale when every one laughed him to scorn.
News of the tragedies here spread rapidly through neighboring towns, and from Morgan’s Beach, a few miles away, came a report that two sharks had been killed there in the morning by lifeguards. One was said to be twelve feet long.
Persons who saw the shark when it grabbed Fisher said they thought the fish was about nine feet long.
Stories about sharks attacking humans are news because it doesn’t happen that often. On this Fourth of July, remember that you’re more likely to be killed by fireworks than by a shark. Be careful out there.
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