Shark Attack of 1916: Unraveling the Series of Historic Encounters

In 1916, multiple fatalities from shark attacks at the Jersey Shore changed American perceptions of sharks and influenced ocean swimming culture.

The 1916 Shark Attacks

In the summer of 1916, the Jersey Shore became the site of a horrifying series of shark attacks that resulted in multiple fatalities and heightened public fear about ocean swimming.

These unprecedented attacks challenged existing beliefs about shark behavior and had a lasting impact on America’s perception of these ocean predators.

Chronological Events

  • July 1, 1916: The first victim, Charles Vansant, was attacked and subsequently died from his injuries at Beach Haven.
  • July 6, 1916: The second fatality occurred at Spring Lake, where Charles Bruder lost his life.
  • July 12, 1916: A dramatic day as the shark moved inland to Matawan Creek, claiming the lives of 11-year-old Lester Stillwell and 24-year-old Stanley Fisher, the latter of whom heroically attempted a rescue.
  • Later that Day: Joseph Dunn, a teenager, was also attacked at the same creek but survived, making him the sole survivor of the series of attacks.

Key Victims and Heroes

  • Charles Vansant: A young man visiting Beach Haven, his attack was the first record in this string of tragic incidents.
  • Charles Bruder: A Swiss bell captain who was swimming at Spring Lake when the shark claimed his life.

Lester Stillwell: A local boy from Matawan who fell victim to the shark while swimming in the creek.

Stanley Fisher: A businessman and resident of Matawan who died attempting to recover the body of Lester Stillwell from the creek.

Joseph Dunn: He was only 14 when attacked but managed to survive, making him a symbol of hope amidst the horrifying events.

During this period, President Woodrow Wilson allocated funds for scientists to investigate the attacks, reflecting the national concern.

The Jersey Shore shark attacks would influence the creation of the pivotal and sensational film “Jaws” and mark a shift in the United States’ culture of ocean swimming.

Researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History have since explored these events in depth.

Scientific and Cultural Impact

A shark attacking a swimmer in 1916, causing panic and fear among onlookers

The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 not only set a new precedent for scientific inquiry into shark behavior but also left an indelible mark on American culture, influencing our perception of sharks and their portrayal in media.

Scientific Research and Theories

In response to the 1916 attacks, scientists and ichthyologists began a thorough investigation to understand shark behaviors and the circumstances that led to such a series of attacks.

Notable figures like John Treadwell Nichols and Robert Cushman Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History took interest in the events.

They analyzed the attacks to learn more about shark patterns and the potential of a “rogue shark“—a concept suggesting an individual shark could develop a taste for human prey.

However, this theory has seen much debate over the years.

The International Shark Attack File, curated by George Burgess, serves as a significant resource for understanding such phenomena, contributing to the discussion of both rogue and territorial behaviors among sharks.

These events led to an increased focus on maritime safety and the physiological study of sharks, particularly species like the great white and bull shark, which were hypothesized to be responsible for the attacks.

Media Influence and Pop Culture

The sheer terror of the 1916 attacks captivated the nation’s attention, with newspapers from New York City, Philadelphia, and Connecticut featuring numerous articles that sometimes embellished the events, heightening public fear.

This series of incidents also inspired Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws,” which was later adapted by Steven Spielberg into a blockbuster film.

The movie amplified the existing fear of man-eating sharks, altering beachgoer behavior and sparking widespread interest in sharks.

Subsequently, the Discovery Channel has aired documentaries that detail shark behavior, frequently during their popular “Shark Week” programming.

The cultural impact of these attacks can also be seen in the tourism industry, with towns along the coast of New Jersey leveraging their history to attract visitors.

In literature, Michael Capuzzo’s “Close to Shore” chronicles the 1916 events, reflecting the lasting fascination with shark attacks and their place in American history.