“Watch Out!”: New Jersey Shark Attacks of 1916

A shark captured in Cuba in July 1916 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A shark captured in Cuba in July 1916 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

July 1916 had been an unbearably hot time for thousands of New Englanders. Combine this with the new craze for swimming and you have busy beaches. In an effort to escape the heat New Englanders took to the sea, swarming the beaches. There was little to no fear of sharks since time and time again it had been “proven” that sharks were not man eaters.

On July 1, 1916 Charles Vansant went out for a swim in the mostly deserted waters near Engleside Hotel. He swam out a good distance with a dog frolicking in the water nearby.  On the shore, a small group of people was forming to watch Vansant’s swim. In more recent times long distance swimming had become popular. At a certain distance the dog turned back for shore and Vansant turned to follow. As he swam someone on shore noticed the emergence of a dorsal fin closing in on the man. Shouts of “Watch out!” poured out from the shore. Before anything could be done the great white shark chomped down on Vansant’s leg. Vansant gave an agonized scream. On shore his father, mother and sisters looked on in horror as the water turned red with blood. Men poured into the water to save Vansant who could not get free of the shark’s vise-like grip. Rescuer and shark fought over Vansant, each unwilling to give the man up. Vansant was dragged to shore with the shark following close behind. It was nearly to the beach when it turned tail and fled. Vansant had suffered catastrophic injuries and later bled to death in the hotel.

In the aftermath, the public found it quite difficult to believe what had happened was the work of a shark. This encounter alone would do little to deter many other swimmers from entering the Atlantic.

Great White Sharks (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Five days after Vansant’s death, Charles Bruder took a break from his duties at the Essex and Sussex Hotel to go for a swim. This evening he would be trying for a long-distance swim. Once out in the Atlantic the lone figure drew the attention of the lurking shark. Bruder was ferociously attacked. A sudden spray of water caused by the shark’s attack drew the attention of people on shore. One woman mistook the bloody water for a red canoe. Two surf men immediately made for Bruder in a rowboat. Bruder was attacked again and again before the rescuers arrived and pulled him to safety.  The two men worked to stop the bleeding from what was left of Bruder’s two legs. Sadly Bruder lost consciousness and died.

With Bruder’s death, plans were put into motion to capture the shark or whatever it was. By July 7 the hunt was on. Beaches were either closed down or enclosed with steel nets and patrols set up. The boats that went out to find the shark had no luck in baiting it.

The next stop on the shark’s list was the small town of Matawan. On July 11, three boys went for a swim in Matawan Creek. One of them was bumped by the shark and received some painful scratches. Screaming, he fled the water telling his comrades to get out of the creek. They did not heed his advice. The next day Thomas Cottrell, a former sea captain, went to investigate the wild stories that had made the boy a laughingstock. As he was crossing a bridge, the shark swam under it and headed for Matawan. Quickly Cottrell raced to the town to inform the town constable but only to prove himself a laughingstock, as well. Although no one would take him serious Cottrell was not about to give up. He took to his motorboat and yelled warnings to swimmers in the water making his way down the creek.

Schleisser and the shark (Courtesy Wikipedia)

That same day 11-year-old Lester Stillwell along with some other boys headed for the creek. Cottrell was gone and the boys had not heard his warnings. So unaware of any danger they entered the water. Stillwell was playing in the creek when a friend saw the shark bearing down on the boy. The shark grabbed the epileptic boy and dragged him under. The shocked boys ran into town exclaiming the horrible news. Again it was thought not to be a shark, but that Stillwell had had a fit and merely drowned. Nevertheless a search was carried out. Stanley Fisher, a local tailor as well as a good swimmer, arrived to lend a hand. With a friend they strung a steel net across the creek before they dived in to locate Stillwell’s body. They had been searching long and hard and were headed back to shore when Fisher dived one last time. When he surfaced he yelled to the townspeople on the shore he had Stillwell’s body. He had taken Stillwell’s body away from the shark and was trying to get to shore while fending off the shark. In the fight, Fisher lost Stillwell’s body but managed to make it to shore. His injuries like the victims before him would prove grievous. Fisher died at Monmouth Memorial Hospital.

Very shortly after the attack on Stillwell and Fisher, the great white attacked 14-year-old Joseph Dunn. Fortunately, he was rescued but not before the shark had injured his leg. He would be the only victim to survive the shark’s attacks.

The "man-eater" (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The “man-eater” (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On July 14 Michael Schleisser and John Murphy were out trawling in Raritan Bay in an 8-foot motorboat when they accidentally snagged the catch of a lifetime. A 7.5 foot great white shark. The shark put up a fight, nearly sinking the boat as it worked to get to Schleisser and Murphy. After beating the shark in the head numerous times Schleisser managed to kill the “man-eater”. Bones found in its stomach would later be identified as human. The great white was confirmed to be the shark that had wreaked havoc along the Jersey shore.

Source: Capuzzo, Michael. Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916