On this date in 1830, a fisherman in Cape Cod Bay was pulled from his dory and killed by either a Great White or Mako shark. Joseph Blaney (52) was fishing about half a mile from his schooner when he was observed waving and calling for help with an apparent injury to one of his arms and "a large fish laying across his dory amidships."
"But before the boat which went to his assistance had reached him, the shark renewed his attack, the boat instantly disappeared, and the water appeared in a foam. Nothing more was seen of Mr. Blaney, but the boat reappeared, and was picked up, together with his hat......." - Essex Register, July 15, 1830
Joseph Blaney became the first, well documented fatality of a shark attack on the east coast of the United States. Until the advent of beach resort development and "salt water bathing" in the waning decades of the 19th century, attacks by sharks were virtually unknown. Few Americans lived among the dunes of the Atlantic seaboard and most of those who did fished rather than swam. Sailors who encountered sharks at sea often thought of them as carrion eaters and their habits and even species characteristics were almost a complete mystery.
All that changed during two weeks in July along the New Jersey Coast in 1916, when one or more sharks attacked five people and killed four, culminating with three attacks - once again on this very date - by what became known as the Matawan Man-eater. These final attacks were all the more horrifying because they did not take place along the coast but up a muddy estuary miles from open water.
Together these incidents are thought to have inspired Peter Benchley's Jaws. Two non-fiction books came out in 2001 documenting the New Jersey Shark attacks of 1916 in terrifying detail. Whether the work of one rogue shark or as many as three is still in dispute, although there is strong consensus now that the Matawan Man-eater was likely not a Great White, although an 8.5 footer was killed several days later a few miles away, reportedly with human remains in its stomach. More on that later.
The New Jersey attacks began on July 1, 1916 on a sweltering summer afternoon. There was a polio epidemic in New York City, and in those days before air conditioning those urbanites who could availed themselves of rail service to the shore. Charles VanSant, a 23-year-old broker arriving in Beach Haven, NJ on an afternoon trail from Philadelphia, headed for the water before dinner. He spent time playing with a Chesapeake Retriever in the surf before the dog suddenly headed for shore. He was in chest-deep water beyond the breakers about 50 yards from the beach and still calling to the dog when others on shore noticed a large shadow following him in the water. Richard Fernicola, author of Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks;
"What they saw looked like a black fin slicing across the water from the east toward VanSant. They began to shout heatedly to VanSant, who was unable to understand them and continued calling the dog. Suddenly, one shout from VanSant was louder and higher pitched than the rest, and he began struggling to the beach...At about fifty yards from shore, his shouts became shrieks and be began frantically splashing...He made his way to about three and a half feet of water and got to within forty yards of the beach. Perched on his lifeguard stand, Alexander Ott knew immediately that Charles was in extreme danger...Without hesitation and without thought for his own safety, Ott managed to get the flailing VanSant to waist-deep water. During the struggle to shore, the shark was never far away. Witnesses on the beach and boardwalk swore they saw the shark affixed to VanSant's thigh the entire rescue...the shark did not let Vansant free until its belly scraped the sand."
Charles VanSant suffered a severed femoral artery and his left thigh was stripped of flesh. He bled to death on the manager's desk at the Engleside Hotel. Despite this attack and reports from ship captains of large sharks "swarming off the coast of New Jersey", the beaches remained open. Writing in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, journalist James Meehan stated;
"Despite the death of Charles Vansant and the report that two sharks having been caught in that vicinity recently, I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters. The information in regard to the sharks is indefinite and I hardly believe that Vansant was attacked by a man-eater. Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to attack the dog and snapped at the man in passing."
Five days later, 45 miles or so miles up the coast at Spring Lake, New Jersey, 27 year old Charles Bruder went for a swim. Bruder was a Swiss national and the Bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel in this resort community. He was about 130 yards from shore when suddenly he cried out and a woman who heard him scream called a lifeguard that "the man in the red canoe has upset!" In fact, Bruder had been struck in the abdomen by a shark, turning the surrounding water red. When he was hoisted aboard a rescue boat the horrified crew saw that he had also lost both his lower legs. He died before they reached the beach.
Now there was panic. Beaches were closed or steel nets put up to protect bathers. Boats of armed men patrolled the coast. Not only bathers but the shore economy was at risk, with beaches almost empty and vacationers staying away from the resorts in droves. The situation foreshadows events in the fictional Jaws, when Mayor Vaughn says to Chief Brody; "Martin, it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."
What makes the New Jersey shark attacks the stuff of legend is what happened next, not by the shore but in Matawan Creek on July 12th, 1916: 91 years ago today. New Jersey History's Mysteries picks up the story:
"By mid-morning the temperature was fast approaching ninety degrees and Captain Thomas Cottrell decided to take a break at his bait and tackle shop near the mouth of the Matawan Creek in Keyport. Trying to catch a cooling breeze from the nearby Raritan Bay, the retired sailor and part-time fisherman made his way out to the center of the new drawbridge that spanned the creek. Suddenly, a large black shadow flashed in the water below and caught his attention. With his years at sea, Captain Cottrell knew immediately what he had seen, but his mind fought with his eyes. What was a large shark doing swimming up the small tidal creek that connected Matawan, just a few miles upstream, to the Raritan Bay...
"...The account of these two attacks must have been racing through Captain Cottrell's mind as he stared at the approximately ten-foot shark swimming quickly up the Matawan Creek. He called to two workmen on the bridge, pointing out the shark, then telephoned downtown Keyport to warn the bathers in the Raritan Bay that a shark was in the area. He next followed the creek upstream on foot racing to Matawan to warn the people there. However, many townspeople ignored the warning thinking the Captain had fell victim to the shark hysteria sweeping the State. After all, how could a ten foot shark be in the shallow Matawan Creek, no more than forty feet across at its widest?"
Great whites, we now know, are highly intolerant of fresh water, though they do come into shallow coastal areas to breed. It is hard even now to imagine one coming into the murky, brackish water of Matawan Creek, but there are other sharks, especially aggressive Bull Sharks, which can and do go far upriver - amazingly, one was even caught in Illinois - and they are known to have attacked and killed humans. It is likely, but by no means certain, that this is what Captain Cottrell saw from the bridge. Either way, he was right to try and warn those who might be upstream. Unfortunately, his warning came too late.
It was a brutally hot day at the Anderson Saw Mill, and 11 year old mill worker Lester Stillwell was let off early that afternoon. Along with several friends he went to the old Wychoff dock, a popular swimming hole at a bend in Matawan creek more than a mile and a half inland from Raritan Bay. Stillwell was floating on his back over a deep spot in the river when one of his companions saw what he took for "an old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log" pass him heading him toward Lester. Stillwell screamed and thrashed and disappeared under the water.
Stillwell was an epileptic, so when the frightened boys ran for help, people may have thought he had a fit . It is hard to explain why else Watson "Stanley" Fisher would have closed his tailor shop, thrown on his swimming suit, and heading into the water to help recover the body with a shark in the water. Fisher at first coordinated the recovery effort from the shore while Captain Cottrell, who had by this time arrived on the scene, directed it from a commandeered motorboat. Soon he and two others were diving down into the hole looking for Stillwell. A wire net was stretched across the creek to keep the tide from taking the body out, but it also helped keep the shark in. Fisher and the other men dove for the next half hour trying to find the body. Accounts differ as to the exact sequence of what happened next. One of the swimmers said later he felt something brush his body and then heard a terrible scream from where Fisher had been searching. Fisher had seen Lester's body, even had it by the shoulders, and then was struck hard on the right thigh by the shark. He struggled to the surface, letting go of Stillwell, and was dragged under two more times before reaching the shallows. His right thigh was striped of flesh from groin to knee-cap, and though he was rushed by train to the hospital, he died several hours later. He had told his doctor; "I knew it was all up with me when I felt his grip on my thigh. It was an awful feeling. I can't explain it. Anyhow, I did my duty."
The net evidently did not hold the shark, if indeed there was only one, for it struck a third time a half mile downstream that same afternoon. Five boys were swimming by a deep bend in the river where the bottom had been dredged and there was a ladder providing access to the water. they heard the alarm about the shark and were leaving the water when the last of them, 12-year-old Joseph Dunn, had just reached the lower rung when he was bitten and pulled back into the water. "I felt my leg going down the shark's throat," he recounted afterward,"I believe it would have swallowed me." There was a fierce tug of war that nearly cost Joseph his left leg, but the boys managed to pull him free of the shark which swam downstream. Doctors were able to save his leg though it was badly mangled.
The entire country was gripped with shark fever following these attacks. All out war was declared on sharks, with the crisis discussed in President Wilson's cabinet and bounties placed on sharks killed in new jersey waters. The citizens of Matawan threw dynamite into the creek and shot and stabbed into the water. The New York Times on July 14 reported:
"Matawan Creek . . . was alive with sharks yesterday, according to the score of men who went out to hunt them with rifles, shotguns, boat hooks, harpoons, pikes and dynamite"
The next day's edition reported that one of these "plunged through the chicken wire net that penned it in at Matawan Creek and escaped into the ocean last night." The previous day, Lester Stillwell's ravaged corpse was found floating about 250 yards upstream from the attack, dislodged by a storm and carried up the estuary beneath a railroad bridge where it was spotted by two rail employees.
The hunt for the Matawan Man-eater went on furiously, with Captain Cottrell caught a seven foot shark in a gill net by the mouth of Matawan creek. He placed the beast on display at his shop, but it was unlikely to be the killer. A juvenile Great White 8.5 feet long was captured four days earlier off South Amboy by a Manhattan taxidermist and Barnum and Bailey lion-tamer. When eviscerated it was found to contain about 15 pounds of what were declared to be human remains, including a boy's shinbone and a rib. There were no further shark attacks along the coast after this, though if indeed these were human remains they could have been from a drowning victim and not from the swimmers in the creek. The identity of the shark or sharks that made the attacks remains inconclusive, but the horror of sharks evinced by these two weeks in July has remained ingrained in popular American consciousness even though the events themselves have faded. Last year, there was a Shark-Fest held along Matawan Creek to commemorate the attacks, along with shark-themed arts and crafts, food vendors, and a screening of the TV movie version of "Twelve Days of Terror."
Shark attacks are still extremely rare events, with just 95 fatal, unprovoked attacks known from US territorial waters since Joseph Blaney died in 1830. There were just 76 shark attacks documented worldwide in 2001 and only 5 fatalities. One possible repercussion of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, though, is that it has lead to a dramatic recovery of American seal colonies, a favorite food of Great Whites. Sharks remain highly persecuted and misunderstood creatures and it is illegal to posses the remains of a Great White in America. A Great White apparently did bite a surfer just up the shore from Beach Haven in 2005, but this we are told was a testing strike and not the more serious "bump and bite." He escaped with 50 stitches on his foot.
In 2004 a 14 ft. female Great White spent more than a week in a salt pond off Woods Hole, Massachusetts before being coaxed out to sea. Folks in Massachusetts shouldn't be too concerned, though. There has only been one recorded shark attack leading to a fatality in the Bay State since Joseph Blaney was pulled from his dory. On July 26, 1936, Joseph Troy (16) was swimming with his father off Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett in Buzzards Bay when he was attacked by a Great White and died of his injuries. That's about 9 miles from my family's place at Windrock at the head of the Bay, but this doesn't keep me out of the water. Nor did the Matawan Man-eater close the beaches indefinitely. It is almost always safe to go back in the water. But maybe you should wait half an hour after reading this post. Otherwise it may give you cramps, and we don't want you thrashing around out there.