The view of sharks as cold-blooded man-eaters goes even further back than Jaws, but to the Summer of 1916 in New Jersey. There, five people were viciously attacked and it changed the stereotype of sharks forever.
Death from Below
Fond memories are made frolicking around summertime seashores. But in temperate waters there are dangers that lurk. Rip currents and jellyfish are to be wary of, but there is nothing like the sight of a dorsal fin cutting through the waves heralding the presence of a man-eating shark to set beachgoers running for the hills, or at least, the sand dunes. To the minds of many, sharks are powerful, swift predators that will tear a chunk out of a hapless swimmer given half a chance.
An IPSOS study published in 2015 found that 51% of Americans expressed being ‘absolutely terrified’ of sharks and 38% of Americans said they are scared to swim in the ocean because of them. Yet, did you know there are just 10 or fewer deaths from sharks annually, and in 2020 only 57 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide? Their notoriety as a menace to our survival doesn’t quite match the body count.
So, what is behind this over-inflated fear Americans and others have for these predators?
The Movie Jaws
The Jaws movies may be dated now, but for so many of us over a certain age this movie franchise left an indelible impact on our psyches and how we came to fear, almost demonise, these apex predators of the deep.
The film opens on a New England beach on Amity Island in Summer. Amongst the dunes around a fire, some carefree teenagers enjoy their youth as waves crash against the shore. One drunk young man flirts silently with a comely blond lady.
Suddenly, she bolts for the sea for a spot of skinny dipping. The drunk guy stumbles after in chase. By the time she dives into the water he tumbles into a stupor. Now, swimming in suspiciously bright moonlight, the blond girl realises something has gotten her leg.
She screams. Her bone-chilling screeches of ‘help’ fall on deaf ears as an unseen creature devours her from below. My blood curdles. She shrieks and cries, waving helplessly whilst some creature below has sunken its teeth into the damson and rams her through the water.
It was this moment in the movie that the six-year-old me would scurry behind the sofa until the end of the scene. This traumatic introduction to sharks virtually scarred myself and others for life.
Jaws I, in its portrayal of a giant Great White hunting humans along the New England coastline, accompanied by an iconically eerie two-note theme tune, traumatised moviegoers to the extent it put a dent in the numbers of beachgoers the Summer it was released in 1975. It also inspired armadas of fishermen to pile into boats to butcher thousands in shark-fishing tournaments.
It might enlighten fans of Jaws that Peter Benchley’s book it’s based on was, in turn, inspired by a true-life horror story that occurred around New Jersey’s shoreline in the summer of 1916.
In July that Summer, one or more sharks killed four bathers and injured another in just a 12 day period. It sent shockwaves across America and rebooted the reputation of these seldom deadly sea creatures for good.
The Jersey Shore Attacks, 1916
The allure of the New Jersey seashore was strong that Summer. The Sun’s shimmering glare drove people off the sweltering streets of New York and Philadelphia for the invigorating sea air. A polio epidemic also raged along the Eastern Seaboard and it was believed the coastal breeze was good for alleviating those afflicted. Beach Haven resort, towards the south of NJ’s coastline, was therefore exceptionally busy at the start of July. Charles Vansant and his folks joined the thronging crowds.
Vansant was a vigorous young man and successful stock-broker who had arrived on a train from Philadelphia that morning. He’d enjoyed the amusements of Beach Haven, then as the sun began its descent towards the glistening horizon he chose to take a dip in the Atlantic with his canine companion before dinner.
Beachbathers’ attentions were torn away from their idle distractions by a young man offshore screeching loudly. Perplexed, the shrill panic in his voice triggered a profound sense of alarm within. Unbeknownst to them, Vansant was actually struggling with something which had taken agonising hold of his left thigh. As the shock seized him, he was faintly aware of the reddening water and metallic smell filling his nostrils.
A lifeboat was quickly put in the water and its crew feverishly worked the oars to reach Vansant before it was too late. The lifeguards hauled Vansant aboard and observed a large fish stalk them back to shore. That ‘large fish’, as initial news reports would later coyly refer to the shark, had stripped the flesh off the man’s left thigh. Vansant bled to death on the manager’s desk of the Engleside Hotel.
Five days later up the coast in the Spring Lake beach resort, another young Charles headed down to the beach on his day off. Charles Bruder was a Swiss national who worked at a large hotel as a bell boy. He was 130 yards (120m) from shore when he experienced the grisly sensation of a mouthful of serrated teeth puncture his flesh like surgeon’s scalpels.
Lifeguards were alerted that a belly-up red-hulled canoe was spotted floating such was the volume of Bruder’s blood disgorged into the sea. They again rushed out to the rescue. Bruder didn’t even make it to shore before he expired, and his flayed body appalled onlookers so much that one woman fainted at the sight.
After Vansant’s demise, the press had only reluctantly disclosed it to the public and the beaches remained open. After all, a freak occurrence such as this could always happen once.
But now a second person had been attacked by a shark. Maybe even the same shark. Was it hunting humans specifically? The press went into action, sinking their teeth into what was shaping up to be a juicy news piece. It made it onto the front page of major American newspapers such as the Boston Herald, The Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. The rising shark panic drove seasiders to flee the beaches in droves by as much as 75% costing New Jersey resort owners an estimated $250,000 in lost tourism.
Now that news of two fatal shark attacks was spreading, ‘experts’ in the field were beginning to reassess the lethality of these apex predators. Nevertheless, they felt even though the two attacks were alarming, surely it couldn’t happen a third time.
The next three attacks could barely occur more audaciously.
30 miles (48 km) north-west of Spring Lake and inland of Raritan Bay, Matawan was more of a Midwestern town than Atlantic beach resort, being eight miles inland up Matawan Creek; a muddy, tidal river that meanders down to the sea.
Crossing a drawbridge on the outskirts, a retired fishing captain spotted a dorsal fin as it sliced through the surface ripples. He was confident this was a shark estimating it to be eight feet long.
Later, five young teenage boys headed down to the creek to cool off as the mercury rose, including 11-year-old Lester Stillwell. They were frolicking in the river when one of the boys felt something like sandpaper brush his leg. Suddenly a fin was spotted veering towards Lester and he was pulled under as a cacophony of shrieks rang out from his companions. Lester barely registered the commotion above as water quickly filled his lungs.
Stillwell’s friends rushed into town to raise the alarm and quickly returned with a number of men, including 24-year old Stanley Fisher. Stanley was an athletic guy and didn’t hesitate to dive into the water to see if anything of Stillwell could be found. He dived repeatedly, determined not to leave whatever the shark had discarded of young Stillwell’s body in the murky depths. Finally, he did find his body and tried to return to the bank but the maneater struck again. It mercilessly sank its teeth into Fisher’s thigh. The would-be hero met his end like the stockbroker Vansant, bleeding out later that evening.
Yet this animal’s appetite for human flesh was so insatiable, it struck a third time half a mile away. The fifth and final victim Joseph Dunn was 12 and presumably ignorant of the two attacks 30 mins prior. He was struck from behind. Dunn’s fate was not to be the dessert in a three-course meal, however. His brother and a friend charged into the water and clung onto his arms in a desperate tug-of-war which they won. Dunn’s left leg was shredded below the knee, yet he survived after emergency hospital treatment.
Roused into action like an angered hornet nest, the townspeople emptied the area’s stocks of dynamite and bullets and thronged the river banks to destroy this terrifying beast, but to no avail. It escaped out to sea.
With one or more sharks so hellbent on feeding on human flesh it was prepared to swim inland, public conscience went into virtual hysterics. In addition to the state-wide closure of beaches and feverish armed boat patrols offshore, the very highest level of government was compelled to tackle this shark phenomenon. President Woodrow Wilson summoned his cabinet where it was suggested they mobilise the US Coast Guard to protect the public. But, with countless bounties on offer, hundreds of sharks were butchered offshore in what has been described as the largest-scale mass animal hunt known to man making the Coast Guard somewhat redundant.
This beast of the deep, concealed by the murky depths until it struck, was now an object of abject terror, almost a bogeyman of sorts for anyone with so much as a wisp of sea-air in their nostrils.
The Maneating Shark Legend Is Born
From the 1890s vacation time became attainable for more than just the exclusively wealthy and rising numbers of people other than mariners were coming into contact with sharks. In the ignorance of the times, the school of thought was that sharks were capable of injuring bathers, but had little appetite for human flesh, even if they could take down an adult. Indeed, in early 1916 Frederic Lucas, director of the American Museum of Natural History, stated in an interview that “it is beyond the power even of the largest [Great White] to sever the leg of an adult man.” and that the chances of being bitten by a shark were “infinitely less than that of being struck by lightning…”
From being deemed powerless and timid before the Summer of 1916, opinions then erred too far in the other direction. Now, sharks became merciless, cold-blooded and highly potent killers, a stereotype the Jaws franchise kept alive and kicking through to the present, unlike its characters. After decades of over-fishing, shark numbers are on a worrying decline with no less than 11 species now critically endangered (as of 2021).
It seems the shark could do with a public image makeover; as the statistics prove, humans are not high on the shark’s menu. Yet, it seems sharks are good at playing the bad guys, as two scientists at the end of that 1916 summer wrote: “There is something peculiarly sinister in the shark’s make-up. The sight of his dark, lean [dorsal] fin lazily cutting zig-zags in the surface of some quiet, sparkling summer sea, and then slipping out of sight not to appear again, suggests an evil spirit. His leering, chinless face, his great mouth with its rows of knife-like teeth.”
With the numerous movies and lurid documentaries the shark stars in, its bad reputation isn’t going to change anytime soon.
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