great white shark, a known man-eater, prowls the waters
looking for dinner. (Copyright Terry Goss,
2006 - used under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)
Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916
One: Killer on the Loose
July 1, 1916, was a fine day at the New Jersey
resort town of Beach Haven. The surf rolled in and broke against
the warm sands. The beach was filled with people who had taken
the train down from Philadelphia to beat the city heat.
One young man named Charles Vansant, 25, son of
a doctor from Philadelphia, was staying with his family at the
posh Engleside Hotel that overlooked the beach. He decided to
take a quick swim before dinner and plunged into the surf followed
by his dog. Vansant was a good swimmer. He swam straight out into
the ocean, showing those on the beach he was not afraid of the
deep water. The dog followed him obediently. Then the animal suddenly
turned around and swam back to the beach. Charles tried to encourage
it to return to the water, but it wouldn't.
Ready for dinner, Charles started swimming back
himself. Then someone on the beach noticed a fin emerging out
of the deep blue water behind him. It moved swiftly closing the
distance with the young man. Cries of "Watch Out!" filled the
beach, but Charles never heard them over the pounding surf. He
was in only three and a half feet of water when it finally happened.
Spectators on the beach saw a huge triangular head
rise out of the water. Jaws filled with sharp teeth opened and
clamped down on Vansant's left leg just below the knee. The young
man screamed as his blood turned the surrounding water red.
Men rushed into the water to help the swimmer. Alexander
Ott reached him first and grabbed Vansant under the arms. When
he tried to tow Vansant out of the water, however, he found he
was in a tug-of-war with a ten-foot-long, black, torpedo-shaped
animal under the surface. As more men joined the struggle they
began to win, pulling Vansant and his attacker onto the beach.
As the animal's body finally scraped bottom, however, it let go
and swam for deep water.
Vansant was carried to the hotel, bleeding from
a torn femoral artery with much of his left leg missing. Despite
the efforts of his father, a doctor, he died within the hour.
His wounds were so severe that even with the modern medical techniques
and fast emergency transport available today, nearly a century
later, it is unlikely he would have survived. He was the first
victim of the Jersey Shore man-eater of 1916.
Mackerel or Giant Sea Turtle?
The next day the headline in the New York Times
read, "Dies After Attack by Fish." Definitely Vansant was killed
by a sea creature, but what kind? Today, most people's first reaction
was that it must have been a shark. That wasn't a fact that was
obvious to most people in 1916, including many prominent scientists.
There had never been a documented case of a shark attack on American
shores before. Shark attacks seemed the thing of old sea tales.
Many people were just as willing to believe the attacker was a
giant mackerel or a huge sea turtle rather than a shark.
On July 6th, forty-five miles north of Beach Haven
at Spring Lake, New Jersey, most people were unconcerned about
the reports of the attack a few days before. The local paper,
The Asbury Park Press, seemed skeptical that an attack
had even taken place. Perhaps Vansant had simply drowned and the
part about the shark had been fabricated, it suggested.
typical New Jersey beach scene from the early 20th century.
In any case, 19 year-old Robert Dowling and Leonard
Hill, a druggist from New York City, separately planned long swims
along the coast that day. Both were not worried about the reports
from Beach Haven. Both were also unaware, until later, they would
be swimming with a man-eating sea monster nearby in the water.
Despite this they took their swims and returned alive. Just a
few minutes later a man by the name of Charles Bruder entered
the water for his swim.
Spring Lake Attack
Bruder was a twenty-five year old Swiss bellhop
at the swanky Essex and Sussex hotel. He was a well-known figure
in Spring Lake and his form could be seen swimming in the ocean
every summer day during his late afternoon break. He often boasted
that while living in California he had swum many times with large
sharks and was unafraid of them.
That day he swam straight out into the sea for over
a thousand feet. Then suddenly something came up behind him. Bruder
never saw the monster until it struck. "He was a big gray fellow,
and as rough as sandpaper," said the bellhop as he lay dying.
"He cut me here in the side, and his belly was so rough it bruised
my face and arms. That was when I yelled the first time. I thought
he had gone on, but he only turned and shot back at me and snipped
my left leg off."
From the beach people had seen a huge spray of water
erupt from the surface of the sea. One woman called, "The man
in the red canoe is upset!" There was no canoe. The red was Bruder's
blood spreading out across the water. Lifeguards raced out to
him in their small rescue rowboat and saw a black shape under
the water striking at the man over and over again. When they finally
were able to pull him into the boat they were surprised at how
amazingly light he was - until they saw that both his legs had
been bitten off. Bruder lay in the bottom of the boat, bleeding,
while the lifeguards rowed for shore. He briefly described his
ordeal to them then lost consciousness, never to awake again.
That day Dowling and Hill both vowed to give up
long-distance, ocean swimming.
Dr. William G. Schauffler, the governor's staff
physician and a surgeon in the National Guard, examined Bruder's
body on the beach.. Schauffler was a fisherman himself and sure
as to the cause of the bellhop's death: "There is not the slightest
doubt that a man-eating shark inflicted the injuries," he reported.
Schauffler was convinced the creature, a confirmed man-eater,
would not stop at one victim. As soon as he was done with examining
the body he was planning to organize a patrol of armed men and
a fleet of boats to put an end to the killer shark.
of the nation's leading marine life experts thought the
attacks were as likely made by a killer whale as a shark.(Copyright
Minette Layne, 2009, licenced through Wikiapedia Commons)
If Schauffler had no doubt about the identity of
the animal, Dr. John T. Nichols, an ichthyologist (a fish expert)
from the American Museum of Natural History, was more uncertain.
He had come down from New York, examined Bruder's remains and
come to a different conclusion. Nichols told reporters at Spring
Lake that he believed the culprit was an Orcinus orca,
otherwise known as a "Killer Whale." As the New York Times put
it, "Mr. Nichols thought there was as much reason to suppose it
was a killer whale as to suppose it was a shark." His conclusion
was reasonable given what was known about the orcas in 1915. From
the earliest times this animal was thought by sailors to be a
man-killer. It wasn't until the 1960's and 70's that scientists
realized that the orca was the smartest member of the dolphin
family and there were really no documented cases of the creature
ever killing a man.
Patrol boats were put into the water, but the next
deadly incident during that hot summer of 1916 did not occur at
Spring Lake. Nor did it occur anywhere along the Atlantic beaches
of New Jersey. Indeed, it occurred at about the most unlikely
place that anyone might think of.
Monster of Matawan Creek
The small town of Matawan was fifteen miles from
the Jersey shore connected to the ocean by the Matawan Creek.
The creek was tidal and filled with brackish water - the result
of the salty sea mixing with the fresh water stream. In the summer
of 1916 teenage boys would meet to swim down at the old lime works
factory where the creek widened to 30 feet as it made a turn.
On the afternoon of July 11th, 14-year-old Rensselaer Cartan was
splashing in the creek with his friends when something big with
skin as rough as sandpaper brushed by him. He screamed and scrambled
out of the water onto the dock. His chest was scratched and bloodied.
None of the other boys with him saw anything and many went back
into the creek after Cartan left to get his wounds bandaged.
The next day 59-year-old Thomas Cottrell, a retired
sea captain, was taking his morning walk along the creek when
he saw something very unusual: as he crossed the trolley bridge
the Captain looked down into the water and spotted a dark-gray
shape moving up the creek. He estimated the fish was nine or ten
feet long with a tall dorsal fin cutting through the water.
Cottrell immediately knew what it was: a shark.
He'd seen plenty of them at sea and knew what they could do to
living prey. He was shocked to find one in the creek and immediately
connected it to the story he heard about Rensselaer Cartan.
The captain raced into the town of Matawan to the
shop of the barber, John Mulsoff, who was also the village's constable.
The captain's story was met with disbelief and ridicule. How could
a huge shark live in a creek that was only a foot deep at low
tide? With no help to be found from the police, Cottrell decided
to take it upon himself to warn the populace along the water way.
He climbed into his small motorboat and headed up the creek, shouting
to everyone he met a warning about the shark.
The warning had either not reached 11-year-old Lester
Stilwell or he had ignored it. He was playing with his friends
in the creek near the Wyckoff dock at about 2:00 PM that day when
he was attacked. The other boys around him saw "the biggest, blackest
fish" they'd ever seen rise up out of the water and hit the boy.
One witness said he saw, "Lester, being shaken, like a cat shakes
The shark and the boy then disappeared into the
muddy water. The boys, who had been skinny dipping, did not even
bother to get dressed but ran into the middle of town naked screaming
"Shark! A shark got Lester!"
At this two of the town's best swimmers, Stanley
Fisher and George Burlew, donned their swimming trunks and headed
to the creek to search for the body. By the time they arrived
at the location where the boy had disappeared there was a crowd
of people along the bank. Fisher and Burlew strung chicken wire
across a shallow section of the creek so the tide would not take
the body out to sea, than began using a rowboat and long poles
to search for Lester's body. After an hour of searching, however,
and perhaps doubting there had been a shark attack at all, they
decided to enter the water themselves to try and find the remains
of the boy. They swam and dove in the area for a half hour without
success. Finally Burlew started swimming back to the dock, but
Fisher decided to make one more try. He came up shouting, "I've
got it!" Two men took a rowboat out to help him with Lester's
body when suddenly Fisher shouted, "He's got me!" The shark had
attacked Fisher. He struggled with the creature and it struck
at him multiple times pulling him under the water. Finally Fisher
managed to make it to shore. When he was pulled from the water
half the flesh on his right thigh had been taken off by the shark's
powerful jaws. Eight o'clock that evening Fisher died on the operating
table at Monmouth Memorial Hospital of massive blood loss and
Philadelphia Inquirer covers the attacks in the Matawan
Three-quarters of a mile further down the creek
and thirty minutes later near a local brickyard, Jerry Hourihan
and brothers Joseph and Michael Dunn were cooling off in the water.
None of them were aware of the attacks earlier in the day. As
they were swimming, though, a voice warned them about the shark
in the water and they began swimming towards the dock. Twelve-year-old
Joseph was still ten feet from safety when something fast and
large brushed by him scratching his skin. Turning back the shark
clamped down on his leg. The monster tried to pull the boy into
deeper water, but Jacob Lefferts (who had been out giving shark
warnings) and Michael Dunn leapt into the water to assist Joseph.
When they finally got him out of the water onto the brickyard's
pier, much of the flesh on his left leg was stripped away. Fortunately
for Joseph Dunn, the shark's jaws had neither crushed his bones
nor torn an artery and he survived the attack.
All over town now the word had spread that one or
more man-eating sharks were in the creek's waters. Men in boats
armed with guns patrolled the surface looking for signs of the
monster. Sticks of dynamite were thrown into the water at the
sign of any suspicious ripple along the surface. A steel mesh
net was dropped at the mouth of the creek so the murderous creature
could not escape. By the next afternoon, however, when the nets
were examined, it was clear that the man-eater had gotten away.
Something big had chewed its way through the steel cables and
headed back out into the bay.
Two: With four dead and one gravely injured, the public
panics and the hunt for the killer shark begins.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2009. All Rights Reserved.