great white shark scarfs down a chunk of bait. (Copyright
Mila Zinkova, 2008 - used under terms of the GNU Free Documentation
Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916
Two: The Hunt for the Killer Shark
to Part 1
In twelve days in the summer of 1916 shark attacks
along the New Jersey shore had left four dead and one maimed with
the rogue shark still on the loose.
On July 13, 1916, John Nichols, the ichthyologist
from the American Museum of Natural History, arrived at Matawan,
the site of the most recent attacks. After speaking to witnesses
and examining the creek, he realized that the monster could not
possibly be a killer whale as he'd speculated. Many witnesses
had clearly identified the creature as a shark, lacking the spouting
characteristic of a whale. What's more, the creek was much too
small to allow the passage of a whale. Now Nichols was forced
to agree that the attacker was indeed some kind of shark, probably
a great white, and if it continued its northern drift up the Jersey
coast it would soon reach the crowded beaches surrounding New
Nichols decided to start his own hunt for the killer
shark. "My own belief is that this single fish has killed all
four of the bathers and that if it is killed the attacks will
end," he told the press.
Rogue Shark Theory
In 1933 Dr. Sir Victor Coppleson, an Australian
scientist, would coin a term for this type of killer fish. He
would call it a "rogue shark." Like its land counterparts, the
rogue lion or rogue tiger, this animal would ignore its regular
prey and develop an unnatural, even an aberrant, taste for human
flesh. Coppleson came to his conclusion by checking the dates
and locations of shark attacks. "A rogue shark, if the theory
is correct," he wrote, "and the evidence appears to prove it to
the hilt - like the man-eating tiger, is a killer which, having
experienced the deadly game sport of killing or mauling a human,
goes in search of similar game. The theory is supported by the
pattern and frequency of many attacks."
Coppleson observed a beach might be free of shark
attacks for decades, a cluster of them would occur, then the beach
would again be free of attacks. He was convinced they would often
stop after a single man-eating shark was captured.
Though it was decades before Coppleson would publish
his theory, Nichols' instincts told him that the Jersey shore
attacks were the work of a single man-eater. Together with his
friend, Robert Murphy, they equipped a boat for shark hunting
and headed out into Jamaica Bay: The logical place, they thought,
for the shark to show up if it continued its northern movement.
the attacks, shark hunters killed every shark they could
find along the Atlantic coast, including some species that
were not man-eaters.
They were not alone in their quest. The shark attacks
had struck terror into people along the coast. The number of bathers
coming to the beach dropped in some places by 75%. Merchants that
depended on tourism lost a quarter of a million dollars worth
of business. Armed men in motorboats began to patrol the waters
off the Jersey beaches. Communities began to offer a bounty for
each shark caught and killed. There was even talk of having the
military eradicate all sharks off the Jersey coast, though this
was clearly impractical.
Big Game Hunter vs. the Great White Shark
Two men who weren't planning on shark fishing
were Michael Schleisser, a forty-year-old former lion tamer and
big game hunter that was also one of the foremost taxidermists
in the United States and his friend, John Murphy, a twenty-eight-year-old
laborer for a steamship company. On July 14th, two days after
the attacks in Matawan Creek, the two friends headed out in a
small boat. As they boarded their dingy for a day of fishing in
Raritan Bay, Schleisser noticed a broken oar lying discarded on
the dock. The end with the paddle was missing. Picking it up,
he threw it into the boat.
"What do you need that for?" asked Murphy.
"Oh, it'll come in handy for something," Schleisser
The two men started the engine on their eight-foot-long
motorboat and headed out into the bay. At a spot just south of
Staten Island, they let out a six-foot net to trawl the water.
They continued for an hour until they were just four miles from
the mouth of Matawan Creek. Suddenly the dingy slammed to a stop
and the engine stalled. In fact, the boat was not just stopped,
but was being towed backwards - and being pulled under the water
by the net that had been let out of the stern. Schleisser looked
out the back of the boat and saw a fish tail come out of the water.
He recognized the creature as a shark. A big one.
They were moving so fast now that the bow of the
boat was rising into the air and the rear was taking on water.
They had to do something fast.
Murphy climbed into the front of the boat to get
more weight on the bow, while Schleisser searched for a weapon.
They had nothing but the fishing rods. They had never intended
to hunt shark. No knives, no harpoons, no guns.
Suddenly the shark's head rose out of the water
and onto the stern of the boat. It was snapping its jaws and Schleisser
realized that it intended to eat them.
Men are not as safe in a boat from a shark as one
might think. Sharks, especially great white sharks, have been
known to attack boats to get at the people on board. With a strong
snout butt a large shark can punch a hole in almost any small
boat hull. In 1923 four miners were fishing off of New South Wales
in Australia when a shark ripped a gaping hole in the bottom of
their boat causing it to capsize. The shark ate one of the miners
while the others watched.
Suddenly Schleisser's eyes noticed the broken oar.
Grabbing it he approached the shark's gaping jaws. He swung at
the monster's head several times. Each time he missed as the shark's
thrashing was rocking the boat wildly. Then Schleisser managed
to get a hit on the creature's nose and another one on the gills.
The monster, even more enraged than before, snapped at the hunter's
arm. The jaws missed him, but the creature's head slashed across
Schleisser's arm and the sandpaper-like skin tore open his wrist.
The shark smelled blood and thrashed even more wildly.
Then Schleisser got another lucky blow to the nose
and that seemed to stun the creature. This was the opening that
he needed and he followed that hit with strikes to the gills and
head until the monster went slack. It was finally dead.
shark and Schleisser as pictured in the Bronx News.
The men towed the shark back to the dock at South
Amboy where volunteers helped the fishermen hoist the 350-pound
creature from the water while Schleisser described to them "the
hardest fight for life I've ever had."
Schleisser took his prize back to his shop to mount
it. When he opened the stomach he found fifteen pounds of flesh
and bone. He shipped the bones to Dr. Frederic Lucas of the American
Museum of Natural History, who was also Nichols' boss. He identified
the remains as human. Nichols himself came to see the creature
mounted at the front of Schleisser's shop. It was clearly a great
white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Though it seemed like
a huge monster to those that looked at it through the window,
it was only a two-year-old juvenile female that measured seven-and-one-half
feet long. A full grown great white shark can measure over 20
feet long and weigh more than two tons.
Rogue or Many Killers?
Was the Jersey shore killer this particular great
white shark? The presence of human bones in the stomach certainly
suggests that it might be the culprit. According to the rogue
shark theory the creature may have been swept further north than
normal and closer to shore. After its first hunting encounter
with human beings was successful, it sought other opportunities.
The rogue shark theory, however, has been out of
vogue with many scientists for years. They argue that waves of
shark attacks result from environmental conditions (for example
changes in water temperature) being favorable for attacks, not
because of the habits of an individual shark. The Jersey shore
attacks, despite earlier perceptions, could have actually been
several different sharks.
In fact, many scientists also doubt that the creature
responsible for the attacks in the Matawan Creek could be a great
white shark. A great white would be extremely uncomfortable in
such a narrow, brackish channel of water. Its body would begin
to lose salt into the fresh water and it would soon become sick
A more likely candidate, they argue, would be the
bull shark. The bull shark is comfortable in fresh water and can
even live in lakes. They are known to live off the coast of New
Jersey and are also man-eaters.
story of the Jersey shore attacks of 1916 were an inspiration
to writer Peter Benchley. His book was made into the 1975
blockbuster movie Jaws.
Still, one thing is for certain: once Schleisser
caught his great white shark the attacks ceased.
The story of the Jersey shore attacks, though forgotten
by many; still has a place in the public mind. The well-known
fictional book Jaws (written by Peter Benchley) and the
blockbuster 1975 movie of the same name directed by Steven Spielberg
draw heavily from this history. Benchley took many of the details
- including the final battle with the shark trying to climb into
the boat - and included them in his book. With literary license,
however, he moved the location to a small New England seaside
town and made his shark 25 feet long.
The impact of these events in 1916 made scientists
rethink what they thought they knew about sharks. No longer were
they creatures thought to be too weak or timid to confront humans.
Man learned the hard way that when it comes to the sea, he can
just as well be the prey as the predator.
to Part One
Copyright Lee Krystek
2009. All Rights Reserved.