Laurel Hill Connections: The New Jersey Shark Attacks of 1916

Before the summer of 1916, most people seemed to believe that sharks were not capable of harming a human being. After a terrifying 12-day stretch during which four young men were killed, and another one was badly maimed, the public’s relationship with the ocean changed dramatically. The shark attacks of 1916 happened just shy of 102 years ago, and they still capture the public’s imagination and fear. What happened that summer, and how are these events connected to Laurel Hill Cemetery?

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July 1st

25-year old Charles Epting Vansant went out into the ocean for a swim before dinner. Charles and his family lived in Philadelphia, but were vacationing at the Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven. Charles had begun playing with a dog on the beach before going in for a swim. So later, when people nearby heard shouting, they initially thought that the young man was simply calling for the dog to come join him in the water.

What they were really hearing were the panicked cries of a shark attack victim.

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Charles Epting Vansant

A lifeguard and a bystander rushed into the water to rescue Vansant when they realized he was in distress. They claim that the shark followed them to shore, still attempting to bite the seriously injured man. Descriptions at the time report that his left thigh was “stripped of its flesh.” Charles was rushed back to the Engleside hotel where he bled to death on the manager’s desk.

One news story about the incident said that Charles was bitten by “a fish.”

July 6th

The beaches remained open despite news of the July 1st attack making its way up and down the coast. Sea captains reporting shark sightings around New York and New Jersey were dismissed, as the public was still unconvinced that sharks were capable of harming humans.

Meanwhile, Charles Bruder, a Swiss bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel was out swimming in the ocean off of Spring Lake, New Jersey. He was bitten so badly across the abdomen; his legs were severed. He had been swimming quite a distance from shore, so when the attack happened, some beach-goers assumed that a person in a red canoe had capsized. The red they were seeing in the water was Bruder’s blood.

Two lifeguards rowed out to Bruder in a lifeboat, but due to the extent of his injuries, he bled to death before they could reach the shore with him. It’s reported that women along the beach began fainting upon seeing the state of Bruder’s body.

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July 12th

The attacks of July 12th are by far the most alarming and unusual of the lot, mainly because of where they happened. Not in the open ocean, but rather in a narrow, inland tidal waterway known as Matawan Creek. Before the attacks took place, a ship captain walking over a bridge was shocked to see an 8-foot shark making its way up the narrow inland waterway. He tried to alert the townspeople, but his story was largely dismissed.

If the townspeople had listened, perhaps they could have prevented what happened next.

At 2:00 pm, a group of boys were swimming in the creek, when 11-year old Lester Stillwell was violently attacked by the shark. His friends were able to scramble to safety, then ran into town in a panic to get help.

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Lester had epilepsy, so when a group of men from the town arrived to investigate, Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, jumped into the creek to help Lester, believing he’d suffered a seizure. Not realizing he was jumping right between a still-feeding shark and its deceased victim, Fisher’s well-meaning actions ultimately got him killed too.

This time, townspeople were there to not only witness the attack, but to attempt to pull Fisher from the water. Fisher later died at a local hospital from blood loss. Lester Stillwell’s body was recovered two days later.

As if two deaths in 30 minutes wasn’t traumatic enough, the shark continued on and found another victim about half a mile away. This boy was Joseph Dunn, 14, and he’s the only known survivor of the 1916 shark attacks. He was bitten on the leg, but his friends were able to pull him to safety. He recovered in the hospital over the next two months.

The Public Reacts

The 1916 New Jersey shark attacks are a study in rising panic among the public. When Charles Vansant was killed on July 1st, the story was downplayed, if not outright dismissed. Within two weeks, the story had made it all the way to the Whitehouse, and President Woodrow Wilson called a special cabinet meeting to address the menace along the Jersey shore.

Resort towns began installing steel netting around their designated swimming areas, and sending out patrolling boats to reassure swimmers that they were safe.

In response to the triple attack, amateur shark hunters swarmed the waters on July 14th and killed hundreds of sharks in pursuit of the “Matawan Maneater.”

Inquirer

Was the Maneater Ever Caught?

That subject will probably always be open for debate. While some are certain that a young great white was the culprit, others are more convinced that it was a bull shark. Still others are sure the attacks might have been caused by a sand shark, an orca, a particularly ornery sea turtle, or even German U-boats.

Did These Events Inspire “Jaws?”

There are so many parallels between the two stories…

  • The attacks taking place around the 4th of July holiday.
  • The reluctance of officials and the public to believe there was a man-eating shark in the water.
  • Madcap, amateur shark hunters making dubious use of tools like dynamite and harpoons.
  • One of the victims was a young boy.
  • The shark entering waterways believed to be safe (like “the pond” in Jaws).

But then again, there are many differences too. Peter Benchley, author of the book “Jaws” claims that he didn’t specifically base his book off the events of that summer. One thing’s for sure: both “Jaws” and the 1916 shark attacks made people think twice before swimming in the ocean.

Sharks are Still Misunderstood

Before the attacks of 1916, the American understanding of sharks was optimistic, if a bit naïve. Today, it’s possible that we’ve swung too far in the other direction. Now sharks are almost universally feared, and portrayed all throughout pop culture as monstrous and dangerous.

Surely, the reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s take a look at a few statistics…

The fishing industry kills 100 million sharks per year, or approximately 183 sharks every minute. Sharks kill approximately 5 to 15 people per year, and injure approximately 70. Looking at things that way, sharks have far more cause to be afraid of us than we do of them.

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Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

You are more likely to be killed by fireworks, lightning, bees, or domestic dogs than a shark. In fact, in recent years more people have been harmed every year by taking particularly risky selfies than by sharks.

Sharks serve an important purpose in the ocean’s ecosystem. They essentially keep the entire ocean food chain in balance, and allow for healthy populations of other fish and marine life to thrive. By keeping grazing fish populations in check, sharks help maintain healthy plant life in the sea as well.

Sharks and other marine life are wild animals, and just like it’s not a good idea to approach a bear, a skunk, or an owl in the wild, it also isn’t a good idea to approach a shark. Animals can very easily feel threatened by curious humans, and they will lash out if they feel the need to defend themselves.

Your best bet is to stay well within view of lifeguard towers, to only swim in areas designated safe, and to back away and calmly exit the water should you ever run across a shark.

Charles Epting Vansant and Laurel Hill

Charles is buried in the south section of Laurel Hill in Section 10, Plot 151. His death was perhaps the first event which reminded Americans that when we enter the ocean, we’re officially off our home turf. It may have taken officials longer than it should have to respond, but his story still captures the imagination today, 102 years after his death.

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Charles is featured prominently on many of our cemetery tours, as well as on our mobile tours, which can be downloaded for free by visiting LHC.TOURS on your smartphone.

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