June 16, 2015: Possible shark attack off the coast of the Jersey Shore.
Prior to 1916, the average American didn’t know much about sharks. They may have seen pictures in fictional ocean adventures like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea or Moby Dick. Most scholars doubted that sharks would attack a living person in temperate waters without provocation — or that a shark could produce fatal wounds on a human victim. Some marine experts believed that a shark’s jaw was not strong enough to sever a human leg in a single bite or snap a human bone.
In 1891, a millionaire banker offered a five hundred dollar reward for an “authenticated case of a man having been attacked by a shark in temperate waters” north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. No one stepped forward to claim the reward. Reports of shark attacks in other parts of the world — Fiji, Hawaii and India — were dismissed as aberrations.
The summer of 1916 was a hot one. Thousands of people from all walks of life headed for the Jersey shore to cool off in the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, the polio epidemic hit New York and Philadelphia hard, driving more people out of the cities and to the beaches. Mindful of World War I raging across Europe, vacationers watched for German U-boats as they relaxed in the surf.
The first shark attack occurred on July 1st at Beach Haven on Long Beach Island. A twenty-five year old Philadelphia man was playing in the water with his dog. Witnesses say he began shouting, but thought he was shouting at the retriever. A lifeguard pulled the man from the water — and claimed that the shark followed them to shore. The first victim bled to death at the nearby Engleside Hotel.
Although sea captains in the area reported large sharks swimming off the coast of New Jersey, the beaches stayed open.
The second shark attack occurred nearly fifty miles north of the first one at Spring Lake. A twenty-seven year old bellhop from the Essex & Sussex Hotel was swimming offshore on July 6th when a shark bit him in the abdomen. The bite severed both legs; blood turned the water red. Witnesses thought a red boat had overturned!
Two lifeguards rowed out to investigate and brought in the mutilated remains of the victim. Hotel guests raised money to send to the victim’s mother back in Switzerland.
The next three attacks took place all in one day: July 12th, 1916.
Early in the day, a sea captain spotted an eight foot long shark in the waters of the Matawan Creek — more than fifteen miles inland and thirty miles north of Spring Lake. Town officials dismissed the claim.
That afternoon, local children were playing in the creek. Witnesses saw what they thought was an old log floating in the water — until a dorsal fin appeared. A twelve year old boy was attacked and pulled underwater. The rest of the children ran to town for help and came back with several local businessmen. One dove into the water to try to find the child and was attacked by the shark in plain view of many Matawan residents. The man bled to death from a wound in his thigh; the child’s body was recovered upstream a few days later.
The final attack happened less than an hour after the other two — and only a short distance upstream. A fourteen year old boy was bit in the left leg, but was rescued by other swimmers. The young New Yorker was the only person to survive the 1916 Jersey shore shark attacks.
A shark panic hit the Jersey shore — and hit hard. Swimmers were warned to stay close to shore or take advantage of netted bathing areas installed at some public beaches. Asbury Park enclosed the Fourth Avenue Beach with a wire-mesh fence and had armed motorboats on patrol — after the final attacks, it was the only beach to stay open. Shark sightings from Connecticut to Florida were reported. The mayor of Matawan offered a hundred dollar reward to anyone who killed a shark in the Matawan Creek.
Shark hunts became popular, both by boat and from land. Hundreds of sharks were captured up and down the east coast in one of the largest animal hunts in recorded history.
What was the “Jersey man-eater”? Was it the work of a single shark or multiple sharks? Some experts suggested a rogue northward-swimming shark was to blame. Some thought it might be a Spanish shark driven north from the Caribbean Sea. Others thought it might not be a shark at all!
Among the sharks caught during the hunt were a blue shark, a sandbar shark, and a great white shark. The man who caught the great white — circus lion tamer Michael Schleisser — said that the shark’s stomach was full of a “suspicious fleshy material and bones”. Scientists later identified the contents as human remains. After the shark’s capture, there were no more attacks at the Jersey shore. In June 2015 there was a report of a half eaten dolphin off the coast of Wildwood, NJ.
To this day, there is no consensus on exactly what happened and why. Modern researchers suggest that a bull shark — who can swim from salty ocean waters into freshwater rivers and streams — may be the real culprit.
Back to the original question — did the 1916 shark attacks inspire Peter Benchley to write Jaws? The 1975 film of the same name actually references the New Jersey attacks. Benchley himself referred to the shark attacks in his 1994 novel White Shark.