How America's First Shark Panic Spurred a Century of Fear
In the twilight of July 1, 1916, 25-year-old Charles Vansant bled to death in a beachfront hotel in New Jersey. Several men had pulled his maimed body from the water.
Five days later, bellhop Charles Bruder, 27, was killed during an afternoon swim along the Jersey Shore. Beachgoers gathered around his legless remains.
The following week, 10-year-old Lester Stilwell was swimming in Matawan Creek (also in New Jersey) with his friends when he was eaten alive. Naked and covered in mud, the terrified boys ran down Main Street screaming that there was a shark in the water.
But people were skeptical. They thought Stilwell, who was epileptic, had drowned. Some had been dismissive of the newspaper reports that said sharks had killed swimmers on the coast, because Americans at this time were fairly certain … sharks didn't bite people.
People knew sharks ate the flesh of other ocean creatures, but there was dispute over whether they would—or could—bring down a human. But after the attacks in New Jersey in 1916, what were once thought to be frightening-looking yet essentially benign animals became man-eating predators. This new attitude brought us Jaws and Sharknado, and it’s seen in the response to real-life shark attacks. But it took the New Jersey attacks more than a century ago to remind humans just where they are on the food chain.
When Watson Fisher, a tailor, went into the creek to look for Stilwell, he was attacked as well. He later died of blood loss. Thirty minutes later, a shark bit 14-year-old Joseph Dunn’s leg. Dunn’s brother and a local sea captain pulled him to safety.
That night, some of the local men fought back. They tossed sticks of dynamite into the creek.
On the day Stilwell’s body was found, President Woodrow Wilson called a Cabinet meeting. The White House agreed to give federal aid to “drive away all the ferocious man-eating sharks which have been making prey of bathers,” according to a July 14, 1916 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Eventually, an eight-foot juvenile great white shark was pulled from the New Jersey waters. Its stomach contained human remains.
How we used to think about sharks
Millionaire and athlete Hermann Oelrichs was sure that no shark had ever bitten a human.
He was so sure that in 1891, Oelrichs offered $500 ($12,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who could prove him wrong. He was so sure that once, when he hosted a party at his seaside home, he jumped in the water with a shark to settle a $250 bet with his guests, according to an 1891 Pittsburg Dispatch article.
Some partygoers screamed and covered their eyes. Others called for help. But the fish swam away, possibly frightened by the splash. Oelrichs later repeated this stunt on his yacht.
He was not alone. Many—though not all—scientists of the day believed sharks were harmless. Reports of American shark attacks were often dismissed as fisherman’s tales.
According to Michael Capuzzo’s 2001 book on the attacks, Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York cited Oelrichs as scientific evidence that man-eating sharks did not exist.
When John Treadwell Nichols, assistant curator of the Department of Recent Fishes at the museum, examined the body of Charles Bruder, the bellhop killed in New Jersey, he declared an orca, or killer whale, had killed him, not a shark, writes Capuzzo. A prominent ichthyologist (fish scientist), Nichols did not believe a shark could kill a human.
A Toothy Grin
The toothy maw of a great white shark has populated the nightmares of many a beachgoer.
Some suggested it was a massive sea turtle, or a school of sea turtles that snapped at Bruder and Vansant, says George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and curator for the International Shark Attack File.
Scientists had a loose grasp on shark behavior.
“There were all kinds of misconceptions,” Burgess says. “At least one school of thought at the time was this was all stuff of rumors and fabrications.”
In an August 2, 1915 New York Times editorial, “Let Us Do Justice to the Sharks,” included in Close to Shore, the editors wrote, “To this day, there is nothing that will so quickly set a crowd of swimmers scurrying for our beaches as the sight of a shark’s fin in the offing … that sharks can properly be called dangerous, in this part of the world, is apparently untrue.”
Burgess says as the bites continued, it eventually became obvious that sharks were attacking.
The ocean is still wild
Attacks attributed to a single shark are extremely uncommon.
Burgess says he knows of only a handful of other examples, such as a series of attacks off the Red Sea resort Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in 2010, when one tourist was killed and three gravely injured by an oceanic whitetip.
There’s some debate if a bull shark was responsible for the deaths in Matawan Creek because they are known to inhabit fresh and brackish waters; however, Burgess says the evidence points to the young great white. (Watch: "Attack of the Mystery Shark: Is a Bull or Great White Shark the Culprit?")
The New Jersey shark attacks sent a message to people in the United States. They said the ocean is still wild. Ocean swimming was a relatively new form of entertainment in 1916. When Americans embraced it, they took their first step into the world of sharks. The culture shock was natural, says Burgess.
“It was a unique situation then, [but] it clearly doesn’t matter where it occurs and when,” Burgess says. “Whenever a community encounters a number of incidents in a short period of time, the community reacts more or less the same … The usual order of things is usually fear, followed by denial, followed by revenge, and then followed by some rational or scientific approach to the problem. It’s a timeless and cultural-ist reaction.”
This story was first published on June 30, 2016 and updated on June 12, 2019.