How the 1916 Shark Attacks Worked

Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff you Missed in History Class" from

Candace: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.

Katie: Hey, Candace.

Candace: Katie, we have some mail and not the kind of mail that we like to read on the air. We have an actual tangible piece of mail.

Katie: A mysterious package.

Candace: It's a box. And so when we opened this box, we were going to do it live with everyone listening, but we decided that since we didn't really know what was in it, we didn't want to alarm anyone with our girlish screams and cries. So we opened this box and inside is a jar. And inside the jar -

Katie: We've got a pair of bloodied, shredded swim trunks, for one thing, and a newspaper clipping, it looks like an obituary, a keychain -

Candace: And a copper tag that says "" that's attached to what I presume is an artificial shark tooth. And we were delighted. We didn't know what this was. And then our producer told us it's actually a marketing campaign from Discovery. So we're still excited, but it's not as ridden with mystery and intrigue as we had thought and hoped.

Katie: No, Shark Week 2009, starting on August 2nd, I think, this year.

Candace: And Shark Week, like Black Friday, is a holiday that everyone celebrates. You have to get into it with all of your heart and mind and enthusiasm. And so we are bringing a bit of an historical perspective to Shark Week 2009. So without further adieu, we are going to enlighten everyone about -

Katie: The 1916 Shark Attacks on the Jersey Shore. And if you've seen Jaws, it was actually based on this story. So we'll go back to July of 1916, starting July 1st, actually, so getting ready for Independence Day weekend. And there is a heat wave going on and also a polio epidemic. And everyone is heading to the seashore for the weekend.

Candace: And you should know that beach culture was really starting to take off in this era in history. Starting around the mid to late 1800s, people began flocking to the beach. For one, it was cheap. For another reason, there were different modes of transportation that you could take to get there. It was pretty accessible. You could go by horse and wagon, train, automobile, if you were lucky enough to have one, you could even walk. And sun and surf and sand were a nice respite from insects and smoky, dusty industrial cities. And even though the beach was somewhat appealing, there were some things that weren't' too appealing about it. For instance, people wore really cumbersome bathing suits, sometimes made of wool and other heavy fabrics that, well, they didn't show off too much, but they also sort of weighted people down.

Katie: Picture yourself swimming in a woolen dress, women. And for men, it was like a large tank top with shorts.

Candace: And so they would absorb water and make movement very difficult. And there weren't really lifeguards, as we think of lifeguards today, until the 1900s. Usually, it was police officers who would stand in place and pretend to be lifeguards for a little while while people bobbed in the ocean. And different ocean side resorts would section off their areas of the beach with poles and rope and people would hold on to the ropes and float in the water in an activity called fanny dunking.

Katie: I love this very much.

Candace: I do, too. I really can't wait to hit the beach right now and go fanny dunking.

Katie: Go hang on a rope fanny dunk.

Candace: I'm stoked. And then, in the 1900s, it became even more popular to go to the beach. And lifeguarding became a specialized profession. And not only that, but resorts would advertise that they actually had lifeguards, which would draw more people because people thought, "Well, hey, it will be safe to go fanny dunk. Ther e's a lifeguard there." Some even had medical pavilions with registered nurses to help care for them. So it was a wonderful place to be, the seaside.

Katie: And the Jersey Shore was really popular. Something like 11 presidents at the time had gone to stay. Mary Todd Lincoln went to visit. President Garfield actually asked to go there when he was dying from infection.

Candace: So let's imagine the scene. We've got the white sandy expanses of the Jersey Shore, coastal beach sides like Asbury Park, Spring Lake, Seaside Heights, Beach Haven, Atlantic City. People are out in their colorful, woolen separates, bathing in the sun, perhaps some striped umbrellas here and there, general merriment, maybe even a good smelling treat or two wafting in the air, when that merry scene would soon be interrupted by grizzly crimes of nature.

Katie: Charles Epting Vansant was there with his family at Beach Haven, which is on the south coast of New Jersey. He was a University of Pennsylvania grad who had just gotten a job at a Philadelphia brokerage firm. And he was a pretty popular guy. He was part of the glee club and on the varsity golf team and he came from a very old family. And he and his father and his sisters were there at Beach Haven for the weekend. And it was customary for young men to go for a pre-dinner dip in the ocean and Charles swam right out.

Candace: But his dip in the ocean didn't exactly go as planned. He started crying out and while some beachcombers thought he was crying out for a dog, he was actually crying out for help because a shark had latched onto his thigh.

Katie: And there was a lifeguard actually there at the time, Alexander Ott, who had been on the Olympic swim team for the U.S. And he swan right out, grabbed Vansant and brought him in. But by the time he brought him in, Vansant was missing most of his left leg and he bled to death shortly thereafter.

Candace: Yeah, the shark's bite had severed an artery in his thigh and so he bled out pretty quickly. But people viewed this largely as an isolated incident and for a few days, things were calm at the beach. While today, that sort of accident might scare people away from the beach for a very long time, it didn't really make that huge of an impact. We have the local news at night to broadcast scary stories and put people on alert. But most of the headlines of the day were occupied with the events of World War I so people weren't too frightened of the beach.

Katie: The story was on page 18 of the New York Times. It didn't even hit the front page.

Candace: And people largely conceived of sharks attacks as occurring in more southern Atlantic waters, like around Florida, Georgia and South Carolina so they thought it was an anomaly, this one incident, it wouldn't happen again. But that would not be the case. On July 6th at Spring Lake, a Swiss bellboy, named Charles Bruder, who worked at the Essex and Sussex Hotel, went out for a swim. And he was very well liked among staff and guests and he actually sent most of his wages home to his Swiss mother because her other son was at war. So he went out to a special part of the beach that had been cornered off for employee swim and all of a sudden, he went under.

Katie: And there was a large red patch in the ocean, which led a woman to tell the lifeguard that she thought a canoe had flipped over, a red canoe. And no one had seen a red canoe so for a couple of minutes there was confusion. And then they realized that, no, it was blood and it was Charles Bruder. And the lifeguard swam out in a boat and brought him back and he was missing both of his legs below the knee, his bones were severed, his foot was missing.

Candace: He had severe wounds to his abdomen. And because this was such a public rescue and public display of how badly mauled his body was, people became much more aware and frightened of the sharks that may be cruising along the Jersey Shore.

Katie: Spring Lake was a much richer, more elite little resort town than Beach Haven was so this made even more headlines. Now people were starting to come to because it wasn't just attacking the southern Jersey Shore, now the shark was targeting the rich.

Candace: But the shark knew no boundaries of class because whether it was the same shark or a different one, one actually swam inward toward Matawan Creek, which was a tidal river area off the coast. This was fresh water. And on July 12th, a 12-year old boy named Lester Stillwell was attacked. And Lester actually had epilepsy so when he went under in Matawan Creek, which is only about 30 feet wide and 40 feet deep, his friends thought that perhaps he'd had a seizure and he'd gone under the surface and they needed help getting him out. So they raced to town and came back with a dry cleaner named Stanley Fisher, not to be confused with the literary theorist, Stanley Fish, totally different man. So he starts using a pole to poke around the water to try to locate his body and he actually discovers that there is a shark lurking in the depths. So imagine the surprise, a shark in fresh water. People are panicking.

Katie: And one of the accounts I read said that they had stretched a net in the creek beforehand so the body wouldn't wash out to sea, not knowing that there was a shark and the net would also keep the shark in. And that may be why it stayed there and was able to attack Fisher instead of swimming back to the ocean.

Candace: But Fisher dove in and he was attacked. The shark latched onto his right thigh. And another man, who had a boat, actually tried to fend off the shark with one of the oars and he fended the shark off successfully and got Fisher out. But Fisher later died. So now we are up to four deaths the same summer in the same general part of the country.

Katie: And then we go about a half mile up from where Lester Stillwell was killed and we have victim number five, Joseph Dunn. The shark bit his leg, but he actually was rescued. At this point, Matawan residents had kind of wised up to what was going on and he was able to be saved. He was taken to the hospital and they had said that he would never walk again and his limbs would probably be amputated, but he ended up keeping both legs.

Candace: Which was great news? And he was the only survivor in that series of brutal shark attacks. And people were really just freaked out at this point. And even President Woodrow Wilson had enough. He launched a war on this sea of terror and he sent in the Navy and the Coastguard to help deal with the problem. And I'm not exactly sure what they did, if they were on the lookout for sharks swimming along the beach or if they were actively trying to capture sharks, but people thought that the great white was out and about, wreaking havoc on humanity.

Katie: And civilians took up their own sort of vigilantly justice and shot, stabbed and dynamited Matawan Creek and started shooting sharks whenever they found them, wherever they found them. There were several cases of civilians shooting sharks in the head and then getting their pictures taken for the newspaper.

Candace: And clearly, that would not fly today, but to put it in the context of the time and the fear that was going on, it seemed appropriate and a battle for revenge and -

Katie: Heroic.

Candace: - heroic. And there's actually an unbelievable part of this story, but believable because it is true. There's a man named Michael Schleisser, who was a taxidermist and supposedly a Barnum and Bailey Circus lion tamer. And while he was out fishing, he actually caught a shark in Raritan Bay.

Katie: It was a great white and supposedly when they opened it, they found human flesh inside.

Candace: About 15 pounds.

Katie: So was that great white the terror of Matawan Creek or was it something else?

Candace: Scientists today and ichthyologists who look back and examine that summer and the behavior of different types of sharks and who the likeliest culprits would be are not exactly sure that that's the mark of a great white. Even Fabian Cousteau, who you may know from his father, Jacques Cousteau, said that it was unlikely a great white would be in fresh water. It's more likely the work of a bull shark.

Katie: Which is one of only two species that can go in fresh waters? Bull sharks also have really small eyes, much smaller than other sharks, so their vision is pretty limited, which is why they like to swim near the shore because they can just sort of bump into things instead. And in fact, their hunting method is called the bump and bite because they will bump into something, figure out what it is from the bump and then bite it.

Candace: Bull shark, I don't believe you.

Katie: If a bull shark butts into you, things are not going to go well.

Candace: No, get away quickly.

Katie: And after Katrina, actually, a bunch of bull sharks were found in Lake Pontchartrain and they live in several freshwater lakes.

Candace: And of course, the purpo se of this shark podcast is to talk about a particular moment in history and to think about the way that beach culture and attitudes toward the ocean and the ocean's predators have changed throughout time. It's not to scare you off from your beach vacation. By all means, go. Invite Katie and me. We'll come and we'll swim with you. But is important to know just what's out there and its fun to look at how people's attitudes have changed about bathing culture.

Katie: And even sharks, yes. Scientists at the time kept telling people they were in no danger and in fact there were several who said that it couldn't possibly have been a shark who attacked these people because sharks don't do unprovoked attacks and that perhaps it was a sea turtle instead. A crazed sea turtle might not make us go to a movie as Jaws, but still, that was one theory.

Candace: Well, now we know better and the likes of tortoises and sea turtles are relegated to whimsical animated movies and stories about who is faster, a turtle or a rabbit. My money is on the rabbit. But if you want to learn even more about sharks, shark attacks and post-Victorian beach and bathing culture, be sure to visit the website at

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