Although Jaws is one of my favorite movies, it has put sharks in a negative spotlight since it debuted in 1975. Aside from the poorly depicted biology (Hollywood seems to be against accurate biology these days), it is a great, entertaining story. Perhaps it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s better movies. The film was based off the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley, but where did the inspiration come from to create such a graphic novel turned movie that would end up being somewhat of a cult classic? As it turns out the movie was further inspired by true events. Benchley denies the inspiration, but I think there might be more to that denial. Here’s what happened…
The summer of 1916 marked a time in New Jersey’s history that isn’t easily forgotten as a series of shark attacks plagued the Jersey shore and elicited panic across the nation. Prior to these attacks, sharks were thought of as harmless fish lacking the ability and strength to break human bone; not much was understood of their biology. Unfortunately, this naivety was far from the truth as the victims would sadly realize. Charles Vansant, 25, was the first of 5 attacks. While on vacation from Philadelphia, he was swimming with his dog near Long Island Beach when the attack occurred. The shark inflicted fatal wounds to Vansant by stripping the flesh from his legs; his cries of pain and helplessness were mistaken for calls to his dog. Vansant bled to death on July 1, 1916. Five days later on July 6, Charles Bruder, 27, was fatally attacked 45 miles north of Beach Haven near Spring Lake, New Jersey. Bruder was swimming offshore when he was attacked. The shark bit Bruder in the abdomen and severed his legs. Local lifeguards managed to reach him in the blood ridden water, but due to the severity of his wounds, Bruder bled out. He never made it to shore. The final attacks occurred on July 12 in Matawan Creek near the town of Keyport. For this area – located 30 miles northwest of Spring Lake – sharks were of little concern. Several boys were playing in the creek when they spotted the shark. Lester Stillwell, 11, was unable to reach the safety of the creek bank. The remaining boys ran for help and found a local resident named Watson Stanley Fisher, 24. Fisher dove into the creek in an attempt to save Stillwell, but was viscously attacked while doing so. He was pulled from the water then transported to the local hospital where he later died of blood loss from a severed leg. Stillwell’s body was recovered two days later on July 12. The final attack took place 30 minutes after Stillwell and Fisher were attacked. Joseph Dunn, 14, was swimming half a mile away when the shark bit him in the leg. The presence of Dunn’s brother and friend saved his life as they pulled Dunn from the shark’s jaws and moved him to safety. Dunn spent the next two months recovering in the hospital; he was the only survivor that summer.
These attacks made headlines across the nation. Ironically, people refused to believe sharks had the capability to cause such injuries. Everyone placed the cause of the deaths on outlandish phenomenon or outrageous culprits. Barret Smith of New York wrote the New York Times stating:
Having read with much interest the account of the fatality off Spring Lake, N.J., I should like to offer a suggestion somewhat at variance with the shark theory. In my opinion it is most unlikely that a shark was responsible, and I believe it much more likely that the attack was made by a sea turtle. I have spent much time at sea and along shore, and have several times seen turtles large enough to inflict just such wounds. These creatures are of a vicious disposition, and when annoyed are extremely dangerous to approach, and it is my idea that Bruder may have disturbed one while it was asleep on or close to the surface.
Other theories blamed German U-boats for bringing sharks closer to coastal communities of the United States from off shore. It was hard to deny anything but a shark attack based on the severity of the injuries of victims. In an effort to direct the attention and panic away from sharks, James Meehan, who was the State Fish Commissioner of Pennsylvania at the time, said the attack on Vansant was intended for his dog. Meehan stated:
Despite the death of Charles Vansant and the report that two sharks having been caught in that vicinity recently, I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters. The information in regard to the sharks is indefinite and I hardly believe that Vansant was attacked by a man-eater. Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to attack the dog and snapped at the man in passing.
As fanciful and comical as these theories are it shows the immense lack of understanding of shark biology and ecology at the time. It also shows the beginnings of the panicked and fear driven attitude towards sharks. Once the idea that the victims were attacked by a shark was considered, local beach communities took extreme measures to capture the rogue shark. Rewards were offered, and any measure necessary to capture the shark was approved, including dynamite. One shark was brought to the dock, and when cut open, bones were found along with a mysterious fleshy substance. These were thought to be human remains. This shark slaughter continued for some time after 1916.
The blame of the attacks was finally attributed to the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), but I am more inclined to think it was the work of the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) due to three of the attacks occurring in a creek several miles from the shore. To my knowledge no great white has been documented occurring in freshwater (this is assuming the creek was freshwater and not saline). However, bull sharks have been documented in freshwater creeks and rivers numerous times. In fact, they have been documented in the Mississippi River near St. Louis. We have come a long way in our understanding since those attacks, but our current, cultural mindset regarding sharks was set almost a century ago in the summer of 1916.
References and Photo Credits:
The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, 1919.
“Bathers Need Have No Fear of Sharks: Lousy Fish Expert Declares One That Killed Swimmer May Have Sought To Attack Dog,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, quoted in Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror, pp. 9–10.
Barrett P. Smith, “Perhaps It Was a Turtle,” The New York Times, July 14, 1916, p. 10.
Richard G. Fernicola. 2001. Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks.