The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws

One rogue shark. Five victims. A mysterious threat. And the era of the killer great white was born

In 1916, a great white shark attacked five people near the Jersey Shore. (Library of Congress)

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In newspaper accounts of the 1916 attacks, the shark is referred to as a “sea monster” and a “sea wolf.”

Exactly. It is unfortunate when we still see remnants of that today. I’ll have a little game with you. You drink a beer every time you hear the expression “shark-infested waters.” See how drunk you get. Whenever a boat goes down or an airplane goes down, we hear that kind of thing. I correct folks all the time. Sharks don’t infest waters, they live in them. Lice infest; they are parasites. There is still bias in that sort of thought process today.

What drew the shark close to shore for the attacks?

One of the most popular theories was one that we hear today. That is, there is not enough fish for the sharks to eat, so therefore they are going to eat humans. The people who are most likely to say it today are sport fishermen, who aren’t catching the same amount or the same size fish that they once did. Back in 1916, it was commercial fishermen who were saying it. It’s not a real defensible argument.

There was a guy who wrote in to the editor of the New York Times saying that these sharks were following U-boats across from the Eastern Atlantic. It was almost an implication that it was a German plot. The world was at war in Europe and the anti-German sentiment was high. All kinds of strange things.

Although it is hard to go back in time and always dangerous to make analogies like this, it could have been a shark that was either injured or had some sort of deformity. It became a deranged killer. We know, for instance, that lions or elephants, with injuries to their feet or a rotten tooth, have sometimes been implicated in attacks on humans because they are feeling pain from these other things. A same kind of thing can occur in a white shark. It is very unusual for sharks though. We don’t have very many instances in all of our studies on sharks where we can attribute multiple attacks to a single individual, the so-called rogue shark. That theory was in vogue in the 1950s as a result of a researcher in Australia who pushed it, but it fell by the wayside since then, and the general feeling is that shark attacks are one-off kind of events.

What actions were taken in these New Jersey towns after the string of attacks began?

On the coast, many communities put up fences around their beaches. Other communities put up money or rewards to people who could bring in sharks—so much a head per shark, which prompted a bunch of fishermen to go out and fish. Shark fishing became the rage. One of the newspapers declared it a new sport. It is like what happened when the book and the movie Jaws came out in the 1970s. It spawned a huge upswing in recreational fishing for sharks with fishing tournaments. There was this collective testosterone rush that occurred on the East Coast of the United States following those events because every guy wanted to go out and catch a shark, have his picture taken with his foot on the head of a shark and have a shark jaw hanging up in his house.

The rogue shark was ultimately caught, right?

The final story was that a white shark was caught nearby. According to the newspapers of the time, it yielded body parts of two of the victims from Matawan Creek. The shark itself was put on display in somebody’s shop in New York and yielded a nice dividend of money for the owner, who charged so much per head to see it.


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