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

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

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In the summer of 1916, panic struck the Jersey Shore. A shark sunk its teeth into Charles Vansant, the 25-year-old son of a Philadelphia businessman, out for an evening swim in the resort town of Beach Haven on July 1. A lifeguard pulled him ashore, but he quickly bled to death. Five days later, and 45 miles to the north, in Spring Lake, New Jersey, Charles Bruder, a young bellhop at a local hotel, met a similar fate.

Then, something even stranger happened. The rogue great white traveled 30 miles north of Spring Lake and into Matawan Creek. On July 12, Lester Stillwell, 11, was playing in the creek 16 miles inland when the shark attacked. A young man named Watson Stanley Fisher attempted to save the boy, but was fatally injured in the process. 

Joseph Dunn was luckier. The teenager, the shark’s fifth victim, was bitten in the creek less than a half-hour later and survived.

The shark’s ferocious spree is said to have served as inspiration for Jaws—both Peter Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film. (Update: In 2001, however, Benchley denied the connection in a correction to a New York Times article.) Ichthyologist George Burgess calls it the “most unique set of shark attacks that ever have occurred.”

He would know. As curator of the International Shark Attack File, kept at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Burgess is an expert on shark attacks. He presides over the archive, which includes case files for more than 5,000 attacks that occurred from the 16th century up to today. When a shark strikes somewhere in the world, as one did in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, two weeks ago, Burgess and his colleagues “investigate much like a detective would investigate a crime.” They interview the victim and any witnesses, collect medical records and study photographs of the wounds to determine the size and perhaps the species of shark responsible.

I recently spoke with Burgess about the circumstances surrounding the historic attacks of 1916.

From the records that exist, what is your sense of how the general public reacted to the attacks?

I see a common pattern around the world. When shark attacks occur, there is obviously shock. Then, the second phase is denial—denial that it was done by a shark. It has to be done by something else. The third phase is the feeling that if we shuffle it under the rug, maybe it will disappear. The fourth phase is realizing that none of those things are working and that we probably need to go kill some sharks. Then, in the fifth phase, the reality sets in, finally, that that’s not the solution and we probably ought to bring in a scientist that knows what’s going on. The phases they went through in New Jersey were the same.

These days, there is more of a level view of sharks. Back then, this was brand-new and terror-driven. In 1916, the rallying cry was “Let’s go kill some sharks!”

People didn’t even know what predator caused the attacks at first, though, right? What were some of the theories?

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