Here is my attempt at writing a readers digest version of the shark attack story. For the full story I would recomend you buy Dr. Fernicola's book "12 Days of Terror". Be sure to click on the text that is underlined, it takes you to pictures and hopefully will make the story come alive.
July 1 1916, Beach Haven New Jersey
On July 1, 1916 24 year old Charles Vansant was enjoying his vacation in Beach Haven, New Jersey. He was staying at the Engleside Hotel on the south side of Long Beach Island with his family. A relentless heat wave had taken hold that summer in New Jersey with temperatures in the 90's. In New York City a polio epidemic was killing children at one an hour and there was turmoil abroad that would eventually lead the United States into World War 1. However, all that was lost at the Jersey shore where you could escape the heat of the cities with a swim in the ocean that was an inviting 68 degrees. Charles Vansant was on the beach playing with a dog that happened to walk by. He soon decided to take a quick dip in the ocean before dinner. He called for the dog to join him, and it followed him out about halfway, but soon turned back. All of the sudden a shark sliced threw the water and struck Vansant. He struggled to fight it off, but it swam around and continued to attack him repeatedly. People from the beach noticed Vansant was swinging his arms around in distress as well as a pool of blood formed around him and soon a few lifeguards jumped into to help him. One of those lifeguards was an Olympic swimmer named Alexander Ott. He pulled Vansant from the water and dragged him onto the beach. By some accounts the shark was still affixed to his legs when they were only in 2 feet of water, but soon let go. When Vansant was brough ashore the severity of his wounds were revealed. Much of the flesh and muscle from his thigh had been stripped away and he was bleeding profusely. Vansant lost consciousness on the beach before he was able to tell his story of what had happened. Medical help was summoned and Vansant was carried into the Engleside Hotel and put on the hotel manager’s desk. There was talk of transporting him to the hospital that was located 30 miles to the north in Toms River; however the doctor feared he wouldn't survive the trip. After a couple hours of agony Vansant died from massive blood loss and shock. His body was taken back to his hometown of Philadelphia for burial in South Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Initial reaction to the Vansant attack was subdued. This was most likely because the businesses along the shore feared that any mention of a shark attack would drive people away from the beaches. It was reported as a freak accident that was very unlikely to occur again. People weren't even sure if it was indeed a shark that had been involved in the attack. The 4th Of July Holiday came and went without another incident and things seemed to be getting back to normal.
July 6 1916, Spring Lake New Jersey
Forty miles to the north of Beach Haven was the town of Spring Lake. Right along the ocean was a magnificent hotel known as the Essex and Sussex. Many famous politicians would stay there during their trips to the Jersey shore. In 1914 President William Taft gave a speech at the hotel and stayed there. At the time it was one of the nicest hotels in the entire country. A 28 year old Swiss immigrant by the name of Charles Bruder happened to be a bell hop at the Essex and Sussex He was a tall, well built man, who was very athletic and a great swimmer. July 6, 1916 was another extremely hot day and Bruder decided to take a break from his job at the Essex and Sussex and go for a swim in the ocean. Bruder had heard about the shark attack that occurred a few days before, but like many shrugged it off as an isolated incident. He put on his swim tights at the south end pavilion and was soon swimming a few hundred yards offshore, well beyond the lifelines. On the beach a women remarked that she had just seen a man in a red canoe tip over in the water. People soon realized that it was no red canoe, but a pool of blood. Some saw Bruder being thrown in the air by a shark and being attacked over and over again. Witnesses also heard a death curdling scream that supposedly could be heard a quarter of a mile away. Two lifeguards went into a rowboat and paddled out to Bruder who was somehow able to keep himself above the surface of the water. As the men approached him he said "a shark bit me, bit my legs off". From an outstretched oar Bruder was able to use his last ounce of strength to pull himself into the boat. As the men lifted him in they noticed that he seemed much lighter then most people, they soon realized that this was because his legs were missing below the knees. Within seconds of being put into the boat Bruder died from massive blood lose. When the men arrived on the beach with his body, women fainted at the sight of his mangled corpse. Calls to other towns along the Jersey shore that there had been another shark attack, soon had everyone from Sandy hook to Cape May out of the water. This time the press was much less subdued about the story. Many believed a man eating shark was on the loose. Many towns put up netting along the beaches and other protection to make the bathers feel safe. However many people refused to go back into the water, and the summer along the Jersey shore seemed to be lost. Coincidently Secretary Of the Treasury William McAdoo happened to be staying at the Essex and Sussex for the 4th of July weekend. President Woodrow Wilson was also deciding where his “Summer Whitehouse” should be along the Jersey shore. This created interest at the Presidential level of what was going to be done about the “shark problem” in New Jersey.
People believed it would be too hard to send Bruder's body back to his family in Switzerland, so a fund was collected by the Essex and Sussex and he was interred at Atlantic View Cemetary in Manasquan, New Jersey, which is just to the south of Spring Lake. When I called the cemetery to find the location of his grave the caretaker told me that every few years someone calls asking about it. He asked me if I was in anyway related to Bruder, and says he hopes one day someone will call who is, because Bruder is not buried with any of his family. He then joked with me that the headstone was in the shape of a sharks head.
July 12, 1916 Matawan New Jersey
The town of Matawan is situated in the northern part of Monmouth County. While it was over 15 miles away from the ocean, it still has connections to it by way a Matawan creek that runs through the town. In fact there are many days where you can stand in Matawan and smell the salt water that comes from the creek. Matawan creek opens up into Raritan Bay which leads to the open waters of the Atlantic. In the 1700’s the creek was much deeper and wider and pirates use to travel down the river to raid and pillage the surrounding towns. The spot where the Garden State Parkway now crosses the creek use to be known as the New Jersey Clay Company Brickyards. Barges would come in at high tide and load and unload supplies in this area. In the 1800’s ships would travel up the creek and come all the way into the town of Matawan and dock. A ship by the name of the Wyckoff had it’s own dock just east of the NJCL train trestle. By the early 1900’s the creek had become too narrow for a ship to travel up it, and all that remained of the Wyckoff dock was some pilings and a bulkhead. However, the boys of Matawan would use this area as a place to swim on the hot summer days. They would jump off the old pilings of the dock and play tag on them. It was referred to as “the swimming hole”. The water was dirty and foul, but with the absence of any other place to swim, the boys of Matawan loved it.
July 12, 1916 was another extremely hot day in the town of Matawan. Temperatures were expected to get up into the 90’s with high humidity. On this day, 11 year old Lester Stillwell was busy working at the Anderson bag factor with his father William. It was a job he held during the summertime to make extra money for the family. Lester was a weak and frail boy who was epileptic and occasionally had seizures, then know as “fits”. As the heat of the day grew worse and worse, William Stillwell decided to let his son go from the bag factor early so that he could go cool off with his friends in Matawan creek. As his son departed he warned him to stay close to the dock incase he happened to get the fits. By 2pm Lester and his friends were running down Main Street in Matawan. They included Albert O'Hara, Anthony Bublin, Frank Clowes, Johnson Cartan, and Charles Van Brunt. To get to the creek the boys went down Water Street and climbed down the steep hill that lead to the Wyckoff Dock area. They hung there clothes on the nearby weeds and began to swim in the creek naked, as was the custom at the time. Little did the boys know, but about a half hour earlier and about a mile away, Captain Thomas Cottrell, a retired sea captain, was making his way across a trolley bridge that went across Matawan creek. He looked into the water and could barely believe what he had seen; A shark, perhaps nine feet long was swimming up matawan creek. He immediately ran across the bridge into his bait and tackle shop to call into town and warn the town Sheriff John Mulsoff, who didn't believe his story. He then set out in a motor boat up the creek and ran up the steep embankment to warn the townpeople of matawan. However, his warning calls fell on deaf ears. Most people believed the heat and perhaps the recent talk of sharks had gotten to him. Many people thought a shark in Matawan creek was extremely unlikely, if not impossible. By a terrible twist of fate, Captain Cottrell happened to go by the Wyckoff Dock in a boat warning people of the shark a few minutes before the boys arrived for their swim. Soon after 2pm Lester and his friends were in the water jumping off the old pilings. Lester had swam out to a deeper portion of the creek and yelled “Hey Fellas watch me float”. It was a proud moment for Lester, the fact that he was so thin usually made it hard for him to maintain buoyancy in the water. Just as the boys turned to watch him they saw something that looked like “an old weather beaten board” surge toward Lester. In an instant Lester was seized by the shark and taken under. He put up a brief struggle amid the reddening water and reemerged once more, screamed, and was then taken away. The rest of the boys scrambled out the creek as fast as they could, they were so terrified that they forgot to clothe themselves. Running down Main Street into the center of Matawan they screamed “a shark got Lester” to anyone who would listen. A few of the boys ran into the Taylor shop that was owned by Stanley Fisher. Twenty Four year old Fisher was a strong man, a natural leader, who was well liked in the town of Matawan. He was son of Captain Fisher and lived on 4 Fountain Ave with his parents. When he got wind of the commotion at the creek he didn’t waste anytime closing up his shop early and heading down to the creek in an attempt to find Lester. On the way to the creek he ran into his friend 24 year old George "Red" Burlew and 51 year old Arthur Smith who went along and assisted Fisher. In the 1950's when Arthur Smith was 95 years old and totally blind he would recount his entire story to the authors planning to write a book on the attacks. When the men got to the creek they put on swim tights and began to dive for Stillwell’s body. They saw the red water where Stillwell had gone missing, but assumed he had a seizure, hit his head on a piling and drown. They didn't believe that he was actually attacked by a shark. It had been over a half hour since he had gone missing, and everyone figured the boy was likely dead. The group hung chicken wire in the creek so that the outgoing tide would not take the body out. Little did they realize they might be entrapping a killer shark. After another half hour of dives to the bottom of the creek and coming up empty, both Fisher and Burlew swam to the opposite creek bank to plan their next move. Both men decided to give up the search and head back to the dock. Just as they were making there way back, Fisher spotted William and Luella Stillwell; Lester parents, on the side on the creek bank, and decided to make one last dive to the deeper portion of the creek to retrieve the body. Suddenly Fisher broke the surface with what appeared to be Lester's mangled corpse, the crowd gasped not only at the sight of Lester, but they saw the shark begin to attack Fisher. He dropped Lester and began to fight the shark with every last ounce of strength he had. It pulled him under many times, but he always managed to resurface and continue to fight. Soon two men in a row boat joined in the fight hitting the shark with boat oars until it finally released Fisher and swam away. When Fisher was hoisted onto the dock it was revealed that his thigh was stripped of flesh and muscle. He looked down and all he said was "Oh my God". A doctor was summoned and he applied a tunicate to the wound. A stretcher was made out of some nearby planks and Fisher was carried to the Matawan train station to be transported to Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch. Fisher waited at the station for two agonizing hours before the train arrived at 5:06pm. The conductor was asked to skip as many stops as possible in order to get Fisher there in a timely manner. This entire time he had been able to stay conscious. When they arrived at the hospital he told the doctors he tried desperately to find Lester's body when the shark seized him, he said he had done his duty. Stanley Fisher died at Monmouth Memorial as he was being wheeled into surgery to have his leg amputated.
The sharks reign of terror wasn't over yet. About a mile to the east of where the Stillwell and Fisher attacks took place, and on the opposite creek bank, was the New Jersey Clay Company Brickyards. Fourteen Year old Joseph Dunn his brother, eighteen year old Michael, along with Jerry Hourihan and some other boys, were playing in the creek when word reached them that that there was a shark in the water. They quickly ran to the nearby ladder and just as Dunn was almost out of the creek, the shark appeared and grabbed onto him. Joe Dunn screamed in pain. He would later say that it felt like the shark was trying to swallow his leg. Joe's friends courageously jumped back into the water to keep the shark from taking him. It was a tug of war between them and the shark, but soon they were able to pull the Joe out of it's mouth. However the sharks teeth severely cut Joe's skin to ribbons. Joe was taken in a motor boat and transported down the creek to the Fisher bag Factory (no relation to Stanley) which was near the spot where the initial attacks took place. Matawan residents who were still gathered around the creek realized that the shark had claimed another victim. It was determined that Joe Dunn was well enough to be transported by car to St Peter's hospital in New Brunswick. Doctors felt that Joseph Dunn would surely die, because they believed the shark released a poison when it attacked. but luckly Joseph did not die. He was taken by car to St Peters hospital in New Bruswick where doctors worked to save his leg. Joseph would spend 2 months in the hospital and need skin grafts, but when it was over not only did he not lose his life, but he did not lose his leg either. The Dunn attack marked the end of the sharks reign of terror. But it's impact along the Jersey shore would be felt for the rest of the summer, both financially and emotionally.
Matawan residents wanted vengeance, they gathered dynamite and began blasting the creek in an attempt to kill the shark, and bring Lester's corpse to the surface. Reporters from all across the country found there way down to the creek taking pictures and movies of all the mayhem. Everyone was going "shark crazy" and the attacks were making national headlines, even trumping the news about the upcoming war and the raids of Pancho Villa. The residents of Matawan soon decided to bring the blasting to a halt when they realize it was killing good fish, and the shark was nowhere to be seen.
On July 14, 1916 at around 5am, two days after the attack, the body of Lester Stillwell was discovered under the train trestle, about 150 feet from where he was attacked. The severly mangled and nude body of the boy was wrapped in a blanket and brought to the Stillwell residence. The train condutor Harry Van Clef who found the body was so tramatized by the sight, that he would never speak about it to anyone. There was a funeral at the United Methodist Church in matawan for both Stanley and Lester. They would be laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery. The same day a taxidermist names Michael Schleisser and his friend were in a motorboat in Raritan bay near Sandy Hook. They were towing a net looking to capture some fish, just then a shark got caught in a net. They managed to beat it to death with a broken boat oar and tow it back to shore. It was a 9 foot Great White shark. Similar in lenght to the one seen by Captain Cottrell 2 days earlier. When they opened the stomach of the shark, they discovered humans remains inside. Schlisser exclaimed that he had caught the shark responsible for the attacks along the Jersey shore. He stuffed the shark and put it on display in NYC charging people to view it. It is unknown what became of the Schlisser shark, but unfortuntely it is doubtful that it was preserved properly, and most likely had to be discarded by Schlieser. Many still argue that is was not Schleisser's shark that was responsible. Some believe it was a bullshark that was the culprit. Either way there were no more attacks on the Jersey shore that summer. New Jersey was very quick to make sure hte attacks were forgotten, fearing it would effect tourism. By the summer of 1917 they were forgotten and for many the story of the attacks on the Jersey shore in 1916 faded into distant memory.
There isn't much left to remind us of the attacks that happened in New Jersey in 1916. Most, if not all the witnesses to the attacks have long sinced passed away, even people who have second hand accounts of the story are becoming scarce. The only survivor of the attack, Joseph Dunn, was never given a modern day interview. This is a shame because it is my belief that he lived quite a few years after the attack occurred. Perhaps Joseph never wanted to be a part of the publicity that surrounded the story. The Matawan attacks tend to be focused on more then the attacks that occurred along the Jersey Shore. However the biggest mystery that still remains is the question of what type of shark was responsible, why was 1916 such a bad "shark year", and was it a single shark responsible for the attacks or multiple sharks? Perhaps the evidence that is needed to answer these questions vanished many years ago or it could still exist. In the Summer of 2002 Dr Richard Fernicola along with national geographic dredged matawan creek in an attempt to find shark teeth that might have been from the responsible shark. Everytime a shark bites down on something it usually loses teeth. However it seems very unlikely that something of that nature could have survived 90 years, especially now that the creek has silted in. As far as I know, the 2002 dredge yealded no results and when I spoke with Dr Fernicola in Aug 2006 he seemed resigned to the fact that any evidence in the creek was long gone. Perhaps the only evidence now lies in the cemetaries, but with strick New Jersey exhumation laws, and perhaps ethical questions, it would seem that it is not an option at this time.
Each year millions of people pass the spot where the Matawan attacks took place as they ride along the Garden State Parkway. Many swim in the attack spots along the beaches of Spring Lake and Beach Haven. However few people realize the significance of the events that took place there over 90 years ago.