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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Matawan Man Eater: The Real Life Man Eating Shark

Written by Matthew Copes

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shark_Attack_(732314308).jpg

A quick internet search of “shark attack USA” reveals that in 2021 the United States experienced nearly 50 confirmed incidents between humans and sharks of various species, one of which was fatal.  

Following a worldwide trend, this constituted a 42% increase over the previous year, and nearly 60% of all incidents reported globally occured in the United States.

Florida is officially known as the Sunshine State, but in some scientific circles it’s frequently referred to as the Shark Attack Capital of the World for good reason – approximately ½ of all attacks occur there each year.  

That said, more than a century ago during the first two weeks of July 1916, an otherwise idyllic stretch of New Jersey coast more than 800 miles (1,290 km) to the north was rocked by a series of gruesome attacks that whipped the nation into an anti-shark fervor.

In 1916 Europe was embroiled in the First World War, and America was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave that drove hordes of vacationers into the refreshing waters of the Atlantic Ocean up and down the East Coast. 

Thanks largely to habitat destruction and overfishing, now there are far fewer sharks in the world’s oceans than there were back then. 

Nonetheless, confrontations with humans were rare.

The Matawan Maneater attacks were particularly shocking due to their ferocity, but also because they occurred in such a short timeframe and in close proximity to one another.

More disturbingly, two of the victims were killed while swimming in a brackish creek more than 10 miles inland, by a shark that some witnesses claimed was nearly 10 feet (3 m) long.

Before continuing on, a disclaimer is in order – you may never feel safe going in the water again. 

Now, the Matawan Maneater.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sunrise_in_Greece_(Unsplash).jpg

Attack #1

Saturday July 1st of 1916 was like most other days in the resort town of Beach Haven, New Jersey.

After fancy hotel breakfasts and multi-hour car rides from nearby states, vacationers descended on the beach to spend the day basking in the abundant sun, sand and surf.

By late afternoon most of the crowd had dispersed, but 28-year-old Philadelphia resident Charles Vansant decided to have a quick dip before dinner.

Leaving the Engleside Hotel where he and his family were staying, Vansant walked toward the ocean, piled his belongings just a few yards from the waterline and waded out into the surf.

Before the water had reached his waist, Vansant was joined by an energetic Chesapeake Bay Retriever that’d been frolicking on the beach nearby.

By all accounts the scene was nothing short of picturesque, but that changed when Vansant began shouting loudly.

Obscured by rushing wind and crashing waves, a few bystanders later reported hearing Vansant’s yells, but that they thought he was urging the dog to join him in deeper water.

What they didn’t know was that he’d been bitten by a shark so fiercely that his left leg was nearly severed.

The commotion caught the attention of lifeguard Alexander Ott, who along with another bystander made his way toward Vansant.

Finding the water crimson with his blood, the pair kept their cool long enough to drag Vansant to the beach.

In shock and nearly lifeless, Vansant was then carried to the Engleside Hotel, where approximately 15 minutes after he’d entered the water he expired on the manager’s desk in front of horrified onlookers.

News of the attack spread quickly, though surprisingly, many beaches up and down the New Jersey coast remained open the following day, largely because the incident was considered an isolated fluke.

A number of witnesses later claimed to have gotten a good look at the predator, stating that it was a shark of monstrous proportions. 

After the attack a slew of reports came in from pleasure boaters, fisherman and commercial captains who also claimed to have seen large sharks at various points along the coast, some as far north as Long Island. 

Most were dismissed, and since many were made after the incident it was assumed that they were probably little more than the products of overactive imaginations. 

Attack #2

No other attacks occurred until July 6th, when tragedy struck once again at the resort town of Spring Lake less than 50 miles (80 km) north of Beach Haven.

On that day Charles Bruder, a 27-year-old Swiss employee of the Essex & Sussex Hotel, made the fatal decision of taking an afternoon swim, just like Vansant had done the week before.

Venturing more than 100 yards from the shore, Bruder was bitten multiple times.

Responding to the ruckus, sunbathers on the beach mistook the blood red water for the painted hull of a small boat they assumed had capsized out past the waves.

Lifeguards George White and Chris Anderson rowed to Bruder, and judging by the gaping wound in his torso and his severed legs, surmised that he too had been attacked by a shark.

White and Anderson rowed to shore and laid Bruder out on the beach, where he promptly expired.

As a crowd gathered, a few observers fainted at the grizzly sight of his legless and bloodless body.

By I, Kmusser, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2496522

Attacks #3, 4 and 5

The next three attacks occurred on July 12th near the relatively sleepy town of Keyport, New Jersey. 

Unlike the first two incidents however, they happened on the same day in Matawan Creek, 30 miles (48 km) north of Spring Lake and more than ten miles from the ocean.

Just before the attack, a respected local sea captain named Thomas Cottrell had reported seeing a shark that he’d estimated to be nearly 8-feet-long (2.4 m) near the creek’s mouth, but again, his report was dismissed. 

At approximately two o’clock that afternoon a number of local boys were playing around the creek when 11-year-old epileptic Lester Stilwell decided to take a swim with a neighborhood dog. 

As Stilwell and the dog plunged into the water just a few feet from shore, the other boys watched from Wyckoff Dock, later describing what they thought was a submerged black log drifting toward the swimmers.

Then like a scene from Jaws, a telltale dorsal fin broke the surface and the shape accelerated toward Stilwell.

Though his friends shouted for him to get out of the water, Stilwell was pulled under seconds later.

After running to town for help, the boys returned with several men including local businessman Watson Stanley Fisher and carpenter Arthur Smith, both of whom wasted no time wading into the creek to search for Stilwell, who they thought may have had a seizure. 

Nearly immediately, Smith too was attacked by something large, powerful and submerged.

Blood oozed from his leg, but he wasn’t attacked again and was able to make it to shore with relatively minor injuries.

Meanwhile Fisher dove below the surface, found Stilwell’s body and began pulling it toward shore when he was attacked in plain view of a group of townsfolk that had congregated on the dock. 

However, the attack was so forceful that Fisher lost his grip on Stilwell.

He made it to shore as well and was taken to a hospital in nearby Long Branch.

Before bleeding out and being declared deceased at 5:30 in the evening, Fisher apparently opined with his last breath that he’d “done his duty.”

Despite extensive searches, Stilwell’s mangled body wasn’t recovered until two days later, approximately 200 feet (61 m) upstream from the Wyckoff Dock.

Attack #6

The last attack by the Matawan Maneater occurred approximately 30 minutes after the incidents with Stilwell, Fisher and Smith, less than a mile from Wyckoff Dock.

Surprisingly unaware of the horrific events that had transpired just a stone’s throw away, that afternoon 14-year-old Joseph Dunn was swimming in Matawan Creek with his brother and friends when he was bitten in the left leg.

Dunn was pulled from the water before the shark could make a second pass, and the two who’d rescued him later stated that they’d had a tug-of-war with the beast before it let go and made for deeper water.

Dunn was taken to Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he recovered from the bite a few days later.

Backlash

By the third week in July many beach lovers had decided to cut their losses and head home, or at the very least stay out of the water.

As a result, resort owners collectively reported losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in vital summer revenue.

In addition to the financial fallout, the attacks sparked a nationwide panic, particularly up and down the Atlantic coast. 

Perhaps more concerned with protecting tourism revenue than disseminating facts, many scientists and politicians urged journalists to refrain from using the word “shark” in their press releases.

One New York Times article claimed that Vansant had been bitten by a fish that was only “presumably” a shark.

The State Fish Commissioner of neighboring Pennsylvania claimed that since dogs were involved in two of the attacks, it was likely that the fish in question had targeted them and had only bitten the humans by accident.

He added that the unidentified culprit probably wasn’t a true maneater, but a smaller species of tidal shark that had been swept shoreward in the incoming tide and couldn’t find anything else to eat.

But though these questionable claims assuaged some of the angst being felt throughout the state, tales of the attacks began showing up on the front pages of major newspapers from San Francisco to Chicago and nearly everywhere in between.

However, another New York Times headline – “Shark Kills Bather Off Jersey Beach” – cast serious doubt on the official narrative. 

Sightings increased along the Atlantic Seaboard, after which overloaded power boats full of loud, armed, and in some cases inebriated shark hunters took to the water to exact revenge.

Reports of sharks in the 8 to 12-foot range (2.4 to 3.6 m) began flooding in, many of which were chased, shot at, harpooned and/or caught on hook and line using everything from bloody chickens and bulbous pig heads to spoiled mackerel as bait.

One lifeguard in Asbury Park said he’d slapped the head of a 12-footer (3.6 m) with a wooden oar after it attacked his rowboat.

Likewise, beautiful actress and vaudeville dancer Gertrude Hoffmann claimed to have encountered a huge shark while swimming off Coney Island.

When pressed about the incident later however, Hoffman admitted that she couldn’t be sure if she’d narrowly escaped death or had imagined the whole thing.

To protect locals, vacationers and the economy, various state and local governments took unprecedented measures to keep sharks and humans at arm’s length.

Many municipal beaches were boxed in by ungainly mesh and steel-framed enclosures, and others were regularly patrolled by armed boats.

In the hopes of ensnaring the killer shark, Matawan Creek was crisscrossed with nets, and the town’s mayor Arris Henderson had hundreds of “wanted” posters printed and distributed around town, each of which offered a reward of 100 US (about 2,600 USD today) to anyone who killed a shark in the creek – size and species didn’t matter.

Yet despite dozens of armed vigilantes setting out in boats of all descriptions, nary a shark was captured or killed in the creek.  

Ultimately, New Jersey petitioned the federal government to take action.

After President Woodrow Wilson met with his cabinet to consider the situation, the US House of Representatives appropriated 5,000 USD (130,000 USD today) to eradicate the “New Jersey shark threat,” most of which went toward mobilizing the Coast Guard.

All told, hundreds of sharks were slaughtered, many of which weren’t any more dangerous to humans than the average flounder. 

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Catching the Culprit

But though Vansant’s death was considered an isolated incident, it was unclear whether the subsequent attacks were the handiwork of multiple offenders or one particularly villainous shark.

Still, the following questions remained –

What species was capable of such carnage, and why had there been such a spike in attacks?

Some theorized that the increased presence of sharks may have resulted from German U-boats sinking merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

More specifically, that sharks had acquired a taste for human flesh after feeding on men who’d jumped or been hurled into the water after their ships had been torpedoed.

In addition, they may have started associating ships with food and taken to following vessels returning from Europe to ports up and down America’s East Coast.

In other words – the Kaiser was to blame!

Another theory put forth by a Long Island man in a New York Times op-ed piece argued that the attacks could have been perpetrated by – drumroll please – sea turtles.

After all, some species of sea turtles were immense, possessed hawk-like beaks capable of inflicting ghastly wounds, and had notoriously “vicious dispositions,” especially when awakened from idyllic slumbers.

As the man claimed, this may have been the case when the swimmers who’d been attacked had inadvertently splashed noisily around giant turtles that had been snoozing out of sight just below the water’s surface. 

But as dubious theories piled up, several fishermen claimed to have finally captured the Matawan Maneater once and for all.

The first was a larger-than-average blue shark caught just off Long Branch just days after the last attack.

Another was a 7 ½ foot (2.3 m), 330-pound (150 kg) great white caught only a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek by a New York taxidermist and part-time lion tamer Michael Schleisser.

The big shark took more than two hours to subdue, during which it nearly sank the boat before Schleisser impaled it with a splintered oar.

Later, when the fish was gutted before a crowd on shore, a suspiciously humanlike glob of decomposed flesh and bones gushed from its stomach.

Scientists later determined that the remains were in fact human.

Schleisser preserved the shark and put it on display in his Manhattan shop, though it later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The fact that there were no more attacks that year seemed to lend credence to Schleisser’s claim that he’d nabbed the killer, but the story doesn’t end there. 

Controversy

Even today, scientists disagree on many aspects of the Matawan Maneater case.

It’s generally accepted that Schleisser’s great white probably killed the victims who’d been swimming in the ocean, but that a bull shark may have been responsible for the attacks in Matawan Creek.

In Africa, Australia, and South and Central Americas, bull sharks are regularly found in freshwater rivers, sometimes as far as 100 miles (160 km) from the ocean.

But though bulls are capable of surviving in freshwater, great whites can rarely tolerate even brackish water.

For years the general consensus was that they couldn’t venture into tidal creeks even temporarily, but nowadays videos abound of adolescent great whites doing just that, particularly in and around Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Either way, great whites are far larger than bull sharks.


For years, the Guinness Book of World Records listed three great whites as the largest ever caught.

Measuring between 33 and 41 feet (10 and 12.5 m) long and tipping the scales at between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds (2,270 and 3,175 kg) the leviathans were taken near Port Fairy, Australia, New Brunswick, Canada and the Azores between the 1870s and 1930s.

On the other hand, the biggest male bull sharks rarely grow longer than seven feet (2.1 meters) or heavier than 500 pounds (225 kg), though they’re even more aggressive than their larger cousins.

What’s often overlooked however, is that 1916 was undoubtedly a “shark year.”

In the months before the first incident, many credible shark sightings were made by experienced and level-headed captains and fishermen in the mid-Atlantic region.

Recent studies have also discovered that the attacks coincided with a full moon phase of the lunar cycle.

Since the moon’s effect on tides is measurable, it has been proven that exceptionally high tides in early June of 1916 made many of New Jersey’s tidal creeks far deeper and saltier than was normal. 

All told, almost overnight they may have become new hunting grounds for inquisitive and hungry predators looking to capitalize on unexploited food sources.

Whatever the case, measurements taken from Joseph Dunn’s wounds suggested that he was attacked by a bull shark.

Though inconclusive, these findings only deepened the mystery of the Matawan Maneater.

It’s worth noting however, that the 1916 New Jersey victims are all officially listed as having been attacked by a great white in the International Shark Attack File. 

End

Before 1916, many American scientists thought it unlikely that any shark had ever intentionally attacked a human in the temperate waters along America’s northeast coast.

One wrote that there was a big difference between a shark intentionally attacking a human and biting one in a case of mistaken identity.

In 1891, wealthy adventurer Hermann Oelrichs offered a $500 reward to anyone who could provide evidence of a human ever being attacked by a shark anywhere north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The reward was never claimed, and world-renowned ichthyologist Henry Weed Fowler went so far as to assert that even large sharks didn’t have the necessary bite force to break human bones.

Tellingly, Fowler never volunteered to put his theory to the test. 

After 1916, sharks became iconic symbols in American pop culture, usually as representations of pure evil or underhanded tactics, as in the term “loan shark.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “shark” is slang for crafty and nefarious people who take advantage of others through devious means.

Over the years, the attacks have been chronicled by The History Channel, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic among others.

Peter Benchley’s epic novel Jaws was published in 1974, and the following year Steven Speilberg made it into a blockbuster hit that grossed nearly 8 million USD in the opening weekend alone.

In the movie, Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) referenced the Matawan incident when speaking to Amity, Long Island Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider).

In response to two fatal shark attacks that occured the previous week, Hooper explained to Brody that he believed a huge a huge great white had taken up residence just off the coast, and that in all likelihood it would stay put as long as the food supply held out, after which he added – 

“It happened before. The Jersey beach. 1916!”

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