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Shark Terror: Attacks at the Beach

Linda enjoys reading, learning, and writing about different things. She enjoys sharing her love of writing, history, and crafts with others.

Learn about a two-week period of shark attacks in July 1916.

Learn about a two-week period of shark attacks in July 1916.

July 4th Weekend Summer of 1916

The year was 1916 and it was one of the hottest summers with an ongoing heat wave. It was also the first week of July, making it a holiday weekend. Families headed to the beach to spend the holiday relaxing, swimming and enjoying time spent with their friends and loved ones. Little did they know, it was also going to be the start of a terrifying week for beach lovers.

Charles Vansant the First Victim

On July 1st 1916, Charles Vansant was a young healthy man looking forward to spending the Fourth of July holiday with his father and sisters. They had arrived at Beach Haven by train from Philadelphia in the afternoon. While the rest of his family checked into their hotel, Charles decided to head to the beach for a quick swim before meeting his family for dinner.

It was approximately six o’clock when those on the beach heard his screams, and by the time rescuers were able to help him, it was too late. Those who were on the scene were unable to pry Charles' body from jaws of the shark that had attacked him. The shark did not let go of the body until it came to shallow waters. By that time, Charles's body was so badly damaged that he died of blood loss shortly after being moved to a nearby hotel.

Charles Bruder the Second Victim

Five days later on July 6th, the shark claimed its second victim. Charles Bruder was a twenty-seven-year-old employee of a local hotel. This attack took place at Spring Lake forty-five miles north of the attack on Charles Vansant.

Charles was taking a break from work and had decided to go for a quick swim. He was a strong swimmer and was about one hundred and thirty feet from shore when he was attacked. His friends saw the attack and two men grabbed a boat to try to rescue him. When they managed to lift him in the boat, both of his legs were gone. He died in the boat on the way to the shore.

Twelve-Year-Old Lester Stillwell Becomes the Third Victim

On July 12th the man-eating shark would claim two more victims and maim a young boy. The day was hot and several young boys decided to go swimming in Matawan Creek which was sixteen miles inland from the ocean. Who would ever have thought that they would be attacked by a man-eating shark in a freshwater creek?

Twelve-year-old Lester Stillwell was swimming with several friends at the Wycoff dock when he was snatched underwater by the shark. The other boys were terrified and went screaming for help. Several people from town grabbed a boat and headed to the creek hoping to get to Lester in time to save him. At that time they didn’t realize he had been attacked by a shark.

When they reasoned that he had been underwater for too long to survive, they undertook an attempt to recover the body. While taking his last dive, Stanley Fisher was also attacked by the shark. The shark tore off most of his leg but the other men in the group pulled Fisher into the boat. He was taken to a nearby hospital where they attempted to stop the bleeding from his severed femoral artery but were unsuccessful. Lester Stillwell had become the third victim and Stanley Fisher was now the fourth victim of the killer shark.

Bull Shark


Joseph Dunn, the Only Survivor

Shortly after this attack at Matawan Creek, the shark had swum further east up the creek to where several boys were swimming at the brickyard docks. One of these boys, fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn, was the shark’s next victim. Joseph Dunn lived in New York but was visiting family nearby. He joined some of his friends that afternoon and they were enjoying the warm weather and the cool water when they heard someone yell that there was a shark nearby.

The boys scrambled up the ladder but Joseph was the last to reach the dock and before he could make it to the top, he was attacked by the shark. Several men heard the screaming and managed to get Joseph away from the shark. He was then taken to the same place that Stanley Fisher was being treated at the same time. Joseph was then transported to a hospital in New Brunswick. Joseph was the only victim of the shark who survived.

Shark Hunting

These incidents led to the hunt for the great man-eating shark. Normally, shark hunting was forbidden near tourist beaches. Businesses and resorts that depended heavily on tourism didn't want to frighten off their paying customers by making them think the water might contain sharks close to shore. This would have scared a lot of people from taking their vacation time at the beach.

But now that a shark, or sharks, had come close to shore and killed four people and maimed a young man, shark hunting was permitted in an effort to secure the swimming areas. Men took their boats and went out with a mind to eliminate the threat. A couple of hundred sharks were killed and the fishermen took great pride in having their pictures taken with a their catch. The men that lived near the Matawan Creek used dynamite in the creek in an effort to kill the man eating shark.

Headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 14, 1916 concerning the death of a young boy and the man who tried to recover his body

Headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 14, 1916 concerning the death of a young boy and the man who tried to recover his body

The Capture of a Great White Shark

The local papers all carried these stories and the public was shocked, scared and angry. They wanted something done to prevent more shark attacks. Even President Woodrow Wilson became involved and gave permission to the Coast Guard to kill sharks. Rewards were also offered for sharks.

Finally, two days after the last shark attack, on July 15th, 1916, a great white shark was killed and it was thought that it was the shark that had been doing the killing. Today there are questions as to whether it was a great white shark or a bull shark. Bull sharks are known to swim in freshwater such as the Matawan Creek whereas great white sharks will almost never leave the ocean water.

Jaws the Movie

I have never watched the movie Jaws. I hear it was a wonderfully successfully movie inspired by the events that took place in July 1916. But I saw enough of the movie clips that I (like many other people) would never venture more than knee deep in the ocean ever again.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 L.M. Hosler


L.M. Hosler (author) on March 30, 2020:

Hi Amy

Thanks for the comment. I live on the East Coast also & love the beach. I only go in as far as my knees anymore.

Amy from New England, USA on March 29, 2020:

I'm glad I live on the East Coast and though i love the beach, I never go out deep enough to meet Jaws! :0

L.M. Hosler (author) on March 01, 2019:

Thank you Tom. It is a serious thing to take into consideration when going to far out in the water. But we can't live in fear of what might happen. Shark bites do happen but are not all that common. I think this was an extreme case because this shark traveled out of salt water into a fresh water creek where he killed two of his victims.