The New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 are the true story behind the book and movie Jaws. Images from newspapers.com; composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
As Americans watched the fighting of World War I unfold overseas, a sensational story out of New Jersey temporarily ripped the war from the headlines. An enormous shark of unknown origin had finally been caught off the coast of New Jersey.
The great white — 9 feet and 215 pounds, at least according to the original Philadelphia Inquirer article — was responsible for four deaths, including one swimmer from an estuary and a would-be hero who tried to kill it himself. If this sounds familiar, it’s almost exactly what happened in the 1975 film Jaws — but first, it happened in real life.
In July 1916, little was known about the great white shark, and what was known was often wrong. Scientists believed the jaws of sharks lacked the bite force to tear through human bone. They were proven wrong that summer as one young specimen terrified beachgoers along the Jersey coastline.
On July 1, 1916, Charles Vansant, a 25-year-old recent University of Pennsylvania graduate, was celebrating the summer in Beach Haven, New Jersey. His fellow beachgoers suddenly heard Vansant’s screams from the water. They didn’t respond, at first; they thought it was a joke. After all, it was the first recorded fatal shark attack in American history.
The shark’s second victim was a Swiss tourist in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Charles Bruder’s legs were bitten off below the knees, turning the water red. He was dead before his mangled body was brought ashore — a sight that sent everyone running in a panic.
Some days later, 11-year-old Lester Stillwell called out to his friends in Matawan Creek, New Jersey. As he floated on the water, the shark rose up, clenched onto his arm, and dragged him to the deep. His friends ran for help, prompting Stanley Fisher, the local tailor, to jump in after the boy.
Fisher eventually found Stillwell’s body and tried to bring it to the surface but was bitten by the shark himself. Ten pounds of flesh were ripped away from the tailor’s leg in a heartbeat. Locals of Matawan got Fisher to a hospital, but the attack on the would-be hero was fatal.
The same day, the shark attacked 14-year-old Joseph Dunn, but Dunn survived. With this third attack, newspapers worldwide suddenly forgot about the Great War for a few days. It is the highest kill count of humans by a single shark to this day.
New Jersey residents, tired of the shark attacks, finally grabbed rifles and dynamite and took to their boats to end the panic. National media swarmed the Jersey Shore to cover the sensational story.
In the end, it was a Barnum & Bailey lion tamer who finally ended the great white’s reign of terror. New Yorker Michael Schleisser was fishing in Raritan Bay on July 14, just a few miles from where Lester Stillwell was killed, when a shark attacked his fishing boat. Before the animal could capsize his boat, Schleisser killed it with a broken oar. When he cut the shark open, he found 15 pounds of partially digested human remains.
The headline of The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 15, 1916, told of the shark meeting its end in Belfort, New Jersey, and featured a photo of Schleisser and his kill. The lion tamer, who was also a Harlem taxidermist, stuffed the shark and put it on display in his shop.
With the “Jersey Man Eater” finally dead, things eventually calmed down, but man-eating sharks entered the American cultural lexicon. Yet, even now, no one knows why the shark targeted humans. No wonder the incident became the inspiration for Jaws.
In 1974, Peter Benchley published his book Jaws based on the story of the shark that had terrified residents of New Jersey. Set in the fictional Long Island town of Amity, the events in Jaws mirrored those of New Jersey some 58 years prior. The heroic team of police Chief Martin Brody, biologist Matt Hooper, and fisherman Quint is from another story, however.
Frank Mundus was an avid shark hunter based out of Montauk, Long Island, who was known for coloring his toenails red (to indicate the portside foot) and green (starboard), and sporting a hoop earring, Australian-style safari hat, and shark tooth necklace. He was also the inspiration for Benchley’s fisherman, Quint.
Mundus was like Quint in many ways, except that he harpooned sharks by hand, saying harpoon guns didn’t work well enough. From 1951 on, the legendary fisherman would make his way by taking parties of tourists out on “Monster Fishing,” catching sharks by any means necessary.
On one occasion, a 9-foot thresher shark slapped Mundus and sent him flying as the fisherman tried to haul it onto his boat, the Cricket II. Mundus responded by getting right back up and hitting the shark back, this time with a large fish hook on a pole, a tool known as a gaff.
The Jaws author was a frequent guest on Mundus’ shark hunts but was not present for the day Mundus entered the record books. In 1964, the salty sea captain had already bagged two sharks when he saw a massive form in the water nearby. Before the shark could get away, Mundus sprang to action.
He harpooned the shark five times and dragged the massive great white aboard his boat. It was a 17.5-foot, 4,500-pound behemoth that turned out to be the largest shark ever caught. Another difference between the fictional Quint and the real-world Mundus was that Mundus didn’t get eaten by his shark — the shark lost. Mundus died in Hawaii of a heart attack at age 82.
Blake Stilwell is a traveler and writer with degrees in design, television & film, journalism, public relations, international relations, and business administration. He is a former US Air Force combat photographer with experience covering politics, entertainment, development, nonprofit, military, and government. His work can be found at We Are The Mighty, Business Insider, Fox News, ABC News, NBC, HBO, and the White House.
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