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The Real Life Shark Attacks That Inspired Jaws

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Written by   50
3 months ago

Jaws is, at the same time, one of my favorite films and also one of the cheesiest films I’ve ever seen. The realism in the way that the people of Amity (and the ‘foreigners’ who come in from all around the USA to try their luck at hunting the shark) is amazing. I swear I know these people in real life, and the politics that keep the beaches open and the swimmers blissfully unaware of the danger lurking beneath the inviting, gentle waves is sickeningly familiar.

Of course, the look of the shark doesn’t hold up well anymore, unlike Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park, and we’ve watched enough Shark Week specials by now to know that shark attacks often don’t look like they do in the film, the death of the 13-year-old boy being the chilling exception.

Bruce, the crew’s nickname for the shark, looks like an oversized rubber toy that you’d buy at Walmart. The attack on the Orca fishing boat is side-splitting instead of horrifying, depending on how readily you can suspend your disbelief, and most people who know anything about scuba diving will tell you that dive tanks aren’t at risk of exploding.

Yet despite the cheese factor, Jaws remains an effective film, and the realism it manages to inject into a story about a Great White Shark with an insatiable appetite for human flesh and who even seems to enjoy the hunt, manages to ensure the film stands head and shoulders above other shark films, such as Deep Blue Sea and The Meg.

But did you know that it was inspired by true events?

In 1916, a series of shark attacks off the shores of New Jersey threw people into a panic. It was just after the close of the Edwardian Era, a few years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, in fact, when spending a day at the beach was just starting to catch on. Whereas Victorians wouldn’t have dared go swimming for leisure (at least as adults), lest they reveal their ankles or something, Edwardians were beginning to learn the joys of a good swim. Who knew sharks might also be learning that fish and seals aren’t the only things that splash about the shores?

These events are briefly referenced in Jaws as Chief Brody and Hooper try to convince the Amity mayor to close the beaches. The pair talk hastily, often overlapping each other (a hallmark of Spielberg’s incredible directing that’s replicated in Jurassic Park: The Lost World), so it’s hard to hear the references. Even if you catch it, however, they don’t go into detail as to why 1916 was such a landmark.

So, let’s do some history!

The First Attack and Its Aftermath

The summer of 1916 saw the east coast baking beneath the sun – a massive heatwave. By July, the people of New Jersey were flocking to the beaches to catch the cooler ocean weather. Swimming in the ocean was now popular among all classes of people, even if their bathing suits look a little wonky by our modern standards of near nudity.

Unfortunately, July 1, 1916, a Saturday, brought terror into the hearts of the Edwardian beach bums.

A train bearing the Vansant family roared into town. The family consisted of nose and throat specialist, Eugene Vansant, his wife, three daughters, and a son named Charles. Charles seems destined for a career in business and is either 22-years-old or 28-years-old. You can blame the conflicted sources I found for this discrepancy, not my faulty memory. The Discovery Channel had it at 22, so that’s probably what I’d go with if I were you.

Anyway, at about 5 O'clock on July 1, he decides to head for a swim before dinner. His father, Eugene, and sister, Louise, are on the beach somehow catching some rays in their upper-class garb. He finds a Chesapeake Bay Retriever on the beach who takes a liking to him and they head into the water together.

Unfortunately, the dog has a difficult time keeping up with Charles’ pace and heads back to shore, where the lifeguard, Alexander Ott, is happily chatting it up with Louise Vansant. Maybe he should be doing his job…

Shouts of the distressed kind pierce his eardrums and he realizes he really, really should’ve been doing his job. Out in the water, Charles Vansant is struggling for his life against a massive shark, but bathers believe he’s calling to the dog, now happily on the shore and confused why his newfound human friend is clearly not having as swell of a time as the rest of the people.

The lifeguard and another bystander rush into the waves. Ott is an Olympic swimmer, and in less than three feet of water, he and the bystander, a local man named Sheridan Taylor, engage in an epic tug-of-war with the shark, who is determined not to let go of Vansant’s leg.

Despite their heroics, Charles Vansant bled to death on the desk of the Engleside Hotel at 6:45 PM.

The public and press had no idea how to react. The Museum of Natural History in New York had said that sharks weren’t dangerous to humans, which like a slightly more optimistic version of what the Discovery Channel has been saying for years. Moreover, large sharks like the Great White just weren’t seen so close to shore, assuming that was the shark responsible.

As such, the papers weren’t sure how to respond. Some experts warned that it likely wasn’t a shark attack at all, but that the hysterical beach-goers had started a figurative game of telephone that had resulted in crazy tales of sharks. When anyone did acknowledge the attack, they only reluctantly blamed a shark.

But the beaches weren’t closed, whatever had happened was shrugged off as a freak incident (which it was), and soon the beaches were packed once more.

The Second Attack

On July 6, 1916, another fatal attack occurred, this time off the shores of Spring Lake, New Jersey. Charles Bruder, age 28 and a Swiss bell captain of the Essex & Sussex Hotel, went for his daily swim. As an aside, swimming is particularly good exercise for you, particularly your joints. I mean, not if you’re being eaten by a shark, but you know what I mean.

No one is really paying close attention on shore, and Bruder is a strong swimmer who easily makes his way out into the deeper ends of the beach. Yes, this is another case of a lifeguard, this time Chris Anderson and George White, paying attention to the ladies instead of to the people who are actually in the water.

This time, it was a bystander who sounded the alarm. Having not seen Bruder, and seeing how all the experts had assured people that shark attacks don’t really happen, she’d assumed that a red boat or canoe had tipped over.

Of course, it was no canoe; it was Bruder’s blood pouring into the water. At this point, I’m thinking this shark has a penchant for men named Charles, but I digress.

The lifeguards launch their boat and head out to see what’s the matter and rescue the poor capsized fellow. When they were about 50 feet away from Charles Bruder, they heard him shouting, “A shark bit me! Bit my legs off!”

Sure enough, as they lift him up they can see that both legs are gone: one bitten off just above the knee and the other below. With injuries so catastrophic and little training the lifeguards have (no knowledge of tourniquets or tools to employ one), Bruder is dead by the time they reach the shore. According to the New York Times, some women fainted at the sight of the mutilated body.

There are three doctors on the beach that day, off-duty, but with Bruder gone before he reaches the shore, there’s not a thing they can do to help him. One of them, William Schaffler of the New Jersey National Guard, is positive that this was a true shark attack.

This time, instead of being a little footnote in newspapers predominately covering War World I, sharks are now front-page news, and panic follows. The Amity mayor’s worst fears in Jaws are a true occurrence in New Jersey now: the beaches are empty and tourism is going way, way down.

The Museum of Natural History tries to come to the rescue, reassuring the public that sharks aren’t powerful enough to induce such horrifying injuries. Even the largest shark, they claimed, didn’t have the jaw power to sever an adult man’s leg. One director even questioned if a shark could merely break a human bone!

Many pointed to the millionaire banker Hermann Oelrichs, who offered a $500 reward to anyone who could offer up an authentic case of someone, man, woman, or child, who had been attacked by a shark in the temperate (“temperate” is a keyword many of these researchers used) waters of North Carolina. The fact that no one could do so head lead scientists to conclude that sharks simply ignored human beings unless they bit them by accident, such as when becoming caught in fishing nets.

Nevertheless, hotels began constructing anti-shark nets to sanction off the swimming areas of their beaches in a desperate attempt to preserve business. Their efforts are hampered, however, by newspapers creating more and more sensationalist headlines.

One response, much like the film Jaws, sees people taking to the ocean to hunt sharks, often killing anything that even remotely resembled sharks, such as dolphins. The entire climate of New Jersey is starting to resemble Jaws, actually. You’ve got panicked businesses, panicked ocean bathers, and thrill-seekers who can’t wait to grab the Jersey Man-Eater.

Attacks Number Three, Four, and Five

The third attack seems to come from nowhere, in a place you would never expect to find sharks, even in this modern day.

It’s July 12, and a little wooden bridge sits above a creek, Matawan Creek, that Captain Thomas Cotrell travels on his fishing trips. A sea captain, Cotrell knows a shark when he sees one, and on that morning, upon looking down from the bridge, he cannot believe his eyes! There, almost a mile and a half from the open ocean, is a shark swimming. He reckoned it was about eight feet long, but when he reported it, the town of Keyport dismissed his story. They believed that the heatwave and the constant talk of sharks had addled his brain.

As Cotrell made his way through town, a group of five boys decided to go for a dip in the creek about a mile from the wooden bridge Thomas had spotted the shark from. One of the boys is Lester Stilwell, an 11-year-old boy with epilepsy.

As they swam, they thought they could see an old log, but when a dorsal fin appeared, they realized they were looking at a shark. They booked it for shore, but before he could reach it, young Lester was pulled under by the large animal. Naked and terrified, they run into town screaming that their friend has been eaten by a shark in the creek.

A group of people comes rushing to the creek, believing that perhaps Stilwell had suffered a seizure and drowned. One of them, Watson Stanley Fisher, is a 24-year-old (or 23-year-old depending on your sources) who used to play softball with the boys, enters the water to look for Stilwell’s body.

He dives repeatedly in search of the body but nothing comes up. Finally, he makes one last dive and resurfaces holding young Lester’s body. Then, as he makes his way toward shore, a dorsal fin rises out of the murky waters and the shark that killed Lester Stilwell clamps down on Fisher. He drops the boy’s body and the townspeople manage to beat away the shark. Unfortunately for Fisher, his right thigh is stripped of flesh.

Better equipped to deal with these injuries, the rescuers put tourniquets on Fisher’s leg. The first breaks, the second fails to stop the bleeding. The nearest hospital being ten miles away, they hastily created a stretcher made of planks and prepared to send him by train. Hundreds gather to see him off, but the shock and blood loss kill him later that same day at the Monmouth Memorial Hospital.

Just thirty minutes after the attack on Fisher, another group of boys, unaware of what’s happened, have decided to go for a splash in the creek. Joseph and Michael Dunn are two brothers going for a swim with another friend about a quarter mile downstream.

Just as before, the tell-tale dorsal fin pops out of the water and lunges toward the boys. Michael and their friend, Jerry, make it to shore, but Michael is seized by the shark. His brother, being perhaps braver than the previous gaggle of boys, jumps in to attack the shark and rescue his brother. As they fight, a nearby fisherman joins him and the pair successfully drives away the beast.

Dunn is wounded, but he survives his injuries and is released from the hospital in September of that year. His summer may have been ruined, but he’s the only victim to come out alive from the attack.

The next day, the Museum of Natural History admits that it was wrong and they don’t know as much about sharks as they thought. At least they admitted it, though! How many scientists pushing agendas today admit their shortcomings?

Meanwhile, the people who live near the Matawa Creek have taken to hunting sharks with anything they have! The thrill of the hunt and media attention surrounding it has spurred a fever for shark hunting that won’t subside for some time.

But What Kind of Shark Was It?

The popular theory, especially of the time, was that it was a rogue Great White Shark that developed a penchant for human flesh. Some still cling to that theory, and there’s reason to do so, while others venture that it was actually a bull shark or even multiple sharks. We’ll probably never know for certain, as every theory has merit, but let’s look at the evidence.

Great White Shark

The Great White was blamed for the attacks when they occurred, and this is partially why we have such a fear of this animal today. But what’s the evidence?

1. These sharks will often bite things just to see if they’re edible, making this shark likely to bite swimmers out of curiosity. Normally, we think of sharks biting surfers because they look like seals from below, but a particularly curious shark may have tried to just bite whatever people it saw.

2. It’s not unheard of to find them in freshwater, provided it’s not too far away from saltwater. Two sharks about 10-14’ long have been tracked in rivers by researchers.

3. The shark hunting fever that gripped the east coast after the Matawa attacks culminated in the death of a Great White Shark that reportedly had human remains inside of it when cut open. The attacks stopped after this shark’s death. It should be noted, however, that some scientists dispute whether human remains were found. There was no DNA testing back then, and it’s possible that whale meat or any other kind of flesh was being digested by the shark and the frightened populace simply saw what they wanted and expected to see.

Bull Shark

1. These sharks also bite things just to check their edibility. They’re responsible for a number of run-ins with beachgoers.

2. These sharks can survive in freshwater. The biggest blow to the Great White theory is that, while these sharks have gone into fresh waters, we don’t know that they hunt in these waters. As some have put it, dropping a Great White into freshwater could have the same result as tossing a goldfish into saltwater; they may not have the strength necessary in the lower salinity to attack and defend its prey.

Bull sharks, on the other hand, are a species that can survive for some period in freshwater without ill effects. They’ve been spotted as far as Illinois in at least one case. While Matawa Creek isn’t incredibly far from the ocean, it’s easier to imagine a bull shark traveling that way as opposed to a Great White.

3. The shallow waters of a creek aren’t conducive to how a Great White attacks, but bull sharks are quite at home there. Great Whites can and do attack in shallow waters, but they prefer to ambush from below. There is zero room to ambush in the creek.

Multiple Sharks

It could very well be possible that there were two different sharks involved. Some have supported the theory that something like a Great White could have been responsible for the ocean attacks while a bull shark was responsible for the deaths in the creek.

What Do You Think?

Have a theory of your own? Just want to comment on the strange tale? Sound off below.

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Written by   50
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