Summer of 1916 marked by sharks

Way Back When

Attacks: Sharks killed three and injured two swimmers in New Jersey, prompting fear that the Chesapeake Bay would soon be infested.

July 24, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Staff

While most Americans were preoccupied with war news during the summer of 1916, speculating on whether the nation would enter the conflict that was engulfing Europe, there was startling news of a different variety a little closer to home.

A shark attack on July 2 had taken the life of a young Philadelphian vacationing at Beach Haven, N.J. Four days later, a hotel bellboy swimming at Spring Lake, N.J., lost both legs to a rogue shark in a particularly violent attack.

On July 13, The Sun reported the third terrifying shark attack at Matawan, N.J., with headlines proclaiming: "Tiger Of Sea Invades Matawan Creek, New Jersey, And Attacks Boys In Swimming -- Man Bitten While Searching For Body, Hunt For Monster Futile."

A "man-eating shark," reported the newspaper, "strayed far from the Atlantic Ocean, swam through Raritan Bay and up the Matawan Creek this afternoon, killed a boy swimmer, mangled a man so badly that he died two hours later in a hospital, and savagely attacked a second boy bather, taking away nearly all the back of a leg."

In a scene reminiscent of Peter Benchley's 1974 thriller "Jaws," Stanley Fisher had gone to the aid of Lester Stillwell whose body he found on the bottom. Suddenly he began screaming and waving his hands.

"A moment later there was a scream and Fisher cried out that he was being attacked. The man-eater's teeth were sunk deep in his leg near his thigh. People on shore saw him fling his hand helplessly over his head and then go under. The water ran red around him as two men in a boat, who were aiding in the search for young Stillwell, went to his rescue."

Lying on the bank of the creek, a doctor desperately tried to save Fisher's life.

"He found that the flesh of the right leg was ripped off from the hip to the knee, leaving a jagged wound about 18-inches long. The bone was not crushed. The doctor estimated that about 10 pounds of flesh was missing," reported The Sun.

A passenger train on the nearby New York and Long Branch Railroad was flagged down and Fisher was placed aboard and taken to nearby Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch, where he later died from severe blood loss. The attending doctors could do nothing to save his life.

The shark's work was far from done, however, and before leaving the creek that afternoon, it made a final attack on a 12-year-old boy who was swimming off a pier. Despite suffering a bite on his knee, the boy survived.

The frequency and intensity of the attacks caught the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, which began an investigation.

"While it is true that occasionally human beings have been attacked by sharks in tropical waters, the number of such instances in temperate waters, of which these are apparently the first authoritative ones on our coast, are so exceedingly rare that bathers need have little fear," advised the bureau.

Despite reassurances from Washington, armed shark hunters patrolled the New York and New Jersey coasts hoping to find and destroy the marauding beast while others lined beaches keeping their eyes trained on the sea.

"One theory is that sharks, which formerly fed on refuse thrown overboard from the many ocean steamships before the war began, now have become ravenous. Even those not ordinarily classed as man-eaters, it is said, have been driven by starvation to lurk in the waters of the Atlantic Coast, warm at this season, and attack human beings," observed The Sun.

However, it wasn't long before shark sightings were reported in the Chesapeake Bay. "The shark scare that has brought terror to the summer resorts along the Atlantic Coast from New York to Florida struck Annapolis today and threw a fright into the many persons of this city and Naval Academy who frequent the nearby shores of the Chesapeake Bay and Severn River for bathing purposes," reported The Sun.

Washington White, a crew member of the State Police schooner May Brown, reported seeing "big sea monsters" in Annapolis harbor .

"It is not unlikely, however, that some of the man-eaters are in the waters of the bay, in view of the fact that they are reported in large numbers along the Atlantic Coast, and also that a school was seen off Old Point Comfort," said The Sun.

But despite the number of sharks reportedly seen locally and the resultant hysteria, there were no attacks on Marylanders and no loss of life.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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