The Matawan Man-eater: The Real New Jersey “Jaws” of 1916

Nearly 60 years before Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws,” a real man-eater lurked the waters of the New Jersey coast. It was July 1, 1916, and in Beach Haven the tourist season was in full swing. The beaches were filled with sunbathers and the ocean with swimmers. Everything seemed like just another hot July day. But this day would be different from any other. A young Penn graduate named Charles E. Vansant, a resident of Beach Haven, died after having been attacked by a shark while out swimming. A lifeguard pulled him in and tried to stop the profuse bleeding, but Charles could not be saved. Scientists of the area wrote this off as a singular freak occurrence. They could not have been more wrong.

Five days later the shark would strike again, 45 miles to the north, near the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake. Bellboy Charles Bruder would become the second fatality. He was swimming out beyond friends when he was heard screaming “A shark bit me! Bit my legs off!” These are the last words Charles would ever utter. Mesh barriers went up almost immediately around swimming areas. Still, it was too late to save the rest of the tourist season. What would happen next would elevate the panic to a new level.

Thirty miles farther north, residents of Matawan, a small town 11 miles inland from the open ocean, naturally felt that they were safe from attacks. Swimmers here were confined to the Matawan Creek, a narrow tidal creek that wound its way to the bay. A retired fishing boat captain, Thomas Cattrell, was walking home after a successful day of fishing. When he crossed over Matawan’s new trolley drawbridge he noticed something that seemed almost impossible: a huge shark was heading up the inland waterway. He couldn’t believe his eyes, but confidant that what he saw was very real, Cattrell ran into Matawan to warn everyone.

Though the citizens were all aware of the two shark attacks on the coast, no one could really believe there was any great threat of an attack in a small body of fresh water. Despite his vigorous pleas, the Captain’s story was dismissed as a heat induced phantom. Ignoring these warnings would prove a very grave mistake.

On July 12th a factory across town was generously letting 11-year-old Lester Stillwell leave work a little early. After meeting some friends, they went for a swim in the Matawan Creek. While they splashed and played, Lester told his two friends, both only a few feet away, to watch him floating on his back. A moment later he was violently pulled beneath the water. His friends listened in disbelief to his screams as he bobbed up and down. Blood filled the water around him as the shark dragged him under again and again. His friends swam as fast as they could and then ran into town screaming and crying.

The boys’ impassioned cries for help would not be ignored. 24-year-old Stanley Fischer sped to the creek with two other men thinking that Lester may have suffered an epileptic seizure. The two men dove in, not knowing there was a shark still attacking the boy’s corpse. Stanley Fischer attempted to pull the bloody body away from the shark and was also attacked. He died a few hours later at Monmouth Hospital in Long Branch.

But the NJ man-eater was not yet finished.

Heading back down the brackish tidal stream towards the ocean the shark struck again within one hour of the last attack, wounding 12-year-old Joseph Dunn who only narrowly escaped with his life, but not without losing a leg. He would be the 5th and final victim of the marauding fish.

Now the town of Matawan, stunned by the gruesome and unlikely attacks, was out for revenge. A reward was offered for the shark, and the people of Matawan became obsessed with vengeance against this evil creature. Some of the townspeople industriously filled the creek with dynamite, hoping to blast the shark into oblivion. The dramatic effort proved unsuccessful.

Back on the coast the greatest shark hunt in the state’s history was under way. Although no one knew the species, or its size, blind retribution would be swift. Hundreds of sharks were caught and slaughtered.

Shortly after the attack Michael Slicher, a coastal fisherman, captured the man-eater just outside a creek at the Raritan Bay. It was an eight and a half foot Great White*, and when dissected, 15 pounds of various human remains were allegedly discovered in its stomach. For many, the grisly discovery brought closure to the summer’s horrific events. (*Many experts now dispute the original reports of the rogue shark being a Great White and believe the killer was more likely a Bull Shark.)

It was now apparent that a single shark could be responsible for all of these attacks. In the summer of 1916 no one had yet imagined that so many could fall victim to a lone and vicious killer. One has to wonder–could it happen again? –Cindy E., Nutley, NJ