Sun, 4 June 2017
A grand majority of this true crime podcast episode comes from the Michael Capuzzo book, Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916. It is a wonderful resource about not just these specific shark attacks but the overall history of shark attacks in American and elsewhere, as well. The more you read, the more you will realize that the events in New Jersey act as a precursor and an inspiration for Peter Benchleys novel, Jaws, and the subsequent Steven Spielberg movie by the same name.
I'm providing, rather than a comprehensive list of sources for this episode, the notes I took in preparation for the recording. Feel free to read below about the stories of the various victims and near-victims of the New Jersey shark attacks: Charles Vansant, whose parents watched in horror as he was dragged under water; long-distance swimmers Robert Dowling and Leonard Hill, who barely escaped with their lives; Charles Bruder, a Swiss captain whose hubris ended up getting him killed; and Lester Stillwell and the other Matawan Creek victims.
There is so much to uncover here, I feel like I could have done a whole series on the different locations, people, and misconceptions which allow these events to occur. Feel free to check out Capuzzo's book. It's a masterful bit of reporting, and I couldn't recommend it more vigorously.
This story begins off the southern coast of New Jersey, just beyond the front door of the majestic Engleside Hotel. It was 1916, and the U.S. hadn’t quite stepped into WWI. In fact, Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election based on his promise to keep America out of the Great War.
The Engleside was well north of the more famous Asbury Park, but it was also no slouch, either. Americans had begun to discover the idea of leisure. The Victorian era was over, and people sought to be in the sunshine for more than mere backbreaking work. People in the upper middle and middle classes “vacationed” in the summer, and the Engleside was a nice place to do so. The 1915 summer season led the owners of the hotel to believe 1916 would be record-breaking.
Off the shore, a horror was brewing. A female great white shark had been knocked off its course and ended up near the shores of New Jersey. And even with the fervor of Victorian scientists like Charles Darwin, little was known about carcharodon carcharias. Sharks, in general, were not considered the man-eaters of today.
On July 1, a 25-year-old man named Charles Vansant was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, alongside his dog. His parents -- his father a doctor -- watched from the shore. Onlookers were horrified to see a giant beat leap into the air and drag the younger Vansant under the water.
**Not knowing what to do with shark attacks back then
**Died on the operating table -- literally a door
**Beaches stayed open. People weren’t overly alarmed.
**Ex-Pres. William Howard Taft
Hated giving speeches as much as being president
Gave a speech at the Essex and Sussex
Not too long later, there was a commotion down by the ocean about potential sharks
**Locals tried to dispel the idea that a shark had even killed Vansant. There were lots of rumors going around, and some even believed he had drowned, or that the newspapers had grossly overestimated his death. In other words, no one was aware of the dangers of sharks.
**Robert Dowling and Leonard Hill
Two long-distance swimmers
Leonard Hill was a druggist on vacation with his family
Robert Dowling, the real estate scion, was a long-distance swimmer
He was the first man to swim around Manhattan Island
They came within dozens of feet from the shark.
They swam through the feeding zone of the shark.
No one quite knows why the shark ignored them, but it did
Both vowed to never step foot in that ocean again
“Never again,” Dowling said. “At least not here.”
**45 mi. North. Charles Bruder. Spring Lake, NJ. Swiss Bell Captain.
He was eager to reclaim his reputation after the unexpected exploits of Downing and Hill
He did not fear sharks. Did not think they were dangerous.
Bit him in the stomach / legs. Severed them.
He was pulled into a boat. Bled to death.
**Boston Herald, Chicago Sun-Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, SF Chronicle
All put the second shark attack on the front headline
**Sunbathing decreased by 75%, and cancellations caused $250,000 in lost revenue at resorts
American Museum of Natural History: Press Conf. feat. scientists Frederic Augustus Lucas, John Treadwell Nichols, Robert Cushman Murphy
Stressed a third shark attack was unlikely
Nichols, an ichthyologist, warned bathers to stay close to the shore
**The US House of Reps. appropriates $5K to stop the shark problem
**Pres. Woodrow Wilson meets with his cabinet over the attacks
The basic point is, the shark attacks are national news, at this point
**July 12 Attacks
**Matawan Creek (30 mi. N. of Spring Lake)
**Thomas Cottrell, local sea captain, spotted the shark in the creek
People dismissed him
**Lester Stilwell and other boys were playing
Before he could get out, Stilwell was pulled under
**The kids ran to town. Watson Stanley Fisher, local businessman, also bitten.
They were afraid to touch the wounds, because they thought that shark bites were poisonous, at that time.
Fisher claimed to have wrestled Stilwell’s corpse from the fish’s mouth.
He died while on the operating table from massive blood loss.
**30 mins later. Joseph Dunn. Bitten. Survived. Rel. Sept. 1916.
**John Nichols became involved.
He drove down to the coast and looked for the shark.
Though he had been initially skeptical that sharks were man-eaters, the new attacks all but confirmed it.
He expected a Killer Whale.
The creek was too small for a KW.
Witnesses contradicted him.
**A group of shotgun-wielding locals load up on dynamite in order to kill the shark. They run a cage across the river and overreact to sightings of any fish.
They foolishly think they can blast the shark and cause it to float.
Little do they know, a shark doesn’t work that way.
This is highly reminiscent of the scene from Jaws.
A storm broke out, and men kept throwing dynamite into the water.
Nichols tried to convince them that bullets would not affect the shark.
About the time that they decided to give up, the body of Lester Stilwell floated ashore.
He was barely noticeable. One ankle had been chewed off. His stomach ripped open, his right side chewed away.
**James Fairman Fielder was besieged by requests to have the shark killed.
He requested every major town to construct shark nets.
**Woodrow Wilson even had a meeting about the shark attacks at this point.
Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, in a press conference
Declared war on sharks
Said the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries
July 14. Barnum & Bailey Lion Tamer and one of the foremost taxidermists in the nation, Michael Schleisser and his friend, were attacked by the shark. The shark leaped onto the back of the boat, Jaws-style, and attempted to rip the boat to shreds to attack them. They managed to beat the shark to death with an oar.