Four shark killings in 1916 triggered a tsunami of hysteria that inspired Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster “Jaws”
Photo courtesy :: Photo by Universal Pictures/Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images
Over a span of 14 days on the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1916, four young men were killed and one maimed by a shark. At the time, most people did not know that sharks attacked humans. The ensuing newspaper coverage of the tragic seaside deaths triggered a tsunami of mass hysteria.
Nearly 50 years later, director Steven Spielberg would set off another wave of seaside terror with his now iconic movie Jaws. His terrifying tale of the hunt for a killer shark was so successful that it set the template for the summer blockbuster that is still followed today.
The fictional movie, and novel it was adapted from, gave a nod to the historical facts that served as inspiration.
On July 1, 1916, a 25-year-old student from the University of Pennsylvania was playing in the surf with a dog at dusk in Beach Haven, New Jersey, when a shark tore into his leg. Bleeding profusely, Charles Vansant was pulled from the water and taken to a beachfront hotel, but his own physician father was unable to stanch the wound, and the young man died.
Five days later and 45 miles north, a 27-year-old bellhop was killed while swimming in the ocean near the town of Spring Lake. Rescuers reached him in a lifeboat, but both of his feet were severed, and like the earlier victim, he bled to death before reaching shore.
Photo Courtesy:::Philadelphia Inquirer coverage of the attacks at Matawan with portraits of Stanley Fisher (bottom right) and Lester Stilwell
“SHARK KILLS BATHER OFF JERSEY BEACH: Bites Off Both Legs of a Youth,” blared the front page of the New York Times on July 7, 1916. “Women Are Panic-Stricken as Mutilated Body of Hotel Employee is Brought Ashore.”
Bathing at the beach was a relatively new pastime for Americans. At the time scientists didn’t even believe sharks attacked humans. One prominent ichthyologist declared an orca, or killer whale, had bitten the bellhop. Others suggested that the victim had succumbed to a school of snapping turtles.