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‘Jaws’ Was Inspired By The Matawan Man-Eater, And The True Story Is Even Scarier Than The Movie


There’s no denying that the movie Jaws definitely made some beach-goers scared to go into the water. However, the story that inspired Jaws was what really had people scared to have a day at the beach. The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 were so unexpected, sudden, and violent that they stuck in the public’s mind even up to the point that the movie hit theaters. The “Matawan man-eater,” as the shark was called, took down at least three people, likely four before the killings finally stopped, and it forever changed the public’s view of sharks.

To be clear, great white shark attacks in the US are not very common. People are more likely to be killed by bees than they are by sharks, and most shark attacks that do happen do not result in death. What happens in the movie Jaws is not typical of shark attacks at all, and how one survives a real shark attack is quite a different story.

For those wondering whether Jaws is based on a true story, the Matawan man-eater wasn’t the initial inspiration for the 1975 Spielberg film, but the 1916 events did play a part in shaping the tale. The details aren’t exactly the same, but there was once a killer shark, and he terrorized the public for nearly two weeks.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Two People Were Ruthlessly Killed Close To A Beach In 1916

Over a two week span, things along the New Jersey coast started to get pretty terrifying. It began on July first, 1916, at a resort town called Beach Haven. 25-year-old Charles Vansant was on vacation from Philadelphia, with his family when he decided to take a little swim in the ocean. People close by didn’t see the shark attack, but heard him began shouting, and by the time anyone could reach him, his legs had been slashed open by massive bites. Even as they dragged him out of the water, one onlooker said they saw the ominous shape of a shark following Charles. They brought Vansant into a nearby hotel to try to save him, but the damage was far too great. He bled to death on the manager’s desk before any further help could be called.

After this incident, the shark would reportedly go on to kill a total of four people (perhaps more — though that is unconfirmed). Only one of these attack victims would survive the ordeal, a young boy by the name of Joseph Dunn. The pre-teen was the final attack victim, and his leg was bitten off by the shark on July 12, less than two weeks after the first killing took place.

The Shark Didn’t Just Stick To The Ocean

Photo: tedkerwin / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

One really terrifying aspect of the killings has to do with the fact that this shark didn’t just hunt out in the ocean. His first two victims, Charles Vansant and Charles Bruder, were both bitten in the legs while swimming in the ocean, and died of blood loss, with Bruder losing both legs completely to the shark.

However, the third victim, an eleven-year-old boy by the name of Lester Stillwell, wasn’t even in the ocean when he was attacked.

On July 13, 1916, sometime in the afternoon, a man walking back from fishing by Matawan Creek when he saw a strange shape in the water, coming up the creek with the incoming tide. He later said the thing was at least eight feet in length, and he recognized it as a shark. He ran to town to warn people, but he did not have the chance to cross paths with Lester and his young friends, who were going to go swimming in the creek. They may have heard about the shark being nearby, but thought it was a joke, and decided to go swimming. One of the children did note a strange thing brush by his leg, but by then it was too late to flee. The shark violently attacked Lester, pulling him under and killing him. Less than a day later, the shark would also attack Joseph Dunn nearby in the creek, biting off his leg

Several People Were Killed Trying To Stop A Shark Attack

Photo: gaftels / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

It became very obvious very quick that this shark wasn’t afraid to kill anyone who messed with him. When he attacked his first victim, Charles Vansant, he followed the rescuers into the shallows, pulling against their efforts, and only stopped when his belly scraped the bottom. When he attacked Lester Stillwell, he was particularly violent, and was more aggressive than ever about stopping any rescue efforts.

The boys who managed to escape the creek and the shark attack went screaming about sharks to the local Main Street. At first, locals believed Lester was drowning due to a seizure, as he was prone to these all his life. They came to the banks of the creek, hoping to recover his body, and some of them waded in. Witnesses even say they saw the boy’s body above the water briefly, and the men attempted to rescue the boy from the creek. Then, unexpectedly, the shark struck again. He dragged a man named Stanley Fisher under the water, and although the two struggled, the shark mauled him and bit off huge chunks of his flesh. It took another rescuer hitting the shark with a boat oar in order to get Stanley free. By that point it was too late, and Stanley later died of blood loss and shock, becoming the shark’s fourth killing. Lester’s body would not be recovered until some time later.

Because of the killings being in the Matawan Creek, the shark soon became known as the Matawan Man-eater.

The President Called A Cabinet Meeting To Discuss The Shark Attacks

In response to these four deaths, nearly five deaths, there was a huge backlash against sharks. The town of Matawan itself was horrified by all that had happened, and began doing such things as trying to blast the creek with dynamite, an effort that obviously did not kill the offending shark. But the biggest hunting efforts were made all up and down the coast of New Jersey, with devastating results.

The New Jersey governor mandated that all swimming areas had to be enclosed with wire mesh, to keep swimmers safe. The local government then called for a shark hunt, to kill this man-eater, and fishermen from all over set out to kill any and every shark they could find. It didn’t matter the type or the size, as long as the shark was dead. Even President Woodrow Wilson called a meeting of his cabient and decided to give federal aid in order to drive away all ferocious sharks in the area. Hundreds of sharks were killed in a matter of days as locals and hunters of all sorts tried to bring the killer shark to justice.

The Culprit Was Eventually Caught, And A Gruesome Discovery Was Made

Eventually, the massive shark hunt turned up a body, and this time it was that of a shark. Michael Slicer, a coastal fisherman, caught a nearly nine-foot shark, initially thought to be a great white, just outside a creek at Raritan Bay, near Matawan. The shark was huge, but scientists needed to confirm that this was actually the man-eater, and Dr. Frederick Lucas decided to dissect the shark to see its stomach contents. What he found inside the animal was gruesome.

Reports say that 15 pounds of human remains were removed from the shark. These included a shinbone of a young boy, and what could only be identified as something that appeared to be a human rib. Authorities declared that this was the shark that had killed four people, and the hunt was ended. Even then, hatred for sharks and the decline in resort towns along the New Jersey coast continued for some time longer.

Before These Attacks, We Weren’t That Afraid Of Sharks

Photo: SpaghettiFan / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shockingly, sharks have not always struck fear into the hearts of the masses. For a long while, scientists believed that sharks not only would not, but most of the time were unable to kill humans. There were occasional attacks, but these were dismissed as merely fishermen’s tall tales, and some people even went around trying to get sharks to attack in order to make the point that they couldn’t. The sharks, fearful of people being so aggressive, would swim away, reinforcing the idea that there was no such thing as a man-eater shark. Some scientists disagreed,

Even when the New Jersey attacks first began, scientists did not believe it was a shark doing the killing. They suggested it may be an orca, or even a giant turtle. It was not until the body count began to climb, with witnesses, that scientists began to recognize that the culprit was definitely a shark.

The Author Of The Novel ‘Jaws’ Regrets Writing It

Photo: junaidrao / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it should. The story was so violent, so unexpected, and so history shaking as far as how we view sharks that it actually aided writer Peter Benchley while he was penning a now very famous story. Jaws came out as a novel in 1974 after Peter saw a photo of a fisherman posing with a massive great white shark in 1964. In the novel, he references the 1916 attacks, and although he adamantly maintains they were not his initial inspiration for writing the book, they did play a hand in how it was written. The behavior and types of attacks closely mirror many things that happened in real life, way back in 1916. In addition, without the Jersey shark attacks of 1916, human fear of sharks would not have been so grippingly and visceral, and a story like Jaws would likely not have been so terrorizing.

Oddly enough, Peter has actually said that he regrets writing the novel. While it brought him fame and fortune, he said he did not know much about sharks at the time, and was relying on the events of 1916 as far as shark behavior. This instance was so unusual, and not typical of shark behavior, and Jaws only served to fuel further fears about sharks.

The Release Of The Movie Caused Another Shark Panic On Its Own

Photo: junaidrao / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the movie Jaws came out, its impact may have not been as severe as that of the New Jersey attacks, but there was a still a serious impact. The stigma against sharks was revived in glowing color, especially against great whites. The movie portrayed sharks as vengeful, and as actively seeking out human flesh to munch on. Seeing the movie, spectators were inclined to believe it, and began to see sharks as evil. More than that, they were less likely to vacation near beaches the summer after Jaws was released, which again had an impact on resort towns.

The impact on sharks was devastating as well. Fishing contests about who could kill the biggest shark sprang up all along the coasts. Shark populations fell as much as 50% in some locations, and up to 90% in one case. As they had in 1916, sharks were seen as perpetual villains, and that stigma lingers.

It’s Still Uncertain Whether The Shark Acted Alone

This is where the story should end, but there have actually been a lot of questions raised over the years about the shark that committed these acts. It is very abnormal for a great white shark to swim up into a creek, and it is very rare for one shark to kill so many people, especially in a short period of time. It has been suggested that the killings were not done by one shark, but by a group, which is why they happened so rapidly in several locations.

There were also reports of the shark being spotted in different places around the same time, though that could have been partially due to hysteria over the deaths. It has also been suggested that the shark was instead a bull shark, which have been known to be more aggressive towards people, and are now well known for their attacks.

In the end, all the details about this deadly number of shark attacks may never be known. What is known is the impact these events had, and how it still affects the public’s perception of sharks to this day.

The Attacks Pretty Much Destroyed The Local Resort Economy

The shark’s vicious attacks had a huge impact on many more lives even than the four victims. Places that had once been known as lovely resort towns became known as simply places where shark attacks had happened. Beaches in cities that made all their money from tourists, had to close off their beaches, bringing the economy to a standstill as they waited for the shark hunt to end. Resort owners estimated a total loss of over $250,000. Even after the offending shark was caught, people still did not come out to the beaches as much, fearing another attack would come soon. Some tried to embrace the legend, promoting art that showed smiling sharks, and trying to promote a child-friendly environment. However, some resort towns simply shut down, with not enough business to get by. Even a century later, people still know Matawan mostly for the shark killings that happened there.

Some have even argued that the attacks and deaths had a negative impact on the reelection attempts of Woodrow Wilson. As the beachfront communities declines, the voters there were less likely to vote for him. The rest of New Jersey voted as usual, but the distress felt by the beach towns was palpable when it came voting time.

These Kinds Of Attacks Are Exceptionally Rare

Photo: arecknor / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

One major take away people should have from these events, beyond their brutal and shocking nature, is that this is not typical shark behavior. Sharks are far more likely to stay away from humans, and they certainly do not go out seeking human flesh. They are, instead, predators of opportunity, and prefer to grab what they can get. More often than not, that prey is not a human. You are more likely to be injured from falling in a hole at the beach, be killed by bees, be kicked or gored to death by a deer, or felled by a cow than you are to be killed by a shark. In fact, humans kill millions of sharks every year, making us the far more deadly predators.

If a shark does attack, even then it is unlikely you’ll be killed. The vast majority of shark attacks end in minor injuries, and while frightening, rarely leave more than a scar. One or two result in major injury and, on rare occasion, there’s a death or two as well. The fact that the 1916 killings are ones we’re still talking about today just goes to show how rarely these man-eating shark attacks happen. So rest assured, you’re more at risk from a jellyfish if you go swimming in the ocean than you are from a killer shark.