The world is shark obsessed these days ever since the movie “Jaws” reached our screens in 1975 and the legend of the great white killer began in earnest.
“Jaws” was based on a true event – the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks that left four dead and one, an Irish kid named Joseph Dunn, severely injured.
Up until then it was thought that sharks would never attack humans, but that summer, fishermen had been reporting a huge movement of sharks off the Jersey Shore coastline.
There was a heat wave that summer and a polio epidemic, which drove people from towns and cities to the coast to lessen the fear of infection and to find a place to cool down.
The first attack happened in July at Beach Haven a resort town off the southern coast of New Jersey.
That evening, Charles Vansant, 25 and from nearby Philadelphia, was on vacation staying at the posh Engleside Hotel with his family. Before dinner, Vansant decided to take a quick swim in the Atlantic.
Shortly after entering the water, Vansant was attacked and began shouting. Onlookers thought he was calling to his dog until they saw the blood surface.
He was rescued by a lifeguard and a bystander who later claimed the killer shark followed them all the way into the shore. He was mortally injured and bled to death on the manager’s desk.
Word had not got out when just a few days later on July 6 the second victim was taken. Charles Bruder, 27, was a Swiss–born bellhop at the Essex and Sussex Hotel and was swimming 130 yards from shore when the shark bit him in the abdomen and severed his legs; Bruder's blood turned the water red. According to the New York Times "women [were] panic-stricken [and fainted] as [Bruder's] mutilated body ... [was] brought ashore.
There was panic and pandemonium and no one swam in the sea, but there was no expectation of an attack on an inland waterway called Matawan Creek, despite a warning from an old sea captain who spotted a shark in the area, and people were swimming in the creek.
Lester Stillwell, 11, was playing in the water when a friend saw what he thought was an "old, black, weather-beaten board or a weathered log." Then suddenly a dorsal fin appeared. The shark pulled Stillwell under and his friends ran for help.
Several came to his aid, including local businessman Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, who came to investigate thinking the boy had had a seizure. The shark grabbed Watson too and he bled to death.
Meanwhile Irish kid Joseph Dunn was swimming close by unaware of the commotion when he was attacked, but he was rescued by his brother and a friend after a ferocious battle with the killer shark. He recovered from his wounds but spent three months in the hospital.
Despite best efforts it was never conclusively determined what kind of shark had done the killing, though some claimed a captured shark a few days later had human bones in his gut when sliced open.
What the Jersey Shore killings did establish was a fear and fascination with sharks that lasts down to this present day.
As for Joseph Dunn, a New York native, he disappeared into history. His mother and father Michael and Mary were no doubt delighted to have him back and he has gone down in history as one of the few to survive a killer shark attack.