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JAWS in Jersey

A Shore Incident Inspired Peter Benchley

By Walker Joyce

Our state’s Atlantic coast has long been a source of fascination for painters, authors and folklorists. Tales of famous storms, shipwrecks and pirates abound.

But did you know the novel about a Great White Shark that sourced the blockbuster movie has a local link? That would be a series of attacks in our waterways which occurred in 1916.

That sweltering summer, amid a particularly nasty heat wave and a polio epidemic, hoards of people fled to our Shore in search of relief. But during July, reports of a rogue shark devouring swimmers terrorized the resorts and the general public. Shark attacks were exceedingly rare, and frankly, scientists didn’t understand much about the beasts back then.

The mayhem began on July 1, in Beach Haven, above Atlantic City.

A fellow from Philadelphia, Charles Vansant, was vacationing with his family at the Engleside Hotel, one of the earliest resorts on Long Beach Island, which opened in time for the Centennial in 1876. It was a huge, Victorian Arc, instantly popular with visitors and an anchor of the burgeoning tourist trade.

Vansant made the fateful—and fatal--decision to take a quick dip before dinner. Moments after he plunged into the surf he began screaming. Other swimmers thought he was calling to a dog on the beach, but in fact, he was yelling because a shark was chomping on his legs.

A lifeguard and another man pulled him to shore, where they discovered his left thigh was all but gone. He bled out almost before they returned to the hotel.

Five days later, on the 6th, the second assault occurred in Spring Lake, another Gilded Age resort town popular with the Elites of Philly and Manhattan. In this case, it was a hotel bell captain named Charles Bruder, 27, just a year younger than the first victim. He was cooling off after work, not knowing he’d logged his final shift. Both of his legs were severed, and he was also bitten in the abdomen.

And then things got even more sinister.

The maneater continued north, and emerged in the freshwater Matawan Creek, near Keyport, less than two miles from the ocean.

On the afternoon of July 12, some local boys were playing in the creek when they spotted what they thought was an old log floating toward them. Then the dorsal fin appeared, and they scattered toward the bank. 11-year-old Lester Stilwell never made it: the killer fish pulled him underwater.

His pals ran for help and alerted 24-year-old Watson Fisher, who bravely dove into the stream. He managed to find the boy but was bitten in the rescue attempt, succumbing later in a nearby hospital.

The last victim was another lad, a teen named Joe Dunn, who was visiting from New York. He was bitten just half an hour after Fisher and Stilwell, but he was rescued by two others, who won “a tug of war” with the shark. He survived his wounds, recovering in New Brunswick for the rest of the summer.

58 years later, novelist Peter Benchley overcame a bout of writer’s block while working in Pennington, NJ.

And the rest is publishing and Hollywood history.