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Shark Sensation Won’t Go Away

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 03, 2016

Matawan Creek had been the site of a devastating shark attack in July 1916; two people were dead and one had been maimed as the nation watched the third major attack along the Jersey Shore in less than two weeks. All eyes were on the creek as there was hope the creature had been trapped. Then the New Brunswick Times announced on the 15th, “Bucking the line like one would in a football rush a giant shark plunged through the net stretched across Matawan creek tonight and escaped into Raritan bay. He cleverly eluded the shark posse which was patrolling the creek.

“Heavy wire net had been stretched across the creek at Keyport. Fishermen said it was stout enough to repel any attack made by a shark. Just before the moon was eclipsed tonight the shark made a plunge at the net and dashed on through it. The last seen of the big fish he was headed toward Atlantic Highlands.

“Reports from Perth Amboy state that a shark was seen in that neighborhood in Raritan bay tonight.”

Many felt some relief when The New York Times reported the next day from Matawan.

“(H)undreds of hunters assembled and fired much ammunition into spots where they were believed to be hiding.

“J. M. Schliesser, a taxidermist of 29 East 132d Street, who caught a shark seven and a half feet long off Sea Bright, N.J., on Friday after starting on a shark-hunting expedition in a motor boat off Matawan Creek, yesterday exhibited two bones, one eleven inches long and the other a small fragment, which he said had been found in the shark’s stomach. Mr. Schliesser, who has been told by physicians that the long bone appears to be the shinbone of a boy, has put it into alcohol, and will get the opinion of expert anatomists on the character of the bone. He is stuffing the shark, which is a ‘blue’ one with four rows of teeth.”

The remains were sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“Dear Mr. Schliesser. I am very much obliged to you for your courtesy in letting me see the bones taken from the shark. They are parts of the left radius and ulna of one of the anterior left ribs. There is no doubt about this. They have, as you see, been badly shattered. Can you tell me the exact species of shark from which these bones were taken, or if you are in doubt, I am sure that Mr. Nichols would be very glad to call and determine the species exactly? Again thank you for your kindness, I am, F.A. Lucas, Director.”

The shark attacks had been a financial nightmare for the Jersey Shore. A meeting was held at Beach Haven, the site of the first attack. According to the Indianapolis Star of July 18, “Mayors of ten New Jersey coast resorts tonight issued a statement protesting against publication of stories which they declared ‘caused the public to believe the New Jersey seacoast is infested with sharks, whereas there are no more than any other summer.’

“The statement, which adds that the business of the resorts has been seriously hurt, ‘without cause,’ by the shark scare is signed by the mayors of Beach Haven, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Seaside Park, Wildwood, Ocean City, Stone Harbor, Manasquan, Belmar and Bayhead.”

The press didn’t comply, and the sighting or catching of a shark continued to make headlines. This was too much for the mayor of Atlantic City. The Philadelphia Inquirer of Aug. 1 declared, “A shark, eight feet and nine inches in length and weighing 320 pounds, was captured today in the Inlet of Little Egg Harbor Bay, seven miles from Beach Haven, where the first shark fatality, the death of Charles Epting Vansant, of Philadelphia, occurred, was reported.

“Captain John L. Bailey, of the passenger launch ‘Jeannette,’ made the capture. The carcass was brought to this city and exhibited in front of a hotel at Atlantic and Maryland avenues. Shortly afterwards Captain of Police Miller appeared in the patrol wagon with a squad of officers and, against the protest of Captain Bailey, cut down the shark and sent it to the crematory.”

In Beach Haven, things were beginning to return to normal. The Inquirer even ran a positive article as July ended.

“The Red Cross charity ball held at the Engleside Hotel helped to instill interest in those who participated in the affair, which was one of the best dancing events so far held this season. Those who are spending their time with the rod and reel are having a great time. … The tennis tourney which was on tap during all last week at the Engleside courts resulted in creating a great deal of interest due to the various matches being exceptionally close, and in consequence the gallery has been above the average every day. … Beach Haven’s social season is now at its height. Card parties, dinners and dances are daily features in the entertainment at the Engleside Hotel.”

Unfortunately the calm didn’t last. The Trenton Times announced on Aug. 3, “A maneating shark, nine feet long and weighing over four hundred pounds, reached town this morning. The trip was not made by a water route, for this particular shark met its finish in a net off Beach Haven.”

Here was another shark story to thrill and panic readers.

“This monster of the deep is believed to have been the same that ended the life of Dr. Van Sant at Beach Haven a few weeks ago and which started the shark scare along the Jersey coast. It became enmeshed in a fishing net at Hennessey’s ‘pond’ off Beach Haven Tuesday and put up such a vigorous battle that it required four hours’ effort on the part of six men to subdue it.

“The shark made such a violent resistance against capture, in fact, that it damaged the net to the extent of about $200. When opened, the stomach of the shark was found to contain eight large blue fish, a number of smaller fish and several human bones. Because of the discovery of the latter, and the fact that its capture took place so near the scene of Dr. Van Sant’s death, it was concluded that this was the same shark that killed the Philadelphia physician.”

To make matters worse, the shark story wouldn’t go away.

“The shark is to be kept in Trenton today, tomorrow and Saturday and will be on exhibition, both day and night, at the lawn fete in aid of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. This fete takes place on the plot of ground owned by the Green estate on Rutherford Avenue, about one hundred feet west of Prospect Street. Yesterday the shark was exhibited for the first time in Freehold, where it was viewed by throngs of people.”

The next day, “Man-Eating Shark Viewed by Many, with Dancing a Special Feature. Featured by an exhibition of a man-eating shark, the lawn fete for the benefit of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament was opened last night on the Green estate, on Rutherford Avenue. All evening long the grounds were thronged with people and the various booths did a land-office business. Practically every person there viewed the shark, which measures 11 feet long and which is believed to be the one which killed Dr. Van Sant, of Philadelphia.”

The now ripening shark just wouldn’t go away or leave the pages of the Trenton paper. On Aug. 6, “The management of the White City Park has obtained for exhibition today a man eating shark weighing 400 pounds and nine feet long, which was caught in the Hennessy Fish Ponds, Beach Haven. The monster was caught with one-half mile of where Dr. Van Sant was killed. It took a fishing crew of six men two hours to land him.

“Upon opening the shark its stomach was found to contain a number of blue fish and the bones of a human foot. It is supposed that this is the shark that killed Dr. Van Sant.

“He is of the genuine man-eating variety. For the past three evenings he has been exhibited at the lawn fete on the Green estate and viewed by 2,000 people.”

The season was ruined for the Jersey Shore, and the question of sharks and bathers would remain. In October, Hugh Smith, commissioner of U.S. Fisheries, tried to sum things up.

“The unprecedented attacks by sharks on human beings along the middle Atlantic coast of the United States in the summer of 1916, resulting in the death of four bathers, produced a profound sensation and materially interfered with the attendance at seaside resorts, while leading to an astonishing amount of newspapers discussion. … The culprits were never identified. It was not known whether one individual shark of a species common to the regions was running amuck; whether representatives of several local species had been forced to attack human beings because of certain undetermined biological or physical conditions; or whether there was an advent of a shark or sharks from distant waters with feeding habits different from those of the domestic species. … There were no attacks reported after the middle of July and the scare subsided.”

One hundred years later there are still more questions than answers, but one thing is clear: Since the first cry of “shark” in the surf at Beach Haven, bathers have had the same reaction – run!

Next Week: The Big Bang.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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