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Shark Attacks at Matawan Creek

Updated on September 1, 2011

Great White

The classic Peter Benchley novel "Jaws" was inspired by real events that occurred at Matawan Creek, New Jersey, in 1916. During a 12-day period, four people were killed by shark attack and a fifth severely wounded. The survivor was one of three attacked at Matawan Creek, a place sharks are rarely seen.

Bull sharks have been known to travel upstream from oceans, but it is a rare occurrence. What is more surprising, it is believed the shark at Matawan Creek was a 10 foot Great White, since one was killed a few days following the events in nearby Raritan Bay. Its stomach contents matched some of the victims remains.

However, there are several puzzling questions. What caused the shark attacks along the New Jersey coastline, and moreover the ones in Matawan Creek? And were all done by one shark or several? The answers are unknown but researchers have speculated they may have been sparked by the relatively new pastime of going to the beach. Swimming and other vacation activities might have attracted sharks closer to shore.

The story began on July 12, a hot and humid day. By mid morning the temperature had already reached 90 degrees. In those days before air conditioning, heat forced many businesses to close early. Therefore, many people were seeking relief from the stifling heat at local beaches.

Meanwhile, Captain Thomas Cottrell, a bait and tackle shop owner near the mouth of the Matawan Creek was taking a short break. Suddenly, a large black shape flashed by in the water. Cottrell knew immediately what he had seen, but he couldn’t believe his eyes. What was a large shark doing swimming up the small tidal creek that connected Matawan to the Raritan Bay?

Sometime earlier, 23 year-old Charles Van Sant, a vacationer from Philadelphia, was enjoying a leisurely swim at Beach Haven. He was about fifty feet off shore when bathers noticed a large shadow closing in on him and hollered warnings. Alexander Ott, a former Olympic swimmer, saw Van Sant disappear beneath the waves and dove in. Ott dragged the unconscious Van Sant to shore. But, with both legs being severely mangled he bled to death on the beach.

The Van Sant shark attack made instant headlines, but its sensationalism was short lived. No human had ever been attacked by a shark off the New Jersey coast before and it was viewed as simply an isolated incident. In that era, “experts” believed sharks did not attack living humans and any such encounters were purely coincidental.

Then on July 6, Charles Bruder, a 27 year-old from Spring Lake, twenty miles north of Beach Haven, was swimming on his day off. A woman on the beach saw him suddenly disappear under the surf and screamed when the water turned red. Lifeguards rushed to the scene in a rescue boat to find Bruder had been severed in half. His dying words were "A shark got me."

Panic and hysteria now set in and it seemed sharks were being spotted everywhere along the Jersey Coast. Resort towns installed metal nets to protect bathers and patrolled waters in motor boats with armed men. With these protective measures, and “experts” reassuring them it was safe, a few cautiously returned to the water. And after a few days of no attacks everyone thought it was safe.

These two deaths by a shark must have been what Captain Cottrell was thinking about as he watched the 10 foot shark a swim up the Matawan Creek.Cottrell sprang to action calling authorities and reporting what he had seen. He next raced upstream to Matawan to warn people there. However, the townspeople thought the Captain was just another victim of the recent shark hysteria. After all, it was ridiculous to think a 10 foot shark could be in the shallow Matawan Creek, which was no more than forty feet across.

About a mile and half mile upstream from where the shark had first been spotted, 12-year old Lester Stillwell and four friends were swimming in the creek. They had been swimming only a short time when one of the boys, saw a big black shadow charge Stillwell. Stillwell screamed as the shark closed its’ massive jaws around his slender waist and dragged him under. Only a spreading pool of red marked where the boy had been. The others boys scrambled out of the creek as quickly as possible and ran for help. But, by the time help arrived the shark had headed on downstream.

However, the Matawan shark was not finished. Just a half a mile downstream from where young Stillwell had met his fate, a group of four more teens were also enjoying a respite from the heat in the creek’s cool waters. They had been in the water about fifteen minutes when someone shouted for them to get out of the creek. But, 14 year-old Joseph Dunn wasn’t fast enough and the shark grabbed his right leg.

The other 3 boys ran back to help. They grabbed Joseph under his arms and a tug-of-war with the shark ensued. Eventually, the shark released his prey and continued downstream. Joseph was rushed to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick. Surgeons were skeptical as to whether his leg could be saved. However, after 2 months of recovery, he walked out of the hospital.

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    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you Eidwen.

      Paradise, It happened in 1916...how long ya gonna wait? LOL

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      What a story! I'm not going swimming at the beach again, anytime soon!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      A very interesting and gripping hub.

      I have to vote up/interesting/awesome.

      Thank you for sharing .

      Take care

      Eiddwen.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      That ought to settle it then on the great white one would think. You right, makes no difference to the victims, still, with the fresh water attacks coulda been both in some freakish coincidence.

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Daffy, I had read the story years ago, but I didn't know it inspired the movie.

      Carcamping, Thanks for the kudos.

    • carcamping profile image

      carcamping 6 years ago

      Jaws was, and is, one of my favorite all time movies. I have seen it many times over the years and I remember the impact it had on us as kids when it was released. I always thought that one of the reasons it was so successful as a movie was that they researched it and learned of these facts prior to the filming, however, I later learned that things went so horribly wrong during the making of the movie that they got off track many times. In fact, they had most of the movie completed and still had not shot any of the "shark" shots! Either way, it seems clear now that these true incidents had an impact on Benchley's story for sure. Another great hub from you on one of my favorite subjects!

    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 6 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

      jaws is one of my favorite classic movies. I didn't know it was based on a true story though. That's very interesting. I had no idea. Great hub JY3502!

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I read about this years ago. Some do believe it was a bull shark, but there was also the Great White with parts of people in his gullet real close by. Anyway, no matter. Those poor guys are just as dead.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Read the book 'Closer to Shore' about this John. You've refreshed some things in this article. Guess it'll never be known for sure which species it was but since some of the attack were in fresh water might lean it towards the Bull shark[s]?

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Yeh, sometimes I don't take a bath for weeks at a time. ;-)

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Another reason not to go in the water, even in New Jersey! Thanks finally got the real story,

      Peter