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 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.
Two People Were Ruthlessly Killed Close To A Beach In 1916
After this incident, the shark would reportedly go on to attack a total of five 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.