By Muriel Smith ~
It was 102 years ago this month that the borough of Matawan made front page news in every large newspaper across the country as the reported attacks by sharks along the oceanfront further south than Monmouth County earlier in the month closed ocean beaches, created havoc with hotel and restaurant owners whose tourism business was dropping sharply, and set scholars to ponder the personalities and types of Selachimorpha, the scientific name for sharks.
It started July 1, 1916 along the ocean in Beach Haven. It was late afternoon on a Saturday when a 25-year-old man tourist from Pennsylvania visiting at the Engleside Hotel decided to take a quick dip in the ocean before dinner. Bringing along his Chesapeake Bay Retriever who was playing on the beach, the young man, not far out in the water, began shouting. Those who heard him thought he was directing his attention to his dog; no one suspected a shark was furiously biting on his legs. When a lifeguard realized the swimmer was in trouble and got out to make the rescue, he told listeners later that the shark followed him to shore as he pulled the bleeding swimmer to land. The swimmer bled to death shortly thereafter in the hotel.
Five days later it was another young man, this one further north in Spring Lake, who screamed as a shark attacked his abdomen and legs; rescuers say he left a trail that turned the water red as they pulled him to shore. For the second time in a week, however, the victim of the attack bled to death within minutes.
But while fear was rising, people were staying out of the ocean, it was the next two attacks that raised the most fear and wonder. These were in Matawan, another 30 miles or so up the coast, and more strangely, connected to the ocean only by Matawan Creek. It was July 12, and a local resident, who was also a sea captain, reported he had seen an eight-foot-long shark in the Creek. No one believed it, preposterous as it sounded, even while boaters out in the ocean had reported numerous sightings off shore. After all, the Creek was safe, protected, somewhat brackish water, inland even from Raritan Bay. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon when a couple of youngsters were playing near a Wyckoff’s dock along the Creek. They spotted what they thought was a weather-beaten log, but quickly realized it was a shark, once they spotted a dorsal fin. Rushing to climb out of the water, one youngster couldn’t make it, and was pulled under. Calling for help the other youngsters got the attention of a local businessman who dove in, recovered the body, and tried to get back to shore. He, too, was bitten, and in the tragedy, was unable to hold on to the youngster who slipped from his grasp as horrified residents looked on helplessly. The rescuer’s thigh was severely gashed, and he too bled to death at Monmouth Medical Center early that evening. The youngster’s body was later recovered another 150 feet upstream from the dock where the boys had been playing.
Within a half hour of the attacks near Wyckoff’s dock, another youngster was attacked about a half mile north of the dock. He was taken to the hospital, where he stayed for two months for treatment for his injuries but fortunately survived the ordeal.
Speculation and investigation focused on the type of shark, why it was so close to shore, why it traveled up the Creek and whether it would ever be safe to go back in the water. Rewards were offered for killing sharks, beaches were enclosed with steel nets, and shark sightings were reported as far north as New York City. Congress appropriated funds to help communities put an end to the shark threat, and the President considered sending in the Coast Guard to patrol off Jersey beaches.
In the end, while the bull, blue, Spanish and sand shark were all considered as the murderous sharks along the coast, it was generally agreed that the July 1916 attacks were the work of the great white. In the alternative, there remains speculation that it was not all the work of a single shark, and possibly more than one species was involved.