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Flash Back: The Matawan Shark Attacks of 1916

Have you been watching Shark Week on Discovery Channel? Make sure you know Matawan's own claim to fame

A screengrab of The Matawan Journal's report of a shark attack in Matawan.
A screengrab of The Matawan Journal's report of a shark attack in Matawan.

Originally published on Aug. 12, 2012.

Editor's note: The information in this article was provided by Al Savolaine, a member of the Matawan Historical Society and member of the board that oversees Rose Hill Cemetery. He has spent many years researching local history, especially the Matawan Shark Attacks.

It was a hot afternoon on July 12, 1916 when six Matawan boys ran down to Wyckoff Dock for an afternoon of swimming in Matawan Creek and one was attacked by a shark, explained local history buff Al Savolaine.

In the early 1900s, there was little understanding of sharks, and no one believed they would travel through a creek attached to the Raritan Bay. Scientifically, however, it would be possible for a shark to travel through the tidal waters.

"One thing that most people fail to realize about the shark attacks, is some people think because we're an inland town, that it was so unusual for a shark to come to Matawan," Savolaine said. "This was before they dammed up the creek and made Lake Lefferts. Matawan Creek was over 15 feet deep at high tide and it's a tidal creek, with a significant amount of salt water. It wasn't that unusual."

And although the shark attacks of 1916 are often referred to as the Matawan Shark Attacks, they really began eleven days earlier in Long Beach Island.

On July 1, 1916, Charles Vansant, 25, was swimming in the ocean, further out than the other bathers, when he was attacked and killed by a shark in the Beach Haven area of Long Beach Island. Just five days later, on July 6, 1916, Charles Bruder, 27, was swimming in the ocean, also further out than the other bathers, when he has attacked and killed by a shark in Spring Lake.

"The swimsuits then looked like long underwear and were black, with bottoms that came down above the knee. If you can imagine someone splashing around in the water out in that outfit, they look like a seal," Savolaine said.

Common theory dictates that the shark continued its travels through Sandy Hook to the Raritan Bay, then through Keyport Harbor and up Matawan Creek.

Early afternoon, on July 12, 1916, Captain Thomas Cottrell, who was from Matawan but living in Keyport, called the town marshall to tell him that he had seen a shark swimming under the trolly bridge in Keyport heading toward Matawan. 

The marshall dismissed Cottrell, not believing that it was possible for a shark to be in the area.

Cottrell took to his motor boat, traveling up the creek from Keyport to Matawan, hoping to warn anyone he saw of the shark.

Shortly after he passed Wyckoff Dock, Lester Stillwell, Albert O'Hara, Johnson Cartan, Frank Clowes, Anthony Budblin, and Charles VanBrunt came to cool off in the creek. While splashing around in the water, the boys noticed what they thought was a wooden board, but would shortly find was a shark, heading toward Lester, who was swimming out a little further than the other boys.

Lester was pulled under the water and the remaining five boys ran to Main Street, shouting that Lester had been attacked by a shark. Most discounted the boys, who were still in the nude, not believing a shark could be in the water.

However, Stanley Fisher, a 24-year-old tailor who's shop was located next to what is now , knew that Lester suffered from epilepsy and ran down to the creek, concerned that the boy was having a seizure in the water.

Along the way to the creek, Fisher found Arthur Smith and George Burlew, and they began to search for Lester in the water.

By the time the three young men reached the creek, they realized that it was going to be a recovery not a rescue. They got in a boat and began probing around in the water with an oar and some poles, and soon began diving in the water to find Lester's body.

As they prepared to give up the search, Stanley dove into the water a final time and noticed something beneath the water. He closed his arms around Lester's body and as he came up, the shark closed its jaws around Stanley's upper thigh. 

Many onlookers had gathered on the bank, and recalled seeing Stanley struggle and fight back against the shark. Finally, Stanley was able to fight his way from the shark, but the damage had been done. On his right thigh, an approximately 18-inch-wide area of flesh was gone and an artery was severed. A turniket was tied around Stanley's leg and he was rushed by train to the Long Branch Memorial, but he died from his injuries.

The shark attacks did not end there, however.

About half an hour later, Joseph Dunn, 12, and Michael Dunn, 14, of Brooklyn, and Jeremiah Hourihan, 16, of Matawan, were swimming off of the New Jersey Brickyard Pier as the shark made its way back toward Keyport.

Word of the shark attacks finally reached Joseph, Michael and Jeremiah, and the boys swam for the pier. Jeremiah and Michael climbed out, but as Joseph was doing so the shark grabbed him by the leg and tried to pull him under the water.

A sort of tug-of-war began between the shark and the older boys as they jumped back in the water and refused to let go of Joseph.

Jacob Lefferts, a local lawyer with an office above what is now Victoria's Cozy Corner, was in a boat nearby and jumped in the water to help Michael and Jeremiah. They were able to pull Joseph free and saw the severity of his wound, particularly on his leg.

Cpt. Cottrell was in the area as well and brought Joseph to Wykoff Dock with his motorboat, expecting a doctor to be there in the wake of the other attacks. Joseph was rushed by car to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick.

Joseph was the only survivor of the 1916 shark attacks.

Even 96 years later, it is still debated if it was a Great White or a Bull Shark that attacked Stanley, Lester, and Joseph in Matawan Creek.

However, Savolaine noted that many authorities believe it was a juvenile Great White because witnesses spoke of the shark's white underbelly and because of it's distinct hunting style. Additionally, just days after the attacks, a small Great White was captured in the Raritan Bay. The shark's stomach allegedly contained human flesh and remains, however without DNA testing there was no way to prove who or what the remains belonged to.

"Both sharks are man eaters, but the likelihood is based on the style of the attack and the visibility of the shark. Whether it was the same shark for all five attacks, it's possible, or it could have been different sharks. That's part of the dispute too," Savolaine said.

Stanley and Lester were buried in Matawan's Rose Hill Cemetery. Although they were buried on the same day, Stanley's service was held in the afternoon and Lester's was held in the morning, according to Savolaine.

Stanley's grave sits on top of a hill, looking over Lester's grave, where people still stop to leave small toys and other items when visiting Rose Hill.

The story reached international audiences, with papers like The London Times writing about the attacks and the people who fought back.

"Their bravery and their interest and concern for each other, that's the part we celebrate. It's not just a tragic event. There's a heroism there that every generation can be proud of. And that's kind of why it should be special to us in the Matawan area," Savolaine said.

Although people still debate the type of shark and the possibility of a shark committing all five attacks, the story has inspired multiple books, movies, and documentaries, including "Blood in the Water," a historical reenactment that launched the Discovery Channel's Shark Week in 2009.

The Historical Society will conduct a tour of Rose Hill Cemetery on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 10 a.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. A $10 donation to the Historical Society will be charged to as admission to all attendees 12-years and older. The graves of Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher are just two on a tour of many interesting people from local history.

Heather Luzzi August 16, 2012 at 01:35 AM
Great article! The shark story about Matawan Creek is always fascinating.
Gabrielle Scibor August 16, 2012 at 02:09 AM
Yes, I agree the article is very interesting , i just read it to my ten year old son he too thought it was a great story!! and yes we're being attacked by sharks in matawan I can't believe a Principal could make this much money ,,,something is wrong here !!
Howell taxpayer2 August 28, 2012 at 05:42 PM
All the elementary and middle school principals in Howell make that kind of money. Teachers, including gym, kindergarten, and art teachers can make well over $100K a year. Our taxes are out of control thanks to the ridiculous saleries these elementary school teachers and principals make.
Joe Hall August 07, 2013 at 06:38 PM
...so whats with Shark River Park down the way?

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