Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Matawan maneaters: a New Jersey horror

On the evening of July 1, 1916, Charles Vansant was swimming in the surf off Beach Haven in Ocean County (New Jersey) when he was attacked by a shark, which stripped the flesh from his left thigh. He died about an hour later. The second attack took place on July 6, when Charles Bruder was attacked off Spring Lake; he bled to death before the lifeguards even returned him to shore. But for all this, the horror was about to come even closer to home.

On July 12, 12-year old Lester Stillwell and other boys were playing at the Wyckoff Dock on Matawan Creek near the town of Matawan, some 16 miles inland. While there, the boys saw an 'old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log' which turned out, unfortunately, to be a shark. Stillwell was pulled underwater and killed; people attempted to rescue the boy. One of these, Watson Fisher, was also killed by the shark as he swam in search of the boy's body. Half an hour later and a half mile away, another young boy, Joseph Dunn, was attacked by a shark, but survived.

An 8-foot long great white shark was killed by Michael Schleisser in Raritan Bay near the mouth of Matawan Creek. It was widely reported that Schleisser's kill was the maneater, although differing opinions surfaced - in 1916, Barrett Smith wrote that it could have been a sea turtle, rather than a shark - an odd theory, to be sure. In modern times, biologists Richard Ellis and George Llano both feel that the shark may have been a bull shark (which can survive in fresh water) although ichthyologist George Burgess notes that Matawan Creek was extremely brackish and a great white may still be to blame.

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