In the summer of 1916, four people were killed by sharks in two weeks off the coast of New Jersey, sparking a national hysteria that changed Americans’ attitudes toward predators.
More than a century later, Americans remain fascinated and often afraid of fish. That’s a big reason why the Discovery Channel Shark weekwhich started on Sunday, that is longest lasting cable television’s all-time annual event.
Before The attacks of 1916Most people saw sharks as just another fish, if they even believed they existed. But the attacks moved public opinion to the other extreme.
The move was so culturally transformative that it was revisited by multiple media outlets, including PhillyVoice, on the 100th anniversary of the attacks. Many people now overestimate the danger of animals.
There are more than 300 species of sharks, but only about 12 have been known to attack humans. National Ocean Service says. Sharks only attack humans when they become confused or curious. They feed mainly on small fish and invertebrates, although some larger sharks eat seals and sea lions.
There were 73 unprovoked shark bites worldwide last year, up from an average of 72 between 2016 and 2020, according to the data. Florida Museum of Natural History, which follows shark attacks. 11 deaths were recorded, 9 of which were without cause.
The 1916 attacks made sharks a symbol of danger in American popular culture.
The first person to be killed was Charles Vansant, a 28-year-old Philadelphia resident who was vacationing with his family in Beach Haven, Oahu County.
On July 1, he was swimming with his dog before dinner when a shark broke his legs. Vansant was rescued by lifeguards and taken to an Engleside hotel, where he bled to death.
Officials and fish experts downplayed this first attack. In the Philadelphia Public Book article:James Meehan, Pennsylvania’s state fish commissioner and former director of the Philadelphia Aquarium, downplayed the sharks’ threat to humans and encouraged swimmers to return to the water.
“The information about sharks is vague,” he said.
“Vansant was in the surf playing with the dog and it’s possible that the small shark jumped in at high water and was swept away by the tide,” Meehan said. “Unable to move quickly and without food, he went in to bite the dog and pounced on a passing man.”
But on July 6, a Swiss hotel employee named Charles Bruder was killed while swimming in Spring Lake, Monmouth County.
This second attack sent the sharks circling the Jersey Shore across the front page of news across the country. The bloodshed was shocking both to those who witnessed it and those who read about it in newspapers like the New York Times.
“As rescuers approached (Bruder), the water around the man suddenly turned red and he let out a loud scream,” the newspaper reported. “A woman on the shore cried that the man in the red boat was upset, but the others realized that blood had stained the water and the women fainted at the sight. When lifeguards reached the swimmer, he screamed that a shark had bitten him. and then fainted.”
On July 8, armed patrols in motorboats patrolled much of the Jersey Shore. Many beaches have been closed. Some cities have built wire mesh to keep people out of the open ocean.
New Jersey’s government and some municipalities have pulled out rewards on the animals, leading to shark hunting along the Jersey Shore. Hundreds of people were killed.
On July 12, a shark attacked three more people in Matawan Creek near Keyport, Monmouth County. The incident took place more than a mile from the open ocean. It’s rare for sharks to swim this far inland.
11-year-old Lester Stilwell was killed while swimming in the river with his friends. Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, was then fatally wounded as more than 100 people watched as he tried to recover Stilwell’s body.
Less than an hour later, 12-year-old Joseph Dunn of New York was attacked by a shark while swimming in another section of the river. He survived the attack because his brother and friend saved him from the shark.
Two days later, two men fishing in the river killed the shark. Scientists have found 15 pounds human flesh in his bowels.
Attacks in the short term reduced the number of visitors down the coast. In some cities, the number of sunbathers dropped by as much as 75%, and resort owners suffered losses that would amount to more than $5 million today.
After the attacks, scientists re-evaluated their assumptions about the danger of sharks. And animals have become symbols of danger in American cartoons.
In the second half of the 20th century, sharks became the focus of many horror films, especially in 1975.JawsThe film mentions the attacks of 1916.
While there is still a lot of fear surrounding sharks, the dynamic has changed somewhat in recent decades as scientists and conservationists have worked to re-educate the public about the fish.
This was it Shark week‘s main mission when the annual televised event debuted in 1988.