The Frightening True Story that Sparked America’s Shark Mania

Friday, August 08, 2014

Shark imagery persists in Matawan, NJ, the site of a fatal attack. (Jim O'Grady/WNYC)

It was the moment when sharks became monsters.

Before the summer of 1916, the American imagination considered sharks just another fish. Experts said the creatures were shy and posed no threat to swimmers. Those notions had to be forcibly revised during the first two weeks of July, when separate attacks off the Jersey Shore left two men dead from shark bites that removed most of their lower bodies.

"Science Admits Its Error," read a headline in The New York Times. "No Longer Doubted that Big Fish Attack Men."

Then came the events of July 12 in Matawan, New Jersey.

Conditions were stifling inside the local basket factory that day, where several boys toiled in the heat beside the men. By late afternoon, with the sun beating down on the building, the factory foreman decided to take mercy on the boys. He gathered them up and told them it was time to honor the small town tradition of ditching work for a mid-summer swim.

With a whoop, the boys obeyed. They headed to Matawan Creek — at a spot with a dock two miles inland from Lower New York Bay.

Among them was 11-year-old Lester Stillwell, a frail epileptic from the poor side of town. His friends later recounted that Lester was floating on his back when what seemed like a shadow rose from below, struck Lester with tremendous force and lifted him out of the water, before taking him under.

Among the first to arrive on the scene was the 24-year-old son of a sea captain named Stanley Fisher. He and some other young men stood in rowboats and used poles to probe the murky water for Lester. After a while, it became clear to the men — and to the townsfolk crowding the creek bank — that they were no longer trying to save Lester's life. They were searching for his body.

It was also clear that the shark that had taken the boy could still be prowling the creek. Yet Stanley lay down his pole and dove in.


Why did Stanley Fisher risk his life to search for Lester Stillwell when saving the boy was no longer possible?

We traveled to Matawan and put that question to town historian Al Savolaine, a grandfatherly man with a white mustache who has spent decades researching the shark attacks. His answer involves the Victorian concept of "the good death." It echoes a famous passage in Joan Didion's essay, "On Morality," in which she describes an intrinsic agreement that helps define our common humanity:

"One of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes. If we have been taught to keep our promises – if, in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough – we stay with the body, or have bad dreams."

Matawan Creek around the time of the 1916 shark attacks.
The attacks occurred in the larger waterway near the upper right hand corner of this map.
Jim O'Grady/WNYC
Matawan town historian Al Savolaine.
Jim O'Grady/WNYC
Tokens left by visitors to the grave of Lester Stillwell at Rose Hill Cemetery in Matawan, NJ.
Jim O'Grady/WNYC
The grave of Stanley Fisher in Matawan's Rose Hill Cemetery.


David L. Lewis


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Comments [14]

manhattanhockeymom from Manhattan

Tony from Canarsie says there are conservatives today who would repeal child labor laws. You're kidding, right? Otherwise, very untrue generalization.

Aug. 11 2014 08:20 AM
Larry In Chelsea from Chelsea, NYC

Of course you just HAD to do this story the very day I leave for the Jersey Shore! :)

Aug. 08 2014 02:33 PM
Onel Mulet from Brooklyn , NY

Based on accounts of the attacks I believe the experts decided the culprit in the 1916 attacks was a bull shark. I have not read Capputos book, does he introduce the great white shark into the collective consciousness or was that indeed Hollywood?

Aug. 08 2014 01:20 PM
Tracy from Boston

I never get tired reading or listening to anything that has to do with this story.

Aug. 08 2014 01:19 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Jim O'Grady -- thanks for the recommendations!

Aug. 08 2014 12:58 PM
Jim O'Grady

p.s. Sorry that the Web post ended abruptly for you, Billy from Hudson Valley. Writing these posts is tricky because we don't want to tell the whole story: as Joe McArdle from Home points out, we want you to listen to the audio for that. I hope you do!

Aug. 08 2014 12:30 PM
Jim O'Grady

I agree with you, Bobbie from NYC. Reading "Close To Shore" by Michael Capuzzo is a great way to plunge into this story. Another good source is "Twelve Days of Terror" by Richard Fernicola.

Aug. 08 2014 12:08 PM
Tony from Canarsie

PAUL BOGGS -- the above is just an introductory synopsis. I agree with Joe McArdle about listening to the audio.

Btw, Matawan town historian Al Savolaine sounds like he's a very interesting guy.

Aug. 08 2014 11:56 AM
Tony from Canarsie

"Conditions were stifling inside the local basket factory that day, where several boys toiled in the heat beside the men."

And to think that there are conservatives today who would repeal child labor laws if they had the chance.

Aug. 08 2014 11:50 AM
Joe McArdle from Home

You have to listen to the audio to get the full story!

Aug. 08 2014 10:59 AM
Bill from Boonton

Great background on story:

Aug. 08 2014 10:27 AM
PAUL BOGGS from Charlottesville VA

As said above, that is quite an abrupt ending. Not only that, the main body of the story is little more than superficial fluff. One gets the impression that the author is merely trying to profit (literarily, at least) from the somewhat sensationalistic title without working to provide an article with real substance.

Aug. 08 2014 10:01 AM
Bobbie from NYC

The book CLOSE TO SHORE by Michael Capuzzo documents these events in the context of history (there are also chapters written from the viewpoint of the great white shark, whom he must have channeled).

Aug. 08 2014 09:22 AM
Billy from Hudson Valley

Wow, that is an abrubt ending to the story.

Aug. 08 2014 08:49 AM

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