The shark mania that grips the country each summer began July 1, 1916, when a young stockbroker from Philadelphia headed into the surf at Beach Haven, N.J. Before then, there wasn’t much fear about attacks from the deep among the innocents at the Jersey Shore.
That all changed when Charles Vansant, a 25-year-old taking the first swim of his summer vacation, struck out into the mild surf. What unfolded over the next dozen days would leave five swimmers dead or maimed and the East Coast terrified, sparking a presidential intervention and “a war on sharks” that continues to this day.
“It was the Titanic of shark attacks,” said Richard Fernicola, a New Jersey physician and author of “Twelve Days of Terror,” an account of what became known as the Matawan Man-Eater.
Only a few people on the beach noticed Vansant increasingly frantic in the water, thinking he was calling to the dog he had been swimming with. But by the time lifeguards carried him ashore, a crowd including his parents watched as he bled out onto the sand.
Less than a week later, a hotel worker named Charles Bruder was swimming with friends at nearby Spring Lake when he was repeatedly pulled, shrieking, under the surface as beachgoers screamed for help. When two lifeguards pulled him into their boat, his legs were both severed below the knee. He died minutes later.