Where these shark attacks the inspiration of Peter Benchley’s book and movie Jaws?
As Americans prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1916, the aptly named resort town of Beach Haven, New Jersey, promised a sanctuary from worries about the war raging in Europe and the polio epidemic sweeping through New York City. Seeking refuge from the sweltering heat gripping his hometown of Philadelphia, Charles Vansant stepped out of his beachfront hotel to take a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean before dinner on July 1, 1916.
The athletic 25-year-old waded into the shallow surf and swam out from shore with a paddling Chesapeake Bay retriever at his side when a dark fin suddenly sliced through the 3-and-1/2 foot deep water. The sea creature clamped onto Vansant’s left leg and refused to let go. The swimmer unleashed a morbid scream as the ocean’s white breakers turned red. A human chain tried to tug him to safety, but the animal did not unclench its jaws until its belly scraped on the pebbles in the shallow waters near shore. The rescuers carried the badly injured Vansant into the lobby of the luxurious Engleside Hotel where he bled to death.
The attending physician recorded a remarkable cause of death—a shark bite. While swimming in the ocean was still a nascent American pastime in the early 1900s, shark attacks along the coast of New Jersey were unheard of. Many scientists believed sharks to be shy, just another fish that swam offshore and posed no threat to swimmers, and not powerful enough to maul a human. Stories of shark attacks told by ancient mariners were often dismissed as salty tales akin to stories of sea serpents. “Bathers Need Have No Fear of Sharks,” declared a headline in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in which experts dismissed the attack on Vansant as a freak incident in which the shark was actually trying to attack the dog swimming near the victim.