Saturday, August 23, 2008

Great White shark movie "Jaws" was based on 1916 shark attacks

"Shark, shark, shark!!!"

While such a blood-curdling call likely immediately calls to mind the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster "Jaws" about a rogue great white shark off the Cape Cod coast, the genesis for that movie, and the Peter Benchley novel it's based upon, were inspired by real-life shark attacks closer to home.

A spate of shark attacks off three New Jersey towns, including Matawan, in the summer of 1916 is the original inspiration for Benchley's "Jaws" monster.

Matawan owns a significant piece of that actual shark horror story. Two townspeople — a young boy and a man — were mauled to death by a bull shark that swam from the Raritan Bay up through estuaries to Matawan Creek.

On July 12, 1916, a shark that later became known as the "Matawan Man-Eater" fatally attacked 11-year-old Lester Stillwell while he swam with a group of friends in Matawan Creek.

W. Stanley Fisher, 24, of Matawan jumped in to help the boy, but also was fatally attacked by the shark.

Today, Matawan residents commemorate the lives of those two victims with its third annual "Sharkfest" here.

Matawan's afternoon shark event also is to help raise funds to eventually build a memorial monument in their honor.

"Hopefully, we locate at Dock Street where the attacks happened to mark the location," said Robert Montfort, president of the Matawan Historical Society.

Matawan hopes to eventually amass enough money so it can build the monument by 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of the shark attacks.

Sponsored by the Matawan Alliance and the Matawan Historical Society, "Sharkfest" runs from 5 to 10 p.m. in Terhune Park, across from the Matawan Community Center, 201 Broad St.

The event features Dr. Richard G. Fernicola, of Allenhurst, author of "Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks," who, along with historical society members, will host bus tours to Dock Street, near where the Matawan Creek shark attacks originally occurred.

A memorial service for the two borough residents killed will be held at 4 p.m. at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where they are buried. The Matawan Historical Society also will present educational exhibits on the history of Matawan.

"Sharkfest" is capped off by a free screening of a Discovery Channel-produced movie based on Fernicola's book to be shown at 8 p.m. at the Matawan Community Center.

The 1916 summer shark terror actually started roughly 80 miles south of Matawan where one young man was killed by a shark on July 1 in Beach Haven. A second man was killed July 6 in Spring Lake.

However, the most dramatic attack came July 12 at Matawan Creek — 11 miles from the ocean — where Stillwell and Fisher were killed.

On that same day, a few hours later, Joseph Dunn, 12, of Brooklyn, was swimming in the same Matawan Creek where the attacks happened, just a few hundred yards away, when he, too, was mauled by a shark. He escaped serious injuries after he was pulled out of the water.

After the Matawan Creek attack, local residents tried to smoke out the man-eater with harpoons and dynamite. One possible culprit — a great white shark with human remains in its belly — was finally caught two days later in Raritan Bay.

And now, even 92 years later, memories of these horrific attacks still give today's New Jerseyans cause to shudder.

"The biggest reason is that it's very real," Fernicola said. "It's 100 percent real — it happened at our own doorstep. Not only were there definitely sharks here, but it or they mangeled five people."
"Back in 1916, nobody ever thought that a shark would do such a thing," said Montfort. "I'm sure that the boys that were dipping down in the creek, as well as the people in the town, never thought in their wildest dreams that such an event could happen."

Fernicola said the other big part of the story centers on the unlikely appearance of a bull shark in Matawan Creek's brackish waters — half fresh, half salt — that typically measures only a few feet deep.

"To find a shark in a bay is honestly not that unusual," Fernicola said. "But to find a shark up a narrow creek like that is somewhat very unusual."

Sharks strike a chord of fear with most of us, said Fernicola, because we run the chance — however small — of meeting one each time we step into the ocean.

"There is a certain aspect that relates to sharks. You are in their domain; it's almost like a dark closet," Fernicola said. "No matter how clear the water is, you don't necessarily see below you at all times."

While shark attacks still frequently make the news, Fernicola believes that there will never be the shark media frenzy of three decades ago.

"I doubt you could re-create that phenomenon that we most likely experienced when we went to the theater in 1975 to see "Jaws,' " Fernicola said. "But it's really a perpetual interest to the public."
Next year, New Jersey's 1916 shark attacks get another incarnation when filmmakers hired by the Discovery Channel will make a fresh documentary about the event.

"The intrigue just continues," said Sharen La Porta, an alliance trustee. "There's been so many films and documentaries produced on the 1916 event. It just keeps going."


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