Sunday, July 19, 2009

Matawan Creek Shark Attacks of 1916


Several of the famous Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 that spawned the movie Jaws took place right here in Aberdeen Township. I've been told by neighbors that the attacks took place right off Riverdale Drive near Route 35. Here's a map.


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The attacks were national news. Here's the headline and selected paragraphs (not for the squeamish) from the Washington Post of 13 July 1916:

SHARK KILLS TWO IN SURF
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Boy and Young Man Victims of Sea Monster
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THIRD IS BADLY MANGLED
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Terror of the Deep Appears in Raritan Bay, N.J.
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Dozen or More Boys in Bathing
Hear Comrade's Screams for Help.
Young Man Standing on Bank
Goes to His Rescue and Both Per-
ish - Leg of Another Lad Torn Al-
most to Shreds from the Knee Down.

MATAWAN, N. J. July 12 - Lester Stillwell, 12 years old, was killed by a man eating shark while bathing in an arm of the Raritan Bay near here this afternoon. Stanley Fisher, 24 years old, who went to his aid, was so badly injured in a struggle with the sea monster that he died while being taken to a Long Branch hospital. Joseph Dunn, 12 years old, bathing some distance away in the same inlet, was attacked by a shark, and one of his legs was so lacerated it will probably have to be amputated.

A dozen or more boys, who were also bathing in the inlet, heard Stillwell's screams for help. Fisher, who was standing on the bank, went to the rescue. He had gone only a few feet when the shark attacked him, tearing a piece out of one thigh.

In spite of his wound, Fisher caught the boy up in his arm, and had started for shore, when the shark renewed the attack. Burdened as he was, Fisher was helpless, and the shark snapped off his leg. Fisher released his hold on Stillwell and himself sank beneath the surface, unconscious.

Heedless of the danger, another boy sprang into the inlet and dragged Fisher out. No trace of young Stillwell was found and it is believed he was devoured by the shark.

The Dunn boy, according to persons who were standing on the bank of the inlet, also was attacked soon after going into the water. An elder brother and another boy went to the rescue. They succeeded in driving off the shark but not until after the younger Dunn's leg had been torn almost to shreds from the knee down. He is expected to recover.
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The next day's Washington Post carried this additional news:

Dr. George G Reynolds, of Matawan, who attended Stanley Fisher who was so seriously mangled in a battle with a shark yesterday that he died a few hours later performed an autopsy on Fisher's body today. He declared that the flesh torn by the man-eater's teeth was impregnated with a peculiar poisonous liquid which seemed to have deadening effect on the nerves and muscles. This probably explained, he said, why Fisher apparently had little sensation of pain when the shark took off his leg.

Little hope is entertained for the recovery of the body of 12-year-old Lester Stillwell, the other victim of the Matawan Creek tragedy. It is believed that he was devoured by the shark, as persistent dragging of the inlet and dynamiting of the waters have failed to bring up the body.
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New Jersey Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff, by Peter Genovese, 2nd edition (Guilford, CT: Insider's Guide, 2007) has a chapter on pp 125-126 titled The Original Jaws, Matawan, which says that Stanley Fisher and Lester Stillwell are buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Matawan.

Rose Hill Cemetery is on Ravine Drive near the intersection with Middlesex Road. The cemetery is a local treasure but kept in less than ideal condition. The cemetery has turned and broken grave stones, poison ivy, and no website. Many local leaders are buried there. It deserves better.


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My wife and I visited the cemetery on Saturday. We definitely found the marker for Lester Stillwell. And I believe but cannot yet confirm that we located Stanley Fisher's grave. If you enter the cemetery's main gate and drive straight to the back of the cemetery, you will come to a spot with a split rail fence on your left and a hill on your right. Over the fence is a large lily pond. I recommend parking along the fence somewhere below the vault of Abram J Vreeland, which will be on the hill to your right. The photo on the right is a view from the Stillwell stone looking back at where I parked (left of center, behind a bush) and the pond (right).

To find the Stillwell grave, get out of your vehicle and continue down the path you were driving. The path will turn to the left and you'll see graves on your right on a small hill. Just before the road turns sharply to the right, you will see a row of five small gravestones. Those will be for William (1870-1944), Louella (1880-1946), Lester (1904-1916), Harry J (1898-1952), and Russell Stillwell (1899-1957).

A second marker for Harry J Stillwell notes his service in World War II as follows:

Harry J Stillwell
New Jersey
S SGT 481 BASE HQ & AB SQ AAF
World War II
Jul 9, 1898 Dec 29 1952

To find the Fisher grave, get out of your vehicle and climb the hill on your right up and past the Vreeland vault. The hill is steep to the left, so you might want to stay to the right. When you get to the top, turn sharply left and make your way to the treeline above where Lester Stillwell's marker is located. Small stones with the first names of Stanley, Florence, and Nana are located next to a large stone labeled FISHER. I didn't get a good photo of the FISHER stone, so I'll have to suffice to show you Stanley's ground marker. I don't know if it is by design, but Stanley rests on a hill just above where Lester is buried.

If you visit the cemetery, please be respectful and show some care towards the grounds and the stones.

4 comments:

  1. The Stillwell attack happened in the creek right behind the houses behind what used to be Harris Hardware in Matawan (more recently "C-Town". My husband's family have lived back there for generations. The creek runs right behind Quick Check on Main Street.

    There is also a great book about the attack called "Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in the Age of Innocence" By: Michael Capuzzo. It's the book that inspired the movie "Jaws".

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  2. You're talking about the more recent location for the big Harris Hardware store, in the former Foodtown building? Not the old Harris Hardware location near where Maloney's pub is now. Is that what remains after Lake Lefferts was formed by damming the creek? Is there a connection to Lake Matawan?

    I did some research on Stanley Fisher in the census and couldn't locate him in 1910 or 1900 in Matawan. Some out of town papers referred to him as W Stanley Fisher. I found a Sandusky, Ohio paper with a Matawan dateline that said Mrs W Fisher, Stanley's mother, was in Ohio at the time of his death, visiting friends. She swooned when she came across the news on her way back to NJ. Do you know anything about Fisher's origins or if that gravestone belongs to him? There were no dates on the stones. The papers said he was 24 and 25 years old, so he would have been born about 1882. I'll have to check out the book you mentioned. Is there a copy in the Matawan library?

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  3. Pat,

    I think Stanley was Swedish and I believe I read that his mother wanted to ship his body back to Sweden, but am unsure if that happened. I second the first anonymous posting - Close to Shore is a good book and gives a lot of background on the attacks.

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  4. The movie was inspired by Peter Benchley's "Jaws", which he based on news articles of what happened in 1916. Also, from his research and the collected works of main-stream scientist researchers, the Bull Shark was not scary enough for his book so he said it was a Great White. Just like the ill-informed scientists of the day. As for Stanley, from what I can remember in some of my own research he was from Ohio, but his best friend from college invited him to New Jersey for the summer break from classes. His Mother, however, was originally from Sweden and his father was an Irish American.

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