'Jaws' Was Inspired By The Matawan Man-Eater, And The True Story Is Even Scarier Than The Movie

There's no denying that the movie Jaws definitely made some beach-goers scared to go into the water. However, the story that inspired Jaws was what really had people scared to have a day at the beach. The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 were so unexpected, sudden, and violent that they stuck in the public's mind even up to the point that the movie hit theaters. The "Matawan man-eater," as the shark was called, took down at least three people, likely four before the killings finally stopped, and it forever changed the public's view of sharks.

To be clear, great white shark attacks in the US are not very common. People are more likely to be killed by bees than they are by sharks, and most shark attacks that do happen do not result in death. What happens in the movie Jaws is not typical of shark attacks at all, and how one survives a real shark attack is quite a different story.

For those wondering whether Jaws is based on a true story, the Matawan man-eater wasn't the initial inspiration for the 1975 Spielberg film, but the 1916 events did play a part in shaping the tale. The details aren't exactly the same, but there was once a killer shark, and he terrorized the public for nearly two weeks.


  • Two People Were Ruthlessly Killed Close To A Beach In 1916

    Over a two week span, things along the New Jersey coast started to get pretty terrifying. It began on July first, 1916, at a resort town called Beach Haven. 25-year-old Charles Vansant was on vacation from Philadelphia, with his family when he decided to take a little swim in the ocean. People close by didn't see the shark attack, but heard him began shouting, and by the time anyone could reach him, his legs had been slashed open by massive bites. Even as they dragged him out of the water, one onlooker said they saw the ominous shape of a shark following Charles. They brought Vansant into a nearby hotel to try to save him, but the damage was far too great. He bled to death on the manager's desk before any further help could be called.

    After this incident, the shark would reportedly go on to kill a total of four people (perhaps more — though that is unconfirmed). Only one of these attack victims would survive the ordeal, a young boy by the name of Joseph Dunn. The pre-teen was the final attack victim, and his leg was bitten off by the shark on July 12, less than two weeks after the first killing took place.

  • The Shark Didn't Just Stick To The Ocean

    The Shark Didn't Just Stick To The Ocean
    Photo: tedkerwin / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    One really terrifying aspect of the killings has to do with the fact that this shark didn't just hunt out in the ocean. His first two victims, Charles Vansant and Charles Bruder, were both bitten in the legs while swimming in the ocean, and died of blood loss, with Bruder losing both legs completely to the shark.

    However, the third victim, an eleven-year-old boy by the name of Lester Stillwell, wasn't even in the ocean when he was attacked. 

    On July 13, 1916, sometime in the afternoon, a man walking back from fishing by Matawan Creek when he saw a strange shape in the water, coming up the creek with the incoming tide. He later said the thing was at least eight feet in length, and he recognized it as a shark. He ran to town to warn people, but he did not have the chance to cross paths with Lester and his young friends, who were going to go swimming in the creek. They may have heard about the shark being nearby, but thought it was a joke, and decided to go swimming. One of the children did note a strange thing brush by his leg, but by then it was too late to flee. The shark violently attacked Lester, pulling him under and killing him. Less than a day later, the shark would also attack Joseph Dunn nearby in the creek, biting off his leg

  • Several People Were Killed Trying To Stop A Shark Attack

    Several People Were Killed Trying To Stop A Shark Attack
    Photo: gaftels / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    It became very obvious very quick that this shark wasn't afraid to kill anyone who messed with him. When he attacked his first victim, Charles Vansant, he followed the rescuers into the shallows, pulling against their efforts, and only stopped when his belly scraped the bottom. When he attacked Lester Stillwell, he was particularly violent, and was more aggressive than ever about stopping any rescue efforts.

    The boys who managed to escape the creek and the shark attack went screaming about sharks to the local Main Street. At first, locals believed Lester was drowning due to a seizure, as he was prone to these all his life. They came to the banks of the creek, hoping to recover his body, and some of them waded in. Witnesses even say they saw the boy's body above the water briefly, and the men attempted to rescue the boy from the creek. Then, unexpectedly, the shark struck again. He dragged a man named Stanley Fisher under the water, and although the two struggled, the shark mauled him and bit off huge chunks of his flesh. It took another rescuer hitting the shark with a boat oar in order to get Stanley free. By that point it was too late, and Stanley later died of blood loss and shock, becoming the shark's fourth killing. Lester's body would not be recovered until some time later. 

    Because of the killings being in the Matawan Creek, the shark soon became known as the Matawan Man-eater.

  • The President Called A Cabinet Meeting To Discuss The Shark Attacks

    In response to these four deaths, nearly five deaths, there was a huge backlash against sharks. The town of Matawan itself was horrified by all that had happened, and began doing such things as trying to blast the creek with dynamite, an effort that obviously did not kill the offending shark. But the biggest hunting efforts were made all up and down the coast of New Jersey, with devastating results.

    The New Jersey governor mandated that all swimming areas had to be enclosed with wire mesh, to keep swimmers safe. The local government then called for a shark hunt, to kill this man-eater, and fishermen from all over set out to kill any and every shark they could find. It didn't matter the type or the size, as long as the shark was dead. Even President Woodrow Wilson called a meeting of his cabient and decided to give federal aid in order to drive away all ferocious sharks in the area. Hundreds of sharks were killed in a matter of days as locals and hunters of all sorts tried to bring the killer shark to justice.