Close to Shore

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

On July 1, 1916, Charles Vansant, a Philadelphia doctor’s son and a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, died from a shark attack while swimming in the coastal waters near Beach Haven, New Jersey. Five days later, Charles Bruder, a bell captain at the hotel in Spring Lake, thirty miles up the coast from Beach Haven, bled to death after a shark bit off one of his legs. On the afternoon of July 12, six young teenage boys were splashing in a swimming hole in Matawan Creek just across Raritan Bay from Staten Island, when twelve-year-old Lester Stilwell was pulled under by a shark, and when a strong young man named Stanley Fisher tried to retrieve Lester Stilwell’s body he, too, succumbed to brutal wounds from the shark.

Charles Vansant was the first American known to have died from a shark attack, and the appearance of a shark inland in Matawan was hardly credible. Scientists argued over all the issues and vacationers at the shore panicked. On July 14, Michael Schleisser, a taxidermist, and John Murphy put out from South Amboy in a small outboard, and when a great white shark attacked their boat Schleisser beat it to death with a broken oar. The creature was seven and a half feet long and weighed three hundred fifty pounds. In its belly were human bones and flesh, conjectured to have been taken in the Matawan attack.

Michael Capuzzo tells his shark story with a satisfying mix of social history and an imaginative reconstruction of the shark’s movements. A good read, except perhaps at the beach.