A century ago, sharks were thought by many scientists to be benign creatures that could never attack humans. That all changed in July 1916 when four people were killed in a series of deadly shark attacks and Americans’ attitudes toward the sea creatures were transformed forever.
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.