​Remembering the Titanic of shark attacks

The scariest word at any beach vacation has to be the shouted warning: SHARK! And we've been hearing it for a century now. Our Cover Story is reported by Anna Werner:

Welcome to Beach Haven, a slice of heaven on the New Jersey shore.

"It's wonderful and we can't wait for another great summer here," one visitor said.

"I've been coming here since I was 18 months old," one man said. "Love this place. Love the beach."

"It's so relaxing -- just a beautiful beach," said another woman

The perfect place to take a dip and put your mind at ease ... unless, of course, you have a certain movie theme playing in your head...

Excerpt from "Main Title" of "Jaws" by John Williams


It was 41-years ago that "Jaws" left America trembling in fear. You know the story: a rogue shark terrorizing a tourist town.

While the book and blockbuster film are fiction, 100 years ago in New Jersey there was the real thing, with eerie similarities to "Jaws" -- a series of deadly shark attacks.

And it began right here in Beach Haven.

Author and physician Richard Fernicola has written about the 1916 events: "America thought they were having one last golden gentle, innocent summer. But that wasn't to be.

"The extraordinary nature of the attacks, the viciousness -- in that period -- still stands out. It stood out then, and it stands out even more, perhaps, in retrospect."

Back then, sharks were a distant offshore curiosity. It was widely assumed they would never pose a threat to man. That all changed on July 1, 1916, when a 25-year-old accountant from Philadelphia, Charles Vansant, went for a swim and was viciously attacked. Doctors said there was no doubt: he'd been killed by a shark.

Five days later, some 45 miles north in Spring Lake, a bellhop swam out beyond the breakers. He, too, was killed. "Here you had a case where there were no attacks for 50 or 100 years," said Fernicola. "And here you had two men in their 20s who were viciously mauled by a shark right in the beach zone."

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Author Richard Fernicola visits the scene of a 1916 Jersey Shore shark attack with correspondent Anna Werner.

CBS News

What happened next would turn fear to panic. Twenty-five miles north, where the ocean waters meet Matawan Creek, a sea captain walking near a drawbridge saw a large shark heading upstream.

In the next 45 minutes or so, the shark swam a mile north, up to a swimming hole popular with boys from the town of Matawan, like 11-year old Lester Stillwell. It was at that serene and tranquil spot where the shark found Stillwell in the deepest part of that swimming hole, and took him under.

The other boys ran into town for help. Twenty-four-year-old Stanley Fisher was one of those who answered the call. He and others dove in to attempt a rescue, and it was Fisher who finally emerged with the boy's body.

But the shark wasn't done. "He had come up to a little bit of a shallow on the bank and was viciously struck on the right thigh by this marauding shark," said Fernicola. "It spun him around twice, took him under twice."