The Shark That Inspired 'Jaws'

Brazil's Maicon leaves the field as Mexico's players celebrate at the end of a Copa America soccer game in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, Wednesday, June 27, 2007. Mexico won 2-0. AP Photo/Marcelo Hernandez

Taking a dip in the ocean just hasn't been the same since the release of "Jaws" more than 25 years ago. But what many people don't know is that the film is based on a series of deadly shark attacks in the summer of 1916 along the New Jersey shoreline. In his new book, "Close to Shore", author Michael Capuzzo meticulously reconstructs the events that left four people dead and a nation terrified.

For The Saturday Early Show, Capuzzo sets the scene of the first shark attack on July 6: "It was 1916, a year before America would become embroiled in World War I. It is the beginning of the beach age. Recreational swimming is becoming very popular. Women are going to the beach in bathing suits that reveal their ankles, which at the time was very risque. Men, as a way to prove their masculinity, are charging into the ocean with Jack-London-like vigor.

"The Jersey Shore was the unofficial capital of the country. President Woodrow Wilson even set up a 'Summer White House' in the town of Long Branch.

"Many upper-middle-class families spent most of the summer down the shore, including the Vansants of Philadelphia. The oldest son Charles was 23 and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
Read an excerpt from "Close to Shore."

"He is standing in three feet of water when this great white shark just grabs his leg. He's screaming. There's blood everywhere, and people are in disbelief because nothing like this has ever happened before.

"Then, a chain of men begin playing a tug-of-war with the shark, and Charles is caught in between. Charles dies from his wounds. Even his father, who is a doctor, can't save him. However, it's important to point out that, had this happened today, Charles would almost certainly have survived."

Surprisingly, this attack did not generate a lot of attention. "It was barely mentioned in the papers," says the author, "and if it was, the story was buried. It was only after the second attack that people really began to take notice.

"The second victim was a bellboy from Switzerland working at a hotel in Spring Lake. His name was Charles Bruder, and he was a very strong swimmer.

"He goes out about a quarter mile off shore one evening. A woman cries out that a man in the red canoe is upset. So the lifeguards get in a boat and begin paddling towards him. But they soon realize there is no red canoe; it's Charles Bruder's blood.

"Charles is pulled to shore, but there is nothing that can be done to save him. A rich woman from Philadelphia is watching the horror unfold. She calls down to the hotel desk, which sends out an urgent message, and the story winds up on the front page of the next day's New ork Times."

Yet many people in the scientific community did not believe this was a shark attack.

"They had never seen anything like this before," explains Capuzzo. "You have to remember these were the first two documented shark attacks in American history. Scientists refused to believe that a shark could come so close to shore and kill someone."

Of all the attacks that summer, the most unbelievable was probably the attack on 11-year-old Lester Stillwell.

"The shark swam 17 miles from the ocean and winds up in a creek where a group of young boys are swimming naked. All of a sudden, the shark completely swallows Lester Stillwell. Later, a man from town tries to get the shark and he himself is killed."

Eventually, the shark was killed and human remains were found inside.

So the question remains: Should people be scared about swimming in the ocean?

Says Capuzzo, "It often depends on where they are swimming. The area between Monterey and San Francisco on the West coast is more dangerous than, say, most of the East coast. But it is a good idea to be vigilant. I wouldn't swim with a dog or jewelry, both of which sharks are attracted to."


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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