Modern history

To See Its Body Drawn Up on the Shore

At four-thirty the sky was tinted with hints of russet and gold yet still bright with the intensity of the longest summer days. Shadows lengthened along the creek, but the views of the surface were clear for the men with rifles standing in the tall grass. Matawan Constable Mulsoff had come down to the creek with a police detective from Keyport. With a nod from the constable, the group turned away from the old steamboat docks, climbed into town, and filed onto Main Street.

On the plank road that afternoon the sputter of motorcars and clop of horses marked a steadying pace under the sycamores and elms. Matrons and domestics tended to late shopping as merchants rolled their canopies. It was a typical hazy, humid summer afternoon, until the men from the creek surfaced in the late shadows. Their faces were hard and streaked with sweat and mud from thrashing through the creekside grasses high as a man's chest. The townspeople stood aside to let them pass. The shark hunters' trousers were wet and smelled of creek rot from poling the shallows as they moved like forms of unbidden memory past the shops and churches.

They had seen Stanley Fisher savaged by a shark and then spent two hours searching for Lester Stilwell's body, and as they pushed opened the door at 116 Main, Asher Wooley's store, they had no interest in Wooley's hardware. The store sold dynamite by the stick in the back, and the men bought up all of it.

As they headed back toward the creek with armfuls of explosives, the tranquility of a midsummer day was replaced by an urgent feeling that traveled in their wake and issued through town, a feeling of threat and reprisal as innate as the response of the shark to stimuli. After the death of Lester Stilwell and the mauling of Stanley Fisher, “The word spread that one or more man-eating sharks were in Matawan Creek feasting on the bathers,” the New York Herald reported. Whereupon, “Residents of the town, including hundreds from the factories, hurried to the river.”

Down Main Street, in house after house, and later, in the fields and farmhouses on the outskirts of town, men reached above the fireplace and in the corner of the barn for shotgun, rifle, and harpoon. Young men in fishing caps, dark trousers, and white Oxford shirts, sleeves rolled up, took the front rank; businessmen still in dark suits, striped shirts buttoned to the collar, and boater hats followed behind. Boys in suspenders and baseball caps peeked warily behind their hard-eyed fathers. Women in full-length summer dresses gathered on both banks up- and downcreek.

The word at the creek was that the shark was trapped. Wire nets had been stretched across the creek at narrow places near Keyport, where it emptied into the bay, to block the shark's escape. When A. B. Henderson, the acting mayor of Matawan, announced the borough would pay a one-hundred-dollar bounty “to the person who killed the shark, if one, or if more for each shark killed” an emotional torrent swept along the banks.

As five o'clock approached, the constable gave a signal to clear the creek of boats. Men with rifles and and jittery trigger fingers scanned the surface of the creek for movement. The slightest quivers of fish aroused shouts of “There! There!” But the gunmen were ordered to hold fire while others on the banks carefully prepared the explosives. The work was slow and punctuated by more shouts. The citizens of Matawan knew nothing of the shark's weaknesses or habits, only that it was a man-eater, only that it possessed a power that required all the munitions in town to match. The destroyer could be met only by the sum of destruction.

Watching from the banks, Bill and Luella Stilwell prayed that if Lester was now dead, at least his body could be recovered for a proper Christian burial. But the unstated fear of the shark hunters was that the boy had been totally devoured by the shark. The men were convinced that dynamite offered the hope of killing the shark and of finding Lester's remains, if any. Fishermen had advised the county prosecutor that “the shock of the explosions will stun the shark or burst the gall inside its body and cause it to rise to the surface.” (And the shark hunters thought that blasting the creek would also bring forth what was left of Lester's body.) They did not know that the great white shark possesses no such flotation gall. Heavier than water, it must keep swimming with powerful thrusts or succumb to gravity. Unlike whales and other fish, it sinks when it dies.

Just before the first charge was to be set off, a motorboat appeared downcreek and the noise of its engine grew louder as it came into view. Captain Cottrell stood at the wheel of the Skud with Jacob Lefferts. As the boat drew nearer, Lefferts announced, “A shark got him!” Lying on the bottom of the boat was Joseph Dunn, his leg encased in bloodied bandages. The men laid down their guns and went to the boat to carry the boy—a boy Lester Stilwell's age—onto the dock.

Dr. Herbert Cooley of Keyport had responded too late to the summons to help Lester Stilwell and Stanley Fisher, never suspecting yet another person would need emergency care for a shark attack within an hour. Like Dr. Reynolds, Dr. Cooley was reluctant to touch the ragged cut, fearing that sharks infected their victims with poisons. But the doctor persevered and cleansed the wound as the half-conscious boy cried out. “The calf muscle was severely lacerated,” the doctor later reported, “and the front and side of the boy's lower left leg were cut into ribbons from knee to the ankle.” If there was good news, it was that “the bones were not crushed and the main arteries in the calf of the leg were not cut.” From the perspective of half a century later, in the modern parlance of Australian doctors Davies and Campbell, Dunn had suffered grade-three shark wounds, the most common and most minor arterial, abdominal, or limb damage. In such cases the victim is expected to survive if treated immediately.

Having wrapped the wound with clean bandages, Dr. Cooley instructed a bystander to rush the boy and him to the hospital, assuming he was treating a mortal injury. As the roadster throttled north toward New Brunswick and St. Peter's Hospital, some ten miles away, Dr. Cooley fought the certainty that the boy would soon die, overcome by toxins from a poisoned bite.

In the villages of Matawan and Keyport, whistles ended the day in the plants that had not already emptied and more men with guns as well as curious women and children streamed down through the grasses to the creek to join the mob.

Now the waterway once again was cleared of boats. At Constable Mulsoff's signal, the first gunshots flashed over the creek and the percussion of a dynamite blast sent a geyser of muddy water high over the crowd.

After eight o'clock, when darkness had settled on the creek, word reached the banks that Stanley Fisher was dead. At 5:06 that afternoon, Fisher, fully conscious after more than an hour's wait, had been carried aboard the train bound for Long Beach. Some two and a half hours later, Fisher reached the operating table at Monmoth Memorial, where, still conscious, he told his surgeons he had wrested Stilwell's corpse from the shark's mouth. After five minutes on the operating table, Stanley Fisher died from massive blood loss and hemorrhagic shock.

As news of Fisher's death reached Matawan, feelings of powerlessness and dread swept through the growing crowd, fears that something unknown, something alien and deadly, awaited men in the creek. “Tonight the whole town is stirred by a personal feeling,” The New York Times reported, “a feeling which makes men regard the fish as they might a human being who had taken the lives of a boy and a youth and badly, perhaps mortally, injured another youngster.”

More armed men left their homes and gathered at the creek. With no understanding of the shark, there was no place to put fear except into rage, and the feeling was general now. Crowded along the banks, men lifted rifles and bullets ripped into the water. Onlookers scurried for cover from dynamite blasts as the tranquil creek erupted as if a primal force had been loosed. Small fish eviscerated by the blasts floated on the surface.

Between dynamite blasts, men trolled the dark creek in boats, working in eerie ribbons of lantern light, dredging the creek bottom with oyster hoops, trolling the muck for Stilwell's body. During cease-fires, more than a hundred armed men in boats patrolled up and down the creek, scanning for ripples that signaled the man-eater. Reporters crowded closer to the townsfolk on the banks with their notebooks and visions of a village besieged by a sea monster. Despite the bright light of the waxing moon, there were no sharks in sight, but that hardly mattered as men shot and bombed everything that stirred. “The one purpose in which everybody shares,” the Times reported, “is to get the shark, to kill it, and to see its body drawn up on the shore, where all may look and be assured it will destroy no more.”

The Jersey roads were gravel and the roadster wheezed and shimmied as John Nichols crawled along at a frustrating pace. He had sped through New York at thirty miles an hour but couldn't exceed fifteen in the open Jersey countryside. Soothed by the sight of the widening bay on his left, he rattled along the coast road. In a while it began to rain.

The rain kept down the dust but slowed him further, and by the time he crossed a small bridge and followed the trolley into Keyport, it was six o'clock. Half a mile up was the main part of the village, and as he came up Front Street along the bay and turned onto Broad, the blocks of storefronts were dark.

In the shuddering halo of his headlights, Keyport appeared to be a ghost town, and that did not surprise him. The creature had struck in Matawan a mile and a half upcreek. But to understand what the creature was, John Nichols wanted to see the mouth of the creek where it first came up and where he might catch it leaving. He parked, stepped out of the roadster, and stood in his slicker, looking down from the rising steam of the rainy street toward the bay and the creek head.

The death of Lester Stilwell and mauling of Stanley Fisher twenty-two miles south of New York City had drawn the ichthyologist to the tidal creek the following day. If any man could solve the mystery of their attacks, John Nichols believed it was he, and he had vowed to “be present when the ravager was captured.” Whatever it was coming up the coast, Nichols suspected its extraordinary appearance and behavior represented a possible breakthrough in the relatively new science of ichthyology. He also believed the creature was bound for the bays and beaches of New York City, for thousands of summer bathers, and needed to be stopped.

Nichols had been in his vaporous office, amid shelves of bottled fish, in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History when the telephone call interrupted the steady musings and jottings of a naturalist. According to Nichols's desk diaries, he had turned his sights away from the baffling deaths of Charles Bruder the previous week and Vansant the week before that, hoping as did his mentor, Dr. Frederic Lucas, that the sea had capably resolved the problem.

But the third and fourth attacks in two weeks along the coast had startled Nichols that morning. Under the patina of the scientist was a man who had written “I want to see the wisps of hail/go drifting through the morn/And meet my match mid broken men/that scorn the ocean's scorn.” With long strides he had sought out Frederic Lucas. Dr. Lucas was glad to send his young protégé to Matawan to investigate the matter, for to Dr. Lucas the attacks were evolving from annoyance toward crisis, and the director, nearly seventy, hadn't the stomach for a crisis. Moreover, he was confident there was no finer man or wiser fish scholar for the job than John Nichols. Like Lucas, Nichols was highly skeptical that sharks were man-eaters, convinced the ocean attacks on Vansant and Bruder were not the work of a shark. Now the attacks on Stilwell and Fisher all but confirmed it. Sharks, as far as Nichols knew, did not go up tidal creeks, but his leading suspect was quite happy in a narrow inlet. John Nichols envisioned himself as a detective, and in Matawan Creek he expected to find the fingerprints of Orcinus orca, the killer whale.

Making his way in the darkening port town, as the rain pummeled his slicker and swelled the creek and the bay, the tall scientist met the mayor and town officials, who had taken lead roles in trying to capture what they could conceive only as a giant shark. Lucas insisted that a killer whale was quite possibly the man-eater, while a shark a far less likely candidate. Regardless of what the men thought they saw, Nichols insisted, there was no reliable record of such an unprovoked shark attack on man in history—no less three in one afternoon.

“It is a striking fact that the greatest expert on sharks in this country, Dr. Frederic A. Lucas . . . is also the greatest skeptic about them,” Nichols told the Keyport officials. “He has been trying many years to obtain proof of genuine danger from ordinary sharks. Whether these sharks eat men or not is impossible to say. Personally, I wouldn't like to try it. Still there is no authentic record of such a shark ever having attacked a man except when cornered in a net.”

Yet, as he made his way down to the mouth of Matawan Creek in the rain and authorities introduced him to fishermen in the small port village, the ichthyologist quietly assembled facts that challenged prevailing theory. Surveying the narrow creek at Keyport, Nichols could see plainly that an adult killer whale, thirty feet long and ten thousand pounds, would have trouble navigating the tidal cut, particularly when the tide went out and the creek was a foot deep. Witnesses also put to rest his killer whale theory—not only was the orca much larger, but no one had seen something Nichols expected to find: the characteristic spouting of the whale as it moved. To Nichols's surprise, a number of witnesses described the creature they had seen in the creek in some detail. Unlike the confused and uncertain witnesses at Spring Lake and Beach Haven, all swore it was a shark.

Several old-time fishermen Nichols interviewed insisted the attacker was not only a shark but more than one shark, “saying they never go singly”; but the majority of witnesses “believed there was but one big hungry fellow.” Slowly, Nichols began to close in on the identity of the creature. Joseph Dunn, even after his complete recovery, had been too panicked to describe in any detail the fish that seized his left leg, but Jerry Hollohan, the nineteen-year-old boy who was swimming with Dunn during the attack on the boy, had reported the fish was a big shark that appeared “about ten feet long and weighed probably 250 pounds, maybe more.” George Burlew's memory of the shark that seized Stanley Fisher was a shark “nine or ten feet long” with a huge tail, almost exactly matching Captain Cottrell's report of the fish he'd seen moving upcreek toward town the day before. The men working on a drawbridge across the creek at Keyport had seen a “big dull white body” of a shark gliding upcreek—and the boys in the creek with Lester Stilwell saw a huge black fish that flashed “a shark's white belly, with gleaming teeth.”

The eyewitnesses excited Nichols's scientific curiosity, although he was careful to temper his enthusiasm around men experiencing the trauma of a tragedy. Nichols presumed all the attacks were the work of a single creature. It defied logic that more than one marine animal was suddenly stalking human beings. For the first time, he seriously countenanced the possibility that the man-eater was a shark. As he climbed into his car for the trip upcreek to Matawan, the ichthyologist remained doubtful, however. He counted himself among the “many scientists who have doubted tales of their [sharks'] ferocity toward humans.”

Curving right with the trolley and motoring up along the creek, Nichols thumped across the tracks at Matawan Station and proceeded down Main Street. The rain continued as he reached the old Matawan House Hotel. The three-story wooden building was ablaze with gaslights. Loud and agitated men crowded the long front porch under a painted sign: TREFZ FINE LAGER BEER. Men with guns and drinks in their hands held court with newspapermen and newsreel photographers, and Nichols heard wild talk of sea monsters. Bounty hunters with rifles drifted through the lobby along with fishermen, merchants, and friends and families of the victims. Knowledgeable men insisted the idea that sharks were in the creek “was a myth, pure and simple.” That afternoon a U.S. Weather Bureau report caused an uproar: The man-eater had been captured five miles up the coast. A fisherman in Keansburg had caught an eleven-foot, three-hundred-pound shark with human remains in its stomach, the remains of Fisher and Stilwell. The report turned out to be a hoax.

On the front porch of the hotel, wind and rain stirred a set of empty rocking chairs as men took cover, and Nichols could see the storm building to a fury. Main Street was blanketed by black clouds that extended up the Jersey coast and across to Long Island. A storm was prowling the region with thunder and lightning that would fell trees that evening and set houses afire and strike and kill two horses and three men working on railroad tracks, miles away. Leaning into the wind, John Nichols hunkered through the darkness and the rain and the booming thunder toward the shouts at the creek. The muddy bank trembled with percussions of the thunder and dynamite. Nichols saw illuminated by lightning the shadowy figures of men along the creek with rifles and heard the shouts and the explosions that filled him with woe.

No shark had been spotted, but men continued to kill anything that stirred. Dynamite blasts rent the creek to cries of “Shark!” whereupon bubbles appeared that were mistaken for signs of the shark's presence, leading to more shouts of “Shark!” and more dynamite until “the excitement became intense” and “many believed they saw sharks moving after each blast,” The New York Times reported. Patiently, Nichols moved among them, explaining that dynamite would never find the man-eater, and as for bullets, “a shark's thick, tough skin would hardly take an impression from buckshot and would probably turn the .32-caliber bullets fired off them.” He also warned that the fish being killed in the creek could attract sharks. But men proceeded as if Nichols were a specter.

If John Nichols had hoped for better cooperation for his investigation as he trudged back toward town and a room at Matawan House, he received it later that evening as the creek made him a grisly prophet. Ralph Gall, one of the hunters riding a motorboat downcreek, claimed to have seen not one but four large sharks heading upcreek toward Matawan. Shouting wildly and firing warning shots into the air, Gall motored up-creek to give the alarm, but by the time he reached town, the sharks had vanished with the supple mockery of phantoms. Gall's alarm triggered panic up- and downcreek as everywhere people saw sharks or apparitions of sharks. Three big sharks were reported near the old steamboat docks. Men plunged heavy pig-wire into the water to trap them, and the firing began anew, hitting nothing now but currents and tides.

By five-thirty the next morning, the storm had blown over and the sun warmed the tranquil waters of Matawan Creek. The muddy banks dried and the tide came in clean, as if the rage from men and heavens was spent or had never happened. One by one, the dozens of shark hunters had gone home; William Stilwell had at last retired. Edward Craven was walking like a dead man along the creek, his rifle crooked in tired arms, about to turn in himself to get some sleep when he saw something large moving in the creek. It was right behind the old bag factory, and it must have just surfaced, for other shark hunters had recently passed behind the bag factory on their way home and seen nothing.

Craven gripped his rifle and hurried closer, charged with adrenaline. He was one of the last of the armed men who'd spent the night without having glimpsed one of the monsters, and he must have felt pressure now to be a hero. If it was the shark, Ed Craven wanted to blast it out of the water. But the thing in the creek was rocking listlessly with the lap of the tide. If it was a fish, it was a big one and already dead. If it was the shark, the village's worries were over and he would deliver the good news. Scrambling down the muddy bank to get a closer look at the floating mass, he realized with a lurch in his gut that the thing was a body.

Wary of touching the body himself, Craven ran to get Constable Mulsoff, who called the Monmouth County coroner in Freehold. Shortly thereafter the body was lifted easily onto the dilapidated dock from which Lester Stilwell had dived two days earlier. The small face was badly swollen but smooth and clearly belonged to Stillwell. The face was unmarked, but the rest of the boy was scarcely recognizable. The left side of the abdomen, the left shoulder, and the right breast had been eaten away. The left ankle had been chewed off. The flesh between the hip and the thigh had been mangled, and the stomach had been ripped open as if by giant claws. Authorities decided to bring the remains of the boy to Arrowsmith's Undertaking in Matawan. But first they carried Lester Stilwell to his home on Church Street to confirm his identity. Bill Stilwell must have been sleeping after his long nights at the creek, for his wife, Luella Stilwell, answered the door, and when she saw what the men had brought her, she screamed and collapsed. “The body had been horribly chewed by the sea wolf,” the Asbury Park Evening Press reported. “When it was taken to the Stilwell home, the lad's mother swooned. She was revived only to relapse into unconsciousness.”

As soon as Lester Stilwell's body reached Arrowsmith's that morning, the undertaker, alarmed by the “terrible” condition of the body, rushed to prepare the boy for burial, which took place that afternoon after a small service in the Stilwell home.

That same afternoon, most of the village gathered at Rose Hill Cemetery to pay their respects to W. Stanley Fisher. Standing by the open grave, the Reverend Chamberlain eulogized the tailor as a hero who had “immortalized himself.” According to the Shore Press, “Scarcely an eye was undimmed by tears. The whole town was in mourning, for young Fisher was known and liked by nearly every man, woman and child in Matawan.”

Numbed by grief, the shark hunters would return to the creek with their boats and guns and hooks that day and the next, trolling for the man-eater, but on the third day a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Extra-large charges were set to push white geysers dramatically high above the creek for the benefit of the newsreels. It was a fine, clear day for pictures, and with newspaper photographers lining the banks, the young shark hunters, cigarettes drooping from their lips, focused angry gazes at the camera lens instead of at the water. Women in day dresses posed grinning for photographers, while angling rifles toward their own toes instead of the creek. “It is to be hoped that she did not discharge this shotgun while holding it in this position,” read one photo caption. The earnest shark hunters seemed a ragged and quixotic bunch to the crowds from miles around that now appeared on the banks, for the shark and the suffering of the small town had become a novelty. “Society turned to shark hunting as the latest wrinkle in summer pastimes,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Almost 100 automobiles were packed along the bank of the creek today, and fashionably dressed women and girls from Jersey coast resorts tripped down to the water's edge to watch the shark hunters at work.”

That afternoon, as Stilwell and Fisher were eulogized, a newspaperman from New York City rode a motorboat down-creek to the mouth at Raritan Bay and inspected the steel nets erected to contain the shark. Shortly afterward, he reported that Matawan had lost its battle with the sea monster. A large hole had been chewed in the steel nets, and the chunks of meat set as bait were gone.

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