Modern history

A Splendid Type of Young Manhood

In the languid middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Asher Wooley was busy under the striped canopy of his new hardware store at 116 Main Street, setting out watering cans, packs of seed, and flyswatters to tempt passersby. A few doors down, the white-smocked butchers of the new Bell Beef Company were visible behind the big plate-glass window at number 120. Down the block under the shaded awning of Cartan's Department Store, women were picking through the bushels of fruit and vegetables stacked in front, while inside the store—long and dimly lit by hanging lamps—half a dozen Cartans and associates pulled items from open shelves packed with bolts of fabric and shoes, teapots and enamel washbasins.

Abruptly, with a panic that would be remembered for years, Charlie Van Brunt, Johnson Cartan, Frank Clowes, Albert O'Hara, and Anthony Bublin came running down Main Street, naked and smeared with mud and grass and shouting wildly about a shark and Lester Stillwell. At “no time in recent years has there been so much continued excitement hereabouts as on Wednesday,” the Keyport Weekly would report, noting that the hysterical boys had neglected to dress themselves before running into town.

The children hollered, “Shark! A shark got Lester!” to anyone who would listen. A crowd surrounded the boys, trying to calm them. Constable Mulsoff, hurrying to the commotion from the barbershop, had a crisis on his hands. Panic was quickly spreading. A crowd set off to look for a boat “to find the man-eater.” Other friends of the Stilwells who had been nearby were already running frantically along the creek, shouting, “Lester! Lester!” Mulsoff thought it eerie that young Stilwell had disappeared shortly after Captain Cottrell's crazed warning of a shark, but the constable was a sturdy and rational man and the boys' claims were scarcely more believable. He was eager to restore a sense of order.

Moving quickly, the constable rounded up a group of men and marched them toward the creek to rescue the boy, or, more likely, to recover his drowned body. Poor Lester Stilwell must have suffered one of his epileptic fits, the constable feared, perhaps worsened by a sudden cramp, and gone under. The rescuers included men from the Cartan and Van Brunt families, relieved their sons were safe, and Bill Stilwell. Hurrying from the basket factory with Russell, his oldest boy, Bill found his wife, Luella, who he feared was near to collapsing with grief. But Luella proceeded with her husband to the creek, trailing young Mary, Anna, and Jennie, Lester's sisters.

Upset that no one believed their story of a shark, some of the boys continued on down Main to the door of the Royal Tailors, where Stanley Fisher was sewing a custom suit. Some town residents “thought the boys were playing a prank until finally they appealed to Stanley Fisher,” the New York Herald reported. “They knew he was a powerful swimmer . . . and a friend of all the boys in town.” With evident pride, the Keyport Weekly reported that Fisher was “a splendid type of young manhood with a host of friends.”

Schooled by his sea-captain father in everything there was to know about the water, and comfortable—by virtue of his family's prominence, his size, and his athletic ability—with leadership, Fisher decided to assume command of the crisis. Putting his sewing off for later, promptly told his assistant to take the day off and closed the shop. But not before he slipped into the back room and put on a bathing costume.

Out on Main Street, the big tailor ran into his childhood friend, George Burlew. Burlew, twenty-three, was a driver in town who listed his occupation as a “schofer,” but already showed yearnings for the sea. He got work when he could as a commercial fisherman. His dream was to be a big-game fisherman, taking out charters in his own vessel, and the idea of a shark excited him, although he, too, assumed it couldn't be true. When Stanley Fisher told him to put on a bathing costume, he felt a surge of adrenaline. Along with the possibility of seeing a shark, Burlew was anxious to make sure that young Charlie Van Brunt, his neighbor on Main Street, was okay.

A huge crowd of townspeople was already gathered along the dock and banks of Matawan Creek. Among shouts of “Lester,” men in rowboats soberly patrolled the banks, poling the murky water. Bill and Luella Stilwell and their son and daughters stared in shock at the spot where Lester had vanished. The arrival of Stanley Fisher sent a wave of anticipation through the crowd. The tailor was said to be the strongest man in town.

Fisher quickly took command. He and Burlew climbed into a rowboat and strung chicken wire weighted with stones in the shallower water downcreek, stretching a barrier twenty feet from bank to bank, “so the tide wouldn't take the body out,” Burlew recalled. Fisher and Burlew joined the other boats poling for the body, but after an hour of working the creek with no success, people on the banks were stirring restlessly and Fisher and Burlew suddenly dove overboard.

Shouts and warnings to watch out for a shark sounded from the banks, but the men ignored them and swam to the middle of the creek, where they began to make dives to the deep center channel where the poling couldn't reach and where Fisher believed Stilwell's body had sunk.

The men plunged toward the creek bottom, disappearing for several moments then surfacing, gasping for air. The creek was so murky, Fisher and Burlew said they couldn't see anything, and the bottom of the channel was too deep to reach. After almost half an hour of exhausting dives, they surfaced and stroked to the opposite bank, where they paused to discuss what to do next. They concluded there was nothing more they or their fellow townsfolk could do except perhaps wait for low tide to find Lester Stilwell's body. Fisher and Burlew swam slowly back toward the bank, where the crowd had assembled.

In the center of the creek, Fisher abruptly decided to make one more dive for the bottom, and, upending his big body, plunged under the surface. But again he came up empty-handed. Ignoring pleas to call off the search, Fisher plunged once more toward the bottom. George Burlew was nearing the dock when he heard his friend break the surface and cry, “I've got it!” Shouts and cheers ringed the shore. Fisher had found Lester Stilwell!

Riding the enthusiasm of the crowd, two men rowed out quickly toward the center of the creek to help Fisher bring up the body. George Burlew swam out to help his friend, but the sensation of the water churning furiously caused him to stop. What he saw in the center of the creek would stay with him the rest of his life.

Stanley Fisher now called, “He's got me!” Screaming and fighting for his life, Fisher was caught in the jaws of a shark. Years later, when George Burlew became a world-renowned big-game fisherman, setting a world record for a marlin catch, he was better able to evaluate what he witnessed. “I never saw the entire fish,” he recalled, “but from the tremendous upheaval of the huge tail that thrashed above the water it had to be a big one.” Unknown to observers then, however, the “tremendous upheaval” and the suddenness and ferocity of the attack were a signature of a great white shark.

Burlew was astonished at Fisher's courage. “Stanley was a big man, and he fought back at the shark, striking it with his fists,” Burlew recalled. “He was fighting desperately to break away, striking and kicking at it with all his might. Three or four times during the struggle the shark pulled him under, but each time he managed to get back to the surface. He seemed to be holding his own, but at best it was an uneven battle. The shark was at home in the water—and Stanley wasn't.”

Fisher finally managed to get his head once again above water, but suddenly “he was jerked under again and the men in the boat saw the dirty white belly of the shark as he turned and went down. Then the water became crimson in a constantly widening area, and when Fisher came up he was so exhausted he could hardly call out.”

Men and women stood frozen in awe and fear on the banks, and George Burlew, too, found himself unable to move to help his friend. Instead, he turned and swam frantically for the dock. He said later it wasn't an action he regretted, for terror, he explained, robbed him of conscious choice. “I don't know how I ever got to the shore, but I remember the awful fear that the shark was right behind me and had slated me for his next victim.”

Battling the big fish alone, Fisher, incredibly, had fought himself free of the shark. With astonishing purpose, he swam toward the bank. The shocked crowd saw that Fisher had one arm around Lester Stilwell, or what remained of the boy. Three of Fisher's friends tried to rescue him, but their motorboat stalled in the creek and the men frantically paddled with their hands to reach Fisher. Other boatmen managed to row close to try to provide cover for him, slapping the water with oars to keep away the shark.

Fisher had nearly reached the bank of the creek, when witnesses heard him utter a terrible cry and saw him throw his arms in the air. Stilwell's body fell into the creek, and with another desperate shout Fisher was dragged in after it, disappearing completely underwater.

“The shark! The shark!” people screamed. The boatmen again raced to assist, but Fisher, with remarkable fortitude, struggled once again toward the bank. Stilwell's body had disappeared; the shark had apparently fled with it. Fisher was able to keep his head above water now, but as the rescuers reached him, the men in the boat saw that most of the flesh between the hip and the knee of the right leg had been taken off. Having risked his life in a heroic rescue attempt and fought off the monster, Stanley Fisher deserved cheers and welcoming arms as he climbed out of the water.

Instead, anguished cries and screams rent the afternoon air. “There was a crowd of 200 or 300 people present at the time,” the Matawan Journal reported, “and the sight of Mr. Fisher being brought ashore was sickening, to state it mildly.”

Not until Stanley Fisher attempted to climb up the bank of the creek did he realize what had happened. He lifted his leg to examine it, said, “Oh, my God,” and dropped back into the water again. “Just about half of the thigh was missing,” Burlew recalled, “That single bite from the knee to the hip was made by a huge pair of jaws. Several women fainted, and I just missed fainting myself.” Amid the gagging of his fellow townspeople, several men laid Fisher down on the bank in a rapidly spreading pool of his own blood. A rope was wrapped around the hideously damaged leg near the hip, forming a tourniquet, and calls for a doctor resounded down Main Street.

As blood gushed from his tattered limb, Stanley Fisher began to groan with the increasing pain, but still he tried urgently to tell George Burlew something. Men and women ran from the docks up to town and along Main Street to Doc Jackson's big Victorian house at number 209, where he saw patients, but the doctor was out of town. Dr. George L. Reynolds, who owned the most notable house in town, the mansion at 94 Main, was also not at home. Next on the list was Dr. Straughn. But Dr. Straughn had left the day before for a physicians' meeting in Atlantic Highlands. With the makeshift tourniquet on his leg, Fisher lay by the creek for half an hour, until Dr. Reynolds was finally located and brought to the scene.

Reynolds had never seen such an injury. A wide, open wound, it stretched eighteen inches from below Fisher's hip to just above his knee. At the edges of what appeared to be a huge bite or a series of bites, the flesh was ragged, as if fistfuls of flesh had been extracted, Reynolds observed, by a set of “dull knives.” The femur, while scratched, was not penetrated. But the femoral artery, bleeding profusely, was completely severed. Despite the severity of the wounds, Stanley Fisher was still conscious, and as Dr. Reynolds worked to bind the huge bite, Fisher described how he had seen the shark feeding on Lester Stilwell's body and how, when he tried to recover the boy's body, the shark had released it and attacked him.

The wound bound as well as possible, Dr. Reynolds ordered men to build a stretcher. Working quickly, they cobbled together wooden planks, and a group of them strained to lift the 210-pound Fisher and bear him up the hill and across to the center of town to the Matawan train station. The nearest hospital was Monmouth Memorial, ten miles east in Long Branch, and apparently the doctor didn't believe Fisher would survive the trip in an automobile. The men set Fisher's stretcher down on the train platform, and the doctor asked for a volunteer to make the trip with Fisher. The next train to Long Branch left Matawan at 5:06 P.M., and would arrive at 7:45 P.M.

Fisher had suffered what the shark attack injury specialists, Doctors Davies and Campbell, would in the 1960s describe as a grade-two shark attack—dire injuries that could be survived with prompt emergency medical treatment. That afternoon in 1916, however, the medical treatment Stanley Fisher required was two hours and thirty-nine minutes away. Dr. Reynolds surely recognized that Fisher's injuries were mortal. Like other doctors of the era, he feared the bite of the shark was poisonous. With the doctor beside him, and what must have seemed an eternity of pain stretching before him, Stanley Fisher lay on his makeshift stretcher, fighting to retain consciousness as he waited for the train.

Farther downcreek toward the bay, the vast and clear horizon over the sedge marshes was streaked by billowing tendrils of dark smoke. The smoke rose in columns and drifted lazily over the creek toward the bay from a compound of smokestacks and kilns, brickworks and tileworks that smoldered like ruins on the marsh in the afternoon air. The largest chimneys rose up around the factories and warehouses of the New Jersey Brick Company, a leading American producer of bricks. The creek bottom and the lands along the creek were veined with rich clay deposits, and so in those days Matawan produced the stoneware containers needed for a growing country: jugs, jars, churns, crocks, spittoons. Matawan boys learned counting and numbers with various sizes and colors of tile, skimmed tiles along the creek and ponds, and played hide-and-seek amid pallets of tile and brick. Yet another virtue of the brickyards was a dock that feathered out over the creek, and late on the afternoon of July 12, Joseph Dunn, twelve years old, his brother Michael, fourteen, and their friend Jerry Hourihan cut a trail through the brickyards to the dock over the creek.

Joseph and Michael Dunn, the sons of John Dunn of East 128th Street in New York City, were spending the summer with their mother at Cliffwood, a quarter of a mile below Matawan. Not only did Cliffwood represent an exciting summer at the shore, the creek itself tantalized boys with the legends of pirates and buried treasure. It was said Captain Kidd sailed on Raritan Bay and Blackbeard had come up the creek and attacked farmers and villagers.

That Wednesday afternoon, however, the boys were simply looking to cool off with a swim during the late hot part of the day, and Joseph Dunn, the youngest, raced to get in the water first. Neither Joseph Dunn nor his brother or friend knew that Lester Stilwell and Stanley Fisher had been attacked half an hour earlier, three quarters of a mile away. Had Joseph looked upcreek, he might have seen a large fin trailing toward the brick docks; “the shark, after feasting on the Stilwell boy and . . . Fisher's flesh, was on his way out to sea again and still was hungry,” the New York Heraldwrote. “Apparently the shark had finished his disturbed meal in the channel at Matawan and, knowing, as such creatures do know, in some mysterious manner that the tide was running out, had started back for the deeper water of the bay.”

A quarter mile away, the small engine of the Skud beat the turgid water to a froth as Captain Cottrell motored along bends in the creek, shouting his warnings to people on the banks and to any swimmers he could find. But the creek was wild and deserted for long stretches; the work was slow, and the captain felt he was racing the shark. After the attack on Lester Stilwell, a small armada had joined Cottrell. At the mouth of the creek in Keyport, a mile and a half from Matawan, A. A. Van Burskisk, borough recorder of Keyport, and William O'Brien had gone up the creek in a motorboat armed with pistols and a rifle, prepared to save swimmers and “ready to shoot any shark showing himself.” By the time Stanley Fisher was attacked, half a dozen motor craft were out on Matawan Creek, searching for the shark and spreading the warning.

“It would seem that few could miss such a warning,” the New York Herald later reported. But Joseph Dunn and his companions were among the few. Dunn looked into the brown surface of the water and saw nothing but his own reflection. And so, at about four o'clock that afternoon, he jumped.

Dunn swam toward the middle of the creek. His brother Michael was in next, and he, too, was swimming, and then Jerry Hollohan joined them. Moments later, the warning finally reached the boys at the brickyard docks. A man ran to the creek, warning of a shark, and the boys swam quickly back toward the docks. Hollohan and Michael Dunn climbed the ladder out of the water and Joseph was swimming toward the ladder as fast as he could, when something enormous and hard and “very rough” struck him and scratched his skin, resulting in a painful cut.

“I was about ten feet from shore and looked down and saw something dark . . . I did not see him the first time he hit me . . . then he turned and came back and got my leg.” The enormous jaws of the shark closed on Dunn's leg and began to pull him away toward deeper water. The shark was struggling in the shallow water to turn its great body around and flee with its prey. “Suddenly I felt a tug, like a big pair of scissors pulling at my leg and bringing me under . . . the teeth of the shark evidently clamped down on my leg quickly and I thought it was off. I felt as if my leg had gone.” In fact, the shark's serrated teeth were grating and shredding Dunn's leg as it tried to pull the boy into deeper water, where it could attack and feed without distraction. Incredibly, Dunn felt very little pain. The screams came instead from a terrifying thought: “It seemed the fish was [trying] . . . to get my whole leg inside his mouth . . . I thought he would kill me . . . I thought it was going to swallow me.”

A shark attack on a human being, like the crash of a modern airliner, evolves from an unlikely sequence of rare events, and rescue attempts, too, are governed by chains of extraordinary occurrence. So it was that Matawan lawyer and developer Jacob Lefferts, at thirty-four one of the most prominent men in town, was motoring downcreek in his boat, issuing shark warnings, when he witnessed the Dunn attack. And not far behind him, in the Skud, came Captain Cottrell.

Lefferts, fully clothed, dove into the creek toward the attacking shark, while at the same time Michael Dunn swam to his brother's aid. Man and boy grabbed Joseph Dunn and attempted to wrestle him from the mouth of the shark. The shark clamped its huge teeth, but somehow Joseph and his rescuers made it as far as the dock ladder. “As he drew himself up on the brick company's pier, with only his left leg trailing in the water, the shark struck at that,” The New York Times reported. “Its teeth shut over the leg above and below the knee and much of the flesh was torn away.”

At last the shark let go of Dunn, and his companions dragged him, yelling, up onto the pier. The boy's wounds appeared ghastly. After making hasty attempts to stop the bleeding with makeshift bandages, Lefferts, Captain Cottrell, and Michael Dunn lowered the stricken boy into Cottrell's motorboat.

As the Skud led the rescue party upcreek, Captain Cottrell noticed how far the tide had gone out. It was only the shallowness of the creek at the brickyard docks, he thought, that had prevented the shark from swiftly making off with Joseph Dunn in its jaws. It had been pure luck that he had reached the boy in time. In the old days, when the big boats went all the way up to Matawan, before the creek silted in, the shark would have had a deep and clear path to the bay. Racing back along the S curves of the creek, looking down at the tattered and bloodied limb of the small boy in his boat, Thomas Cottrell wondered if luck would matter.

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