100 Years Later, Matawan Remembers Shark Attacks

In July 1916, the nation was enthralled by a series of shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. This month, Matawan commemorates this anniversary.

Residents search Matawan Creek soon after the deadly shark attacks of July 1916.
Residents search Matawan Creek soon after the deadly shark attacks of July 1916.
Photo courtesy of Asbury Park Press.

One hundred years ago, it was not unusual on hot summer days to see young boys skinny dipping in Matawan Creek, a few miles inland of Raritan Bay. But on July 12, 1916, something horrible and unforgettable occurred in the narrow inlet.

An 11-year-old boy named Lester Stillwell was floating on his back in the crick, as locals called it, when he began to scream. A shark had pulled Stillwell under. As the creek filled with the boy’s blood, his friends swam for their lives. A local shopkeeper, 24-year-old Stanley Fisher, ran to the scene and repeatedly dove into the murky waters in an attempt to free Stillwell from the shark’s grasp. Instead, Fisher became the killer’s next victim.

Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Photo courtesy of Photofest.

The shark was never positively identified; many believe it was a great white—and probably the same creature that killed two swimmers off Beach Haven and Spring Lake in separate attacks earlier that month. The shark was not done; one hour after the Matawan killings, it headed back out the inlet and attacked 12-year-old Joseph Dunn, who lost a leg but escaped with his life.

Almost 60 years later, the attacks were one of the inspirations for Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, Jaws, and the blockbuster movie that followed. Stillwell and Fisher also left their legacy—at least in Matawan.

The Episcopal Church on Main Street, where Fisher sang in the choir, dedicated a stained-glass window in his honor. Flags and flowers are placed on his grave each year by relatives and local groups. “Lester is remembered, too,” says local historian Al Savolaine, author of the new book, Stanley Fisher: Shark Attack Hero of a Bygone Age. People come from all over to leave small items like baseballs and toys at the little boy’s gravesite, located not far from Fisher’s in Rose Hill Cemetery.

From July 9 through 17, the Matawan Historical Society will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the shark attacks with a series of events, including trolley and self-guided tours; a memorial service; a monument dedication; an ice-cream social; marine-life presentations; and shark-inspired movies.

For information, visit this website.

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