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Heroes and victims remembered during 100th anniversary of shark attacks in Matawan

Staff Writer

MATAWAN – On July 12, 1916, the Borough of Matawan was changed forever when an 11-year-old boy and a popular 24-year-old businessman lost their lives in shark attacks at Matawan Creek.

The attacks were two of five that occurred along the Jersey Shore between July 1 and July 12 during that year that claimed the lives of four individuals, while severely injuring another.

As it nears the 100th anniversary of the attacks, the Matawan Historical Society has scheduled a series of events and activities to reflect on the significance of the day, how it changed lives forever and to remember the heroics of those who lost their lives.

The Matawan Shark Attacks of 1916 Centennial Commemoration will take place from July 9 to July 17.

“The one thing people always wonder about is why this is so significant, why people remember this a hundred years later … and it is so amazing,” Matawan Town Historian John Allan Savolaine said. “How could something so isolated in a small New Jersey town be of interest to people around the world and there is a carryover to what is happening today.

“If you read about sharks and shark behavior, typically there are only a dozen, maybe even half-a-dozen, shark attacks around the world in one year and … what happened back in 1916 within a period of 12 days … was truly unusual, even by today’s standards, and that is one reason scientists are interested in what happened back then.”

The first attack occurred on July 1 in Beach Haven when 25-year-old Charles Vansant bled to death after being attacked while on swimming in the Atlantic Ocean during a vacation. The second attack happened a few days later on July 6 in Spring Lake when a shark bit and severed 27-year-old Charles Bruder’s legs.

It was July 12, 1916, when things got closer to home.

Thomas Cottrell, a sea captain and Matawan resident, allegedly spotted an 8-foot long shark in Matawan Creek, but was dismissed when trying to warn officials.

Around 2 p.m. local children, including 11-year old Lester Stillwell, who suffered from epilepsy, were playing in the creek around an area called Wyckoff Dock. Before he could get to safety, Stillwell was pulled underwater by the shark.

The other children ran to get help, and one man who went to save Stillwell, was 24-year-old businessman named Watson Stanley Fisher.

“The men who were going in to try to recover Lester Stillwell’s body … these men knew that Lester was dead and they knew that a shark was still in the vicinity, but it was very important to recover the body for the family,” Savolaine said.

“Stanley Fisher was a popular person. He had everything in the world going for him and he risked his life and eventually died as a result of it for a young boy.

“What these people were doing was a very brave thing … these were all everyday people and they were really extending themselves to recover Stillwell’s body and also later on to help save someone’s life because there were really three shark attacks that day.”

Not long after the attacks on Stillwell and Fisher, 14-year-old Joseph Dunn was attacked approximately a half-mile away while visiting family. He ultimately survived after being rescued and rushed to St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick.

“Stanley was one of the most popular people in town,” Savolaine said. “He did everything he could to help young people and he especially looked out for this young boy Lester Stillwell, who was one of the poorest boys in town.

“So you had one of the most popular men in town actually losing his life trying to recover the body of the poorest … this is real life you couldn’t come up with a fictional script that tops this.

“That is what makes this interesting to people today. It is unbelievable that someone would do this.”

According to Savolaine, the author of “Stanley Fisher: Shark Attack Hero of a Bygone Age,” to understand all that occurred July 12, 1916, it is important to understand the time-period these individuals lived in.

“Like anything else, it was very traumatic,” he said. “There were only about 1,500 people back in Matawan in those days. it was a very small town and everybody knew everybody.”

Savolaine said no matter rich or poor, most residents got along, went to the same places and lived among each other in harmony.

“This was very much a bygone age,” he said. “It was very different and what happened in Matawan kind of fit in to this whole setting and scenario of that time period.

“Fisher’s last words were ‘I got Lester away from the shark, I did my duty,’ because he was actually carrying him up under his arm when the shark attacked him. He was a typical Victorian man and he wanted to help someone who was weaker, someone who needed his help. His last words were concern for Lester Stillwell and that he did what he should do as a man.”

Savolaine said the Centennial Commemoration isn’t about sensationalism, it is about honoring the names and legacies of Stillwell and Fisher and the heroism and sacrifice that makes the event a topic of many books, documentaries and the inspiration for some blockbuster films.

“This had a horrendous impact on this little town,” Savolaine said. “My book is about Stanley Fisher and this little town and how this impacted the town and I do talk about the shark attack, but in my book. the people are the main characters and actually the town is the main character, and the incident/the shark is a side character and that is kind of opposite of what has been done in the past.

“I wanted my book to be something … that hasn’t been done before [and] bring the human side to it … because it shouldn’t be forgotten.

“We are honoring [them] and in a sense it has taken us 100 years to do this in the right way.”

Part of the Centennial Celebration include an antique car show, a 1916 Ice Cream Social, a presentation and book signing by Savolaine, Matawan Creek Kayak Tours, Trolley Tours highlighting at least 21 locations relevant to the Matawan 1916 shark attacks, a Shark Scavenger Hunt and more.

“It is really falling into place now and is turning out to be quite a commemoration, a memory of this event and the people,” Savolaine said.

One event includes a Hero Walk, which will retrace Stanley Fisher’s route to the Matawan Creek, starting at Little and Broad Streets.

“We’re going to try to make it as interesting as possible,” Savolaine said.

“On the actually day of the 100th anniversary, we are going to do a memorial service and wreath laying at the grave sites of Stillwell and Fisher at Rose Hill Cemetery, and it’ll happen just at the time of the shark attacks.

“I’m sure the spirits of Lester and Stanley will be watching and they’ll be smiling that all these people are coming to pay them respect and recognize their lives.”

The Matawan Historical Society will also hold a monument dedication honoring the victims of the 1916 shark attacks.

“It is a granite monument, 6-feet by 5-feet and we’re going to have on the monument engravings of Stillwell’s picture and Fisher’s picture and also the scene where this happened, Matawan Creek,” Savolaine said. “I was very careful on this wording that we avoid all the sensationalism and the monument is really three segments; one is the attack, the second is the victims involved in this and the third is the legacy of what has happened as a result of that throughout the years.

“On the top of the monument is … ‘Greater love [hath] no one than this: [than a man] lay down [his] life for [his] friends’ from the Book of John … Stanley Fisher literally gave his life for his friend.

“This is not just a Monmouth County thing or a Jersey Shore thing or a New Jersey thing. This particular event is literally worldwide and it is worth remembering.

“This was a work of love for me and the only thing I am trying to do is spread the word so that people will learn about this … while also preserving history of this area.”

For more details and a complete list of events, visit www.matawanhistoricalsociety.com.

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