The Origin of Jaws: 1916 Shark Attacks off Jersey Shore

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Image: Library of Congress

With perfect timing for Shark Week, Smithosnian Mag has dug up a 1916 newspaper article highlighting the five shark attacks near the Jersey Shore that allegedly inspired the 1975 thriller Jaws:

The shark’s ferocious spree is said to have served as inspiration for Jaws—both Peter Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film. Ichthyologist George Burgess calls it the “most unique set of shark attacks that ever have occurred.”

Burgess curates the International Shark Attack File, which has logged more than 5,000 attacks since the 16th century. The file includes victim and witness interviews, medical records and photographs of wounds to narrow in on the species and size of attacking sharks.

“These days, there is more of a level view of sharks,” Burgess said. “Back then, this was brand-new and terror-driven. In 1916, the rallying cry was “Let’s go kill some sharks!”

It is also worth noting that a great white captured off the coast of Long Island is also said to have inspire the Peter Benchley novel, which Steven Spielberg’s film was based on.

When the attacks first happened the summer of 1916, people weren’t sure about the source. Some thought sea turtles and killer whales. Newspapers referred to the creature as a sea monster and sea wolf. “The theories abounded and were allowed to get out unchecked into the media simply because there was not a forceful scientific authority that really knew what was going on to step right in and try to level the conversation,” Burgess added.

To find out more, read the fascinating Q-and-A with Burgess in Smithsonian.

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