July marks the 100th anniversary of the Jersey Shore attacks that inspired a worldwide fear of sharks

The head of the man-eating monster, showing its massive jaws and teeth. Some idea of the size of the shark’s head can be formed by a comparison of the heads of the men who are standing nearby.

Every day, wherever the ocean meets the sand and the sun's just right, there's someone dipping gingerly into the waves, scared of what swims below.

The fear of sharks was born in the unlikeliest place - New Jersey, and the trail of terror began at dusk on July 1, 1916.

"It had been thought at that time that sharks did not bite people," said Marie Levine, president of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton. "Everything changed in 1916."

The New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 remain the most infamous and unique in history - five attacks, 70 miles apart, in less than two weeks. Four people died.

That summer was an inspiration for Peter Benchley's novel Jaws and the subsequent Steven Spielberg blockbuster that took the fears to new levels.

"It happened before. The Jersey beach ... 1916 ... there were five people chewed up in the surf," Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody says in the 1975 film.

The New Jersey attacks were attributed to the great white shark, but the notion that a lone fish was to blame, like in Jaws, is still debated.

"I can count on one hand the instances where a single shark was a multiple attacker," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. "It was obviously a unique situation. It affected the heart and soul of the United States of its day. It had a massive ripple effect."

Michael Capuzzo, in his book Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence, offered the most detailed retelling of the events that came to shock the world.

The first victim was Philadelphian Charles Vansant, a University of Pennsylvania student, who ventured into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the stately Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, Ocean County, on July 1.

Vansant, 23, was playing with a dog in the surf when a shark tore into his upper left thigh and severed his femoral artery. Vansant bled to death, his physician-father helpless to save him.

"I think in this day and age, they probably could have saved him," said Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis.

Davis' family has lived in Beach Haven for over 100 years, she said, and her father's cousin Francis Christie was working at the Engleside when the attack occurred.

"He told my father he remembered going into the water and helping to pull Vansant out," Taggart Davis said.

One fatal attack in New Jersey or anywhere else in the United States would have made national news at the time. As Capuzzo, a former Inquirer reporter, wrote, interactions with sharks were rarities reserved for fishermen and sea captains, and most Americans had only seen a great white shark in books and newspapers.

Beaches weren't nearly as crowded then, and even though shark attacks have risen every decade since 1900, the last fatal attack in New Jersey was in 1926.

Capuzzo details the story of Herman Oelrichs, a wealthy shipping mogul and athlete, who insisted that man-eating sharks were the stuff of legend, like the Kraken, and called sharks downright cowardly.

In 1891, Oelrichs put an offer in the New York Sun, a reward of $500 for proof that a shark had ever attacked anyone on the East Coast north of Cape Hatteras.

Vansant's death in 1916, however, was just the first of the summer. On July 6, approximately 54 miles north of Beach Haven in Spring Lake, Monmouth County, Charles Bruder, a hotel bellman, was killed while swimming 100 yards from shore.

Bruder, 27, a former soldier in the Swiss army, had both his feet severed and died in a lifeboat before reaching shore.

The next attacks were the most bizarre, happening some 10 miles inland from the Atlantic in the Matawan Creek, a small tidal inlet of Raritan Bay.

Lester Stillwell was 11 and taking a dip in the creek with friends when he was attacked. Stanley Fisher, a 24-year-old from Matawan, went to find the boy and was mauled as onlookers watched from the creek's banks.

The only survivor of the summer's attacks was Joseph Dunn, 14, of New York City, who spent months in the hospital and, according to one website dedicated to "finding" him, never spoke publicly of his horror.

Some experts have questioned whether the culprit could have been a bull shark. The bull is smaller than the great white but is equally dangerous, prefers murky waters, and is even known to visit freshwater rivers.

Levine said there's no way to tell 100 years later without exhuming bodies, though she believes the coastal attacks were definitely the work of one or more great whites.

Burgess believes a juvenile great white shark was to blame.

"As a younger ichthyologist, my first guess would have been a bull shark in the creek," he said. "To the uninitiated, creek has a very specific connotation, like a little freshwater trickle. I've been to Matawan Creek. At the time, it was deep enough to support tugboats."

On July 14, 1916, an eight-foot juvenile great white shark was caught in Raritan Bay, allegedly with human remains still in its stomach. The following day, its gaping maw appeared on the front page of the Inquirer.

"Hysteria spread, afflicting the lowly and the mighty, as a single shark prevented people from entering the water along more than a thousand miles of the East Coast, from New England to Florida," Capuzzo wrote of the attacks' aftermath.

Al Savolaine, a Matawan historian and longtime resident, has written a book about Fisher, whom he called a hero in the ordeal. "We are remembering the heroism. That's the thing we are proud of," Savolaine said.

Starting Saturday, Matawan is hosting a nine-day "commemoration" of the attacks with trolley tours, scavenger hunts, films and a monument dedication. On Wednesday, Buckalew's Restaurant in Beach Haven is hosting the Shark Awareness Wine Dinner with guest speaker Richard Fernicola, author of another book on the attacks, 12 Days of Terror.

Matawan Creek has since been dammed and looks like a sprawling marsh, a spot where teens would catch catfish - not man-eaters. "This was it, this is where it happened," Savolaine said recently. "There used to be an abandoned dock here and the kids used to swim here."

Experts like Levine and Burgess say there's no way to walk the world back from its fears, despite statistics that show cows and lightning are deadlier. Sharks are in peril, too, and humans are to blame. Yet the image of that dorsal fin, a gray blade slicing through the surf, remains universally frightful.

Even educational programs like the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" still peddle the sort of fear that surfaced in 1916 right in our backyard.

Sharks are always there, cruising beneath fishing boats and gliding like ghosts between bathers. Great whites the size of cars visit New Jersey today.

"When you are underwater with them, they move with such grace and majesty - they are living sculptures," Levine said. "They are not cuddly, but we shouldn't fear them and we certainly shouldn't kill them."