The trouble with the Jersey Devil
Posted on Tuesday, 20 October, 2015 | 0 comments
Columnist: Matt Forde
I’m fascinated by the Pine Barrens and have been since that X-Files episode in the early 1990s. This huge expanse of US forest smothers a large chunk of southern New Jersey and, within it, all manner of unnerving stories reside. Even the very name of the area conjures up feelings of terror: endless trees amid which to become lost, enclosed isolation, a land still not fully tamed by human hands.
Of course, the main legend associated with this area is that of the Jersey Devil. Over the quarter-millennium that it has been reported, more than two thousand people have supposedly seen it. It has intimidated communities; caused havoc; and even snatched livestock, large dogs and children (according to some sources). It’s been blamed for all sorts of things: from crop failure to river pollution. It’s even been hailed as a harbinger of war. It has done that rare thing amongst paranormal protagonists: killed.
People have speculated for years about whether the Devil is a cryptid, a supernatural creature or a hoax. Despite a raft of sightings, we don’t seem to be any closer to a thoroughly definitive answer and, frankly, this defiance of nomenclature comes as no surprise as almost everything about it, from its origin to its description, varies from report to report. There are those that say the Devil is simply a story: a legend passed down by orators and writers, distorted and twisted by enthusiasm. Others ask how it can be a work of fiction when it has “terrorised towns and caused factories and schools to close down”.
But, as we’ll explore, not all sources are to be trusted.
Out of Many Origins, One Monster
The main story of origin states that the Jersey Devil was born to a woman named Leeds (who might have been a witch of some sort). This was in 1735 and, of course, on a good old dark and stormy night. It was probably her thirteenth child and the father was either Satan himself or a normal chap named Japhet (or Daniel) Leeds—the sources I’ve read can’t quite agree. After the birth, the child was found to be deformed with hooves where its feet should be, bat-like wings sprouting from its back and a goat’s head topping off this unholy ensemble—it even had a forked tail. What happened next is also up for interpretation. Some say that as soon as it was born the thing killed the midwife and then flew up the chimney. Others have Mother Leeds raising it for a while before it escaped on a later stormy night. Other stories still have it returning to visit the family home now and then.
A rarer variation has a young girl cursed by her peers because she bore a child to a British soldier. The unfortunate child was deformed and thus held as evidence of her damnable actions. Or perhaps it was the curse of a shunned gypsy woman that started the whole thing off. The final variation I’ll list comes from Evesham in 1787 and features a creature with an owl’s head, a monkey’s face and “beautiful feathers with a black dot near the tip of each”.
The earliest I’ve seen the story in print is an 1859 Atlantic Monthly article by W. F. Mayer. It is entitled In the Pines.
“There lived, in the year 1735, in the township of Burlington, a woman. Her name was Leeds, and she was shrewdly suspected of a little amateur witchcraft... One stormy, gusty night, when the wind was howling in turret and tree, Mother Leeds gave birth to a son whose father could have been no other than the Prince of Darkness. No sooner did he see the light than he assumed the form of a fiend, with a horse’s head, wings of a bat, and a serpent’s tail.
“The first thought of the newborn Caliban was to fall foul of his mother, whom he scratched and bepommeled soundly, and then flew through the window out into the village, where he played the mischief generally. Little children he devoured, maidens he abused, young men he mauled and battered; and it was many days before a holy man succeeded in repeating the enchantment of Prospero. At length, however, Leeds’ Devil was laid [exorcised]—but only for one hundred years.
“During an entire century, the memory of that awful monster was preserved, and, as 1835 drew nigh, the denizens of Burlington and the Pines looked tremblingly for his rising. Strange to say, no one but Hannah Butler has had a personal interview with the fiend; though, since 1835, he has frequently been heard howling and screaming in the forest at night...”
The above passage was brought to a wider audience by the anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Herbert Halpert’s in his 1947 work Folktales and Legends from the New Jersey Pines: A Collection and a Study. An earlier article, from 1899, and published in the New York Herald appears to corroborate the main story above but the creature’s description is even more hideous in this case: assuming, as it does, an elongated, serpent-like body, cloven hooves, the head of a horse, the wings of a bat and the forked tail of a dragon. It was fifteen to twenty feet long and dusky brown in colour too, apparently.
Whatever its origin and appearance, the Devil fled into the Pine Barrens to stalk back-roads and sandy trails and bring fear to those that encountered it. Early on, this ‘living dragon’ was called the Leeds Devil and, earlier still, it was named colourful things like the Hoodle-Doodle Bird and Wozzle Bug. All of this has now neatly coalesced under the Jersey Devil name.
Whichever story of the Devil’s beginnings you read it’s pretty clear that it is likely to be a fantasy—or, at least it has become a fantasy. The same goes for the two most famous historical sightings of the Devil. Firstly, in the early 1800s, a naval hero by the name of Commodore Stephen Decatur spied the Devil “flying across the sky”. Luckily, at the time, Decatur happened to be on a firing range testing cannons and he loosed a shot at the creature. Some stories say that he even managed to hit it though with no discernible effect. This lack of wounding has been suggested by some as a clear indication that the Devil must have supernatural powers, for what mortal animal could possibly shrug off a cannonball?
Stephen Decatur was indeed a dynamic and much-loved naval officer and it’s not unlikely that he was in that particular area testing cannon and shot because this was the sort of thing he was involved in at various stages of his career, however, it is patently unlikely that even a man as distinguished as Decatur could have hit a flying object with a cannonball discharged from any cannon of the day. If he was using roundshot and the target was stationary on the ground—perhaps with luck he might have hit it. Using canister (which essentially turns a cannon into a very large shotgun) against a low-flying target at close range—again, perhaps Decatur might have hit it. But with a standard cannon and a target flying across the range at a reasonable height, as all the accounts suggest, well that dog just won’t hunt. Also, the date of this event varies wildly with some sources stating it took place before Decatur was even born. A primary source is desperately needed here.
The second oft-told witness of the Devil was none other than Joseph Bonaparte—brother to Napoleon and once the King of Spain. Apparently, Joseph saw the Jersey Devil while out hunting in the Pine Barrens. Most accounts of this event stop here, giving only sparse details, but some elucidate further. Here’s one that does:
“One snowy afternoon, the ex-King of Spain was hunting alone in the woods near his house when he spotted some strange tracks on the ground. They looked like the tracks of a two-footed donkey. Bonaparte noticed that one foot was slightly larger than the other. The tracks ended abruptly as if the creature had flown away. He stared at the tracks for a long moment, trying to figure out what the strange animal might be.
“At that moment, Bonaparte heard a strange hissing noise. Turning, he found himself face to face with a large winged creature with a horse-like head and bird-like legs. Astonished and frightened, he froze and stared at the beast, forgetting that he was carrying a rifle. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then the creature hissed at him, beat its wings, and flew away.
“When he reported the incident to a friend later that day, Bonaparte was told that he had just seen the famous Jersey Devil.”
This impressively detailed story is described by the author as a retelling. While I think it’s reasonable to expect embellishment from a retelling, the book it is taken from is listed as non-fiction by some of the retailers I found. Vexingly, this is just the sort of thing that might end up being quoted as an actual account by later researchers, further obscuring what meagre truth exists. Again, an original source would work wonders.
There have been many more sightings besides Decatur’s and Bonaparte’s. Of particular note are the goings-on that took place in the January of 1909 during what has become called ‘phenomenal week’. Sightings here flew thick and fast from a variety of people from all over the area. Mysterious tracks appeared in the snow, going on for miles through backyards and over roads—even being spotted in ‘inaccessible places’. (For similar goings-on see the case of the devil’s hoofprints in Devon, England.) A police officer fired at a weird flying creature, firemen were ‘attacked’ by something similar after they trained a hose on it, and there exists a myriad of reports of terrifying screeches and screams heard at night. Something like thirty towns were said to be affected.
Since then, more people have come forward—a handful each decade—describing what they think are their own brushes with the Devil. These include such details as cars being attacked, family dogs found slain and gnawed upon, disembodied screaming, and even a creature whose face dripped with blood and another with glowing red eyes. The only thing these reports have in common is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence presented for any of them. No body parts to send to the lab, no photographs, no videos to analyse: as far as I can tell, nothing truly presentable as evidence for us to go on. Even in the 1909 sightings that were set so closely together the descriptions of the beast changed radically, with some saying it was a “large, flying kangaroo” and others an “ostrich-like creature”. Ostriches and kangaroos are clearly very different in shape. Other reports from back then called it “a white cloud”, a “winged thing”, a “jabberwocky”, a thing “three feet high…long black hair over its entire body, arms and hands like a monkey, face like a dog, split hooves, and a tail a foot long.”
Not only do many of these descriptions not tally, but they miss each other by a country mile.
So, What Is It? (And the Curse of Copy and Paste)
What is certain is that the Pine Barrens cover a huge area. We are talking about 1.1 million acres here—a place so large that entire towns have been abandoned and swallowed up by the trees with there being, “possibly as many as 100 ghost towns in the Pine Barrens”. There simply must have been wildlife in here that people did not know existed, especially in the 1700s and 1800s: animals that might have showed themselves only rarely to the human population and, when they did, been taken as strange and frightening things.
And let’s look at the wildlife that lives in the Pine Barrens of today. Not only are there almost forty species of mammals (that includes large stuff like coyotes and white-tail deer) but black bears too. Once thought to have been killed off from these parts they seem to have made a tentative comeback. Large birds such as bald eagles (opportunistic carnivores that I’m sure are quite happy to have a go at small livestock) live here too. The sandhill crane, with its unusually large size, significant wingspan, piercing calls and elaborate courtship displays is often linked with the Jersey Devil, and no wonder. This bird, which could reasonably be the cause of the ostrich-like ‘Devil’ sightings at least, is rare with a declining population that makes it all the more mysterious.
Subtly supporting the possibility that some of the encounters can be explained by uncommon wildlife is this quote from the New York Times: “A bizarre-looking but supposedly harmless creature known as the Leeds Devil, or the Jersey Devil, was said to have roamed the Pine Barrens in the south from 1887 until as late as 1938.” So, potentially, it’s not all rabid attacks, fearsome appearances and demonic intentions.
So why have there been so many unsubstantiated sightings over the years? Well, to me it’s clear that the Jersey Devil is just the kind of story vague enough to vacuum up other tales and swell its own perceived popularity. Anything unusual happening in the Pine Barrens is going to be linked by someone to the Devil, and I suspect that is exactly what happened with Decatur and Bonaparte. The former probably did fire a shot at an unusual bird that flew over the range with the story later being connected to the Jersey Devil, while the latter, well he was a particularly famous name and this area is slightly incongruous for him to have lived in so it’s natural that some storyteller might have connected the two to add interest to both.
What doesn’t sit right, though, is that so many writers simply state that those things did happen. Even if there is no source material, or you aren’t in a position to find it (for instance, I’m writing this from the UK and, as much as I would love to, it would be crazy for me to hop on a plane to New Jersey right now), what’s wrong with presenting what is known and asking the readers to make their own mind up?
Whatever the Jersey Devil is, it remains a fascinating and spooky case and, even after laying it bare a little here, it still sends shivers down my spine. Some places just do that. As Dan Barry writes, “the beautiful and mysterious Pine Barrens can encourage such thoughts.”
Certainly, reports of the thing are growing thin. Again we turn to the New York Times: “An informal survey of eight police departments in South Jersey found no one who had dealt with Devil sightings in more than two decades.” So, if the more recent sightings are true the witnesses are neglecting to call the cops.
I suspect that even if the number of supposed sightings were to dwindle the story would happily continue for it has a fuel to propagate its existence: purpose. After all, it is a great allegory: bad things happen if you cavort with the dark side, don’t wander into the woods after dark, eat your vegetables or the Jersey Devil will come calling! Don’t discount those nefarious rascals that have, at one time or another, used the Pine Barrens to hide out in—moonshiners, loyalists, criminals—propagating the legend probably frightened off enough people in days when superstition was more prevalent than now to be worth the effort. W.F. Mayer mentions in the 1859 account of his journey into the Pine Barrens that, “most of the locals would not venture out after dark” so if the story was meant to keep prying eyes away it seemed to have fertile ground.
Harry Leeds, said to be a descendant of Mother Leeds, backs this thought up: “The Jersey Devil has a controlling influence on youth, especially for the ones that are considering running away from home. When I was a child growing up, you didn’t go out and walk the dark roads alone. There’s the fear of the Jersey Devil lurking out there. So he is a security blanket, in a sense, for South Jersey.”
If I was pushed for an opinion I’d have to say it is indeed a hybrid monster—but not one of the supernatural kind: one that is a mixture of both fact and fiction. The many sightings are sure to have different explanations for each of them: huge sandhill cranes swooping and screeching through the pines, an escapee hammer head bat looming out of the darkness, bears killing livestock for food; and let’s not forget good old human psychology and our need to put a name to things unknown. The Devil’s origin could have sprung from many seeds. Take all the different ones I listed at the beginning of this article, remove the bizarre aspects and they all say speak about ostracism or xenophobia. Perhaps that is the real sapling at the heart of the story.
Perhaps Harry Leeds should have the last word: “When you’re out there [in the Pine Barrens], your visibility is restricted and the trees seem to go on forever. The least little disturbance gets all your adrenaline flowing and gets you imagining things. Is the Jersey Devil out there? I’m not 100 percent sure. But at least...I don’t think he would harm any of his relatives.”
American Myths and Legends, Charles Skinner, 1903. J.B. Lippincott.
Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World, Robert E. Krebs, 2003. Greenwood.
Phantom of the Pines: More Tales of the Jersey Devil, James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr, 1998. Middle Atlantic Press.
Real Monsters, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside, Brad Steiger, 2010. Visible Ink Press.
Eerie Britain, MB Forde, 2011. Amazon KDP.
South Jersey Towns: History and Legend, William McMahon, 1973. Rutgers University Press.
The Ultimate Urban Legends, 2008. Pinkmint Publications.
Spooky New Jersey, S.E. Schlosser, 2006. Globe Pequot Press.
Atlantic Monthly, In the Pines W. F. Mayer, May 1859.
The Folk and Folklife of New Jersey, David Steven Cohen, 1983. Rutgers University Press.
Tales of the Jersey Devil, Geoffrey Girard, 2004. Middle Atlantic Press.
Article Copyright© Matt Forde - reproduced with permission.
Matt has also written two e-books:
Eerie Britain and Eerie Britain 2