The Jersey Devil,
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, January 1909.
Name: Jersey Devil
AKA: Leeds Devil
Sub grouping: Hominid
First reported: 1800s
Country: United States
Region: Pine Barrens (New Jersey)
Status: Folk Lore
The Jersey Devil, sometimes called the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many variations.
The most popular version of the Jersey Devil legend begins in the 18th century when Deborah Smith from England immigrated to the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey to marry a Mr. Leeds, who wanted several heirs to continue the family name. Consequently, the new wife was continually pregnant. After bearing twelve healthy children, she was dismayed to be pregnant with her thirteenth. She cursed the unborn child, declaring a preference to bear the Devil's child rather than another Leeds. Apparently, her wish was granted as the new child had cloven hooves, claws, and a tail. The horrific newborn proceeded to eat the other Leeds children and the parents, before escaping through the chimney to begin its reign of terror. This version is contradicted by the fact that Mother Leeds has descendants that, as of 1998, still lived in Atlantic County New Jersey according to a New York Times article dated April 26, 1998.
There are several variations of the Leeds tale, such as one claiming that when Leeds became pregnant with her thirteenth child, she remarked, "May it be a devil!" The belief that a deformed child was the work of Satan or a curse was still common during the 1800s.
Blue Hole Home
An important piece of the Jersey Devil legend concerns its supposed home at the Blue Hole located near Winslow, New Jersey. According to popular folklore, the blue hole is not only bottomless but also acts as one of the many gateways to Hell. The water in the hole is abnormally cold, even during the summer months, averaging only 58 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. In addition, the hole is said to have a whirlpool effect on any person who enters it. Unlike many of the surrounding rivers and lakes in the region, the blue hole possesses crystal clear water, which serves as another one of its many eccentric features. In the 1920s, geologists put forth various explanations for the hole. One theory suggested that the hole is a crater from a prehistoric meteorite while another theory proposed that the hole is a sprung or glacier carved spring, misidentified as a pingo in the magazine Weird N.J.
Many different descriptions have been offered by alleged witnesses of the creature, which are as follows:
"It was 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". - George Snyder, Moorestown, NJ. Sighted on January 20, 1909.
"In general appearance it resembled a giraffe... It has a long neck and from what glimpse I got of its head its features are hideous. It has wings of a fairly good size and of course in the darkness looked black. Its legs are long and somewhat slender and were held in just such a position as a swan's when it is flying...It looked to be about four feet high". - Lewis Boeger, Haddon Heights, NJ. Sighted on January 21, 1909.
While the descriptions vary, several aspects remain fairly constant, such as the devil's long neck, wings and hooves. The creature is often said to have a horselike head and tail. Its reputed height varies from about three feet to more than seven feet. Many sightings report the creature to have glowing red eyes that can paralyze a man, and that it utters a high, humanlike scream.
There are many possible origins of the Jersey Devil legend. The earliest legends date back to Native American folklore. The Lenni Lenape tribes called the area around Pine Barrens "Popuessing," meaning "place of the dragon." Swedish explorers later named it "Drake Kill", "drake" being a European word for dragon, and "kill" meaning channel or arm of the sea (river, stream, etc.).
Some skeptics believe the Jersey Devil to be nothing more than a creative manifestation of the English settlers. The aptly named Pine Barrens were shunned by most early settlers as a desolate, threatening place. Being relatively isolated, the barrens were a natural refuge for those wanting to remain hidden, including religious dissenters, loyalists, fugitives and military deserters in colonial times. Such individuals formed solitary groups and were pejoratively called "pineys", some of whom became notorious bandits known as "pine robbers". Pineys were further demonized after two early twentieth century eugenics studies depicted them as congenital idiots and criminals. It is easy to imagine early tales of terrible monsters arising from a combination of sightings of genuine animals such as bears, the activities of pineys, and fear of the barrens.
Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown Jr spent several seasons living in the wilderness of the Pine Barrens. He recounts occasions when terrified hikers mistook him for the Jersey Devil, after he covered his whole body with mud to repel mosquitoes.
Not surprisingly, the Jersey Devil legend is fueled by the various testimonials from reputable eyewitnesses who have reported to have encountered the creature, from precolonial times to the present day, as there are still reported sightings within the New Jersey area.
Many contemporary theorists believe that the Jersey Devil could possibly be a very rare, unclassified species which instinctually fears and attempts to avoid humans. Such elements that support this theory include the overall similarities of the creature's appearance (horselike head, long neck and tail, leathery wings, cloven hooves, blood-curdling scream), with the only variables being the height and color. Another factor that supports the cryptozoological theory is the fact that it is more likely that a species could endure over a span of several hundred years, rather than the existence of a single creature living for over 500 years.
Some people think the Sandhill Crane (which has a 7 feet wingspan) is the basis of the Jersey Devil stories.
In 1778, Commodore Stephen Decatur, a naval hero, visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens to test cannonballs at a firing range, where he allegedly witnessed a strange, pale white creature winging overhead. Using cannon fire, Decatur punctured the wing membrane of the creature, which continued flying apparently unfazed to the amazement of onlookers. Dating on this encounter is incorrect, as Decatur was not born until 1779. More likely, this incident occurred between 1816 and 1820, when Decatur was the Naval Commissioner responsible for testing equipment and materials used to build new warships.
In 1840, the devil was blamed for several livestock killings. Similar attacks were seen in 1841, accompanied by strange tracks and unearthly screams. The devil made an 1859 appearance in Haddonfield. Bridgeton witnessed a flurry of sightings during the winter of 1873. About 1887, the Jersey Devil was sighted near a house, and terrified one of the children, who called the Devil "it"; the Devil was also sighted in the woods soon after that, and just as in Stephen Decatur's encounter, the Devil was shot in the right wing, but still kept flying.
Joseph Bonaparte (eldest brother of Emperor Napoleon) is said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown, New Jersey estate around 1820.
January 1909, however, saw the most frenetic period of Devil sightings ever recorded. Thousands of people claimed to witness the Jersey Devil during the week of January 16-23. Newspapers nationwide followed the story and published eyewitness reports.
16th (Saturday) - The creature was sighted flying over Woodbury.
17th (Sunday) - In Bristol, Pennsylvania, several people saw the creature and tracks were found in the snow the following day.
18th (Monday) - Burlington was covered in strange tracks that seemed to defy logic; some were found on rooftops, while others started and stopped abruptly with no apparent origin or destination. Similar footprints were found in several other towns.
19th (Tuesday) - Nelson Evans and his wife, of Gloucester, allegedly saw the creature outside their window at 2:30 AM .
Evans gave a descriptive account as follows: "It was about eight feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It didn't use the front legs at all while we were watching. My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the window and say, 'Shoo!' and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away."
Two Gloucester hunters tracked the creature's perplexing trail for twenty miles. The trail appeared to "jump" fences and squeeze under eight-inch gaps. Similar trails were reported in several other towns.
20th (Wednesday) - In Haddonfield and Collingswood, posses were formed to find the devil. They supposedly watched the creature fly toward Moorestown, where it was later seen by at least two more people.
21st (Thursday) - The creature attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights, but was chased off. Trolley cars in several other towns began to maintain armed guards, and several poultry farmers found their chickens dead. The devil was reported to collide with an electric rail in Clayton, but was not killed. A telegraph worker near Atlantic City claimed to have shot the devil, only to watch it limp into the woods. The creature apparently was not fazed as it continued the rampage through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and West Collingswood, New Jersey (where it was supposedly hosed by the local fire department). The devil seemed poised to attack nearby people, who defensively threw any available objects at it. The creature suddenly flew away -- and reemerged in Camden to injure a dog, ripping a chunk of flesh from its cheek before the dog's owner drove it away. This was the first reported devil attack on a living creature.
22nd (Friday) - Last day of sightings. Many towns were panic stricken, with many businesses and schools closed in fear. Fortunately, the creature was seen only a few times that day and did not attack.
During this period, the Philadelphia Zoo posted a US$1,000,000 reward for the creature's capture. The offer prompted a variety of hoaxes, including a kangaroo with artificial wings. The reward remains available to this day.
In addition to these encounters, the creature was seen flying over several other towns. Since the week of terror in 1909, sightings have been much less frequent, but did not end by any means. In 1951 there was another panic in Gibbstown, New Jersey, after local boys claimed to have seen a screaming humanoid monster. As recently as 1991, a pizza delivery driver in Edison, New Jersey described a night encounter with a white, horselike creature. In Freehold, New Jersey, in 2007, a woman supposedly saw a huge creature with bat-like wings near her home. In August of the same year, a young man driving home near the border of Mount Laurel and Moorestown, New Jersey reported a similar sighting, claiming that he spotted a "gargoyle-like creature with partially spread bat wings" of an enormous wingspan perched in some trees near the road. In January 23, 2008 the Jersey Devil was spotted again this time in Litchfield, Pennsylvania by a local resident that claims to have seen the creature come barreling out of the roof of his barn. The person wishes not to be named at the moment. There are currently several websites and magazines (such as Weird NJ) which catalog sightings of the Devil.
A bizarre rotting corpse vaguely matching the Jersey Devil description was discovered in 1957, leaving some to believe the creature was dead. However, there have been many sightings since that time.