THE STORY OF THE JERSEY DEVIL
The Jersey Devil, sometimes called the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many variations. The Jersey Devil has worked its way into the pop culture of the area, even lending its name to New Jersey's team in the National Hockey League.
Most accounts of the Jersey Devil legend attribute the creature to a "Mother Leeds", a supposed witch, although the tale has many variations. According to one version, she invoked the devil while giving birth to her 13th child, and when the baby was born, it either immediately or soon afterwards transformed into a devil like creature and flew off into the surrounding pines.
According to legend, while visiting the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his cannonballs being forged, Commodore Stephen Decatur sighted a flying creature flapping its wings and fired a cannonball directly upon it to no effect. Joseph Bonaparte, eldest brother of Emperor Napoleon, is also said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown, New Jersey estate around 1820. Throughout the 1800s, the Jersey Devil was blamed for livestock killings, strange tracks, and reported sounds. In the early 1900s, a number of people in New Jersey and neighboring states claimed to witness the Jersey Devil or see its tracks. Claims of a corpse matching the Jersey Devil's description arose in 1957. In 1960, the merchants around Camden offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Jersey Devil, even offering to build a private zoo to house the creature if captured.
MORE DETAIL ABOUT THE JERSEY DEVIL
THE JERSEY DEVIL Without a doubt, New Jersey’s oldest, most enduring, and important pieces of folklore is the tale of the infamous Jersey Devil. For close to three hundred years now, Jerseyans have told tales of this mythical beast which stalks the Pine Barrens and terrorizes local residents. The recurring nature of this story begs a few of questions: Why have New Jerseyans embraced this legend so steadfastly, and above all others? Is there actually some sort of creature roaming the Pine Barrens of Southern NJ? And if so, what in God’s name is it?
Legend has it that in 1735, a Pines resident known as Mother Leeds found herself pregnant for the thirteenth time. (Leeds is the name of one of New Jersey’s earliest settlers, and many descendants of the Leeds family can still be found throughout NJ to this day.) Mother Leeds was not living a wealthy lifestyle by any means. Her husband was a drunkard who made few efforts to provide for his wife and twelve children. Reaching the point of absolute exasperation upon learning of her thirteenth child’s forthcoming, she raised her hands to the heavens and proclaimed “Let this one be a devil!”
She went into labor a few months later, on a tumultuously stormy night, no longer mindful of the curse she had utter previously regarding her unborn child. Her children and husband huddled together in one room of their Leeds’ Point home while local midwives gathered to deliver the baby in another. By all accounts the birth went routinely, and the thirteenth Leeds child was a seemingly normal baby boy.
Within minutes however, Mother Leeds’ unholy wish of months before began to come to fruition. The baby started to change, and metamorphosed right before her very eyes. Within moments it transformed from a beautiful newborn baby into a hideous creature unlike anything the world had ever seen.
The wailing infant began growing at an incredible rate. It sprouted horns from the top of its head and talon-like claws tore through the tips of its fingers. Leathery bat-like wings unfurled from its back, and hair and feathers sprouted all over the child’s body. Its eyes began glowing bright red as they grew larger in the monster’s gnarled and snarling face. The creature savagely attacked its own mother, killing her, then turned its attention to the rest of the horrified onlookers who witnessed its tempestuous transformation. It flew at them, clawing and biting, voicing unearthly shrieks the entire time. It tore the midwives limb from limb, maiming some and killing others.
The monster then knocked down the door to the next room where its own father and siblings cowered in fear and attacked them all, killing as many as it could. Those who survived to tell the tale then watched in horror as the rotten beast sprinted to the chimney and flew up it, destroying it on the way and leaving a pile of rubble in its wake. The creature then made good its escape into the darkness and desolation of the Pines, where it has lived ever since. To this day the creature, known varyingly as the Leeds Devil and the Jersey Devil, claims the Pines as its own, and terrorizes any who are unfortunate enough to encounter it.
In 18th and 19th centuries the Jersey Devil was spotted sporadically throughout the Pine Barrens region, frightening local residents and any of those brave enough to traverse the vast undeveloped expanses of New Jersey’s southern reaches. Unearthly wails were often reported emanating from the dark forests and swampy bogs, and the slaughter of domesticated animals would invariably be attributed to the Phantom of the Pines. Over the years the legend of the Leeds Devil grew, occasionally even overstepping the boundaries of its rural Pine Barrens haunt to terrorized local towns and cities.
The most infamous of these incidents occurred during the week of January 16 thru 23, 1909. Early in the week reports starting emerging from all across the Delaware Valley that strange tracks were being found in the snow. The mysterious footprints went over and under fences, through fields and backyards, and across the rooftops of houses. They were even reported in the large cities of Camden and Philadelphia. Panic immediately began to spread, and posses formed in more than one town. Fear and intrigue grew even greater when it was reported that bloodhounds refused to follow the unidentified creature’s trail in Hammonton. Schools closed or suffered low attendance throughout lower NJ and in Philadelphia. Mills in the Pine Barrens were forced to close when workers refused to leave their homes and travel through the woods to get to their jobs.
Eyewitnesses spotted the beast in Camden and in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and in both cities police fired on it but did not manage to bring it down. A few days later it reappeared in Camden, attacking a late night meeting of a social club and then flying away. Earlier that day it had appeared in Haddon Heights, setting its sights upon a trolley car before flying away. Witnesses claimed that it looked like a large flying kangaroo. Another trolley car full of people saw it in Burlington when it scurried across the tracks in front of their car. In West Collingswood it appeared on the roof of a house and was described as an ostrich-like creature. Firemen turned their hose upon it, but it attacked them and then flew away. The entire week people reported that their livestock, particularly their chickens, were being slaughtered. This was most widespread in the towns of Bridgeton and Millville.
The marauding misanthrope reappeared later in the week in Camden, where a local woman found the beast attempting to eat her dog. She hit it with a broomstick and it flew away.
While there has not since been been another week to match the frequency, fervor, and intensity of the January 1909 rampage, numerous sightings of the Jersey Devil have continued to be reported to this day. The tale of the Devil has spread beyond the Pine Barrens and has been embraced by all of New Jersey, even to the point where it has been largely commercialized. The Devil is portrayed in toys, on t-shirts, and is even the subject of his own comic book. Most famously, the Devil has lent its name to New Jersey’s NHL hockey team.
There are still many, however, who believe that the Jersey Devil is a very real, very dangerous creature. There has been a constant stream of reports over the years of Devil encounters. Most often, people report finding strange, unidentifiable tracks in the sandy soil in desolate areas of the Pine Barrens. Some reports claim that they are the footprints of a strange bird. Others say that they closely resemble hoofprints, although whatever it is walks on just two legs. There have even been a substantial amount of reports which describe the tracks as being cloven, a well cited description of the feet/hooves of a more famous Devil, Satan. While less frequent, there are still occasional reports of people who see more than just tracks and manage to catch a glimpse of Ol’ JD himself. He is most commonly described as having the body of a kangaroo, the head of a dog, the face of a horse, large leathery wings, antlers similar to those of a deer, a forked reptilian tail, and prominent, intimidating claws.
While some Jerseyans embrace their Devil as nothing more than a quaint figment of our collective imagination, a source of unification and pride, and a unique and important piece of NJ folk culture, others see it as a very real creature and a threat upon their safety. Still others who have sworn they did not believe in the existence of the Jersey Devil have had their minds changed after spending just one moonlit night in the Pine Barrens. There, where a ghostly mist drifts across the cedar swamps and the unearthly cry of some unseen creature can be heard piercing the stillness of the dark forest, few disbelievers can be found. Whether its deep in the Pine Barrens or deep in our collective unconscious, one thing is certain; the Devil still lurks in New Jersey, and most likely always will.
(Not sure where some of this comes from, I've had it a long time, so I can't list any sources or give proper credit. Sorry)
This post by Thomas Marcum, Thomas is the founder/leader of the cryptozoology and paranormal research organization known as The Crypto Crew. Over 20 years experience with research and investigation of unexplained activity, working with video and websites. A trained wild land firefighter and a published photographer, and poet
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