The Jersey Devil is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey in the USA.
The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many different variations. The common description is that of a kangaroo-like creature with the head of a goat, leathery bat-like wings, horns, small arms with clawed hands, cloven hooves and a forked, serpentine tail. It has been reported to move quickly and often is described as emitting a “blood-curdling scream.”
The legend of the Jersey Devil spans at least 260 years and has been witnessed by no fewer than 2000 people. The earliest legends date back to Native American folklore, wherein the Lenni Lenape tribes called the New Jersey area “Popuessing” meaning “place of the dragon”. Swedish explorers later named it “Drake Kill” (“drake” being a word for dragon, and “kill” meaning channel or arm of the sea in Dutch).
The basis of the most widely reported sightings are based on the story of Mother Leeds (born a Mrs Shrouds of Leeds Point), a supposed witch who, having been given of twelve children, announced that her expected thirteenth was to be the spawn of the devil. When the stormy night of the birth came, the child was delivered safely though deformed. Shielded from the outside world, a matter of days later, it metamorphosised into a creature with hooves, a goat’s head, bat wings and a forked tail. It growled and screamed, then flew up the chimney, circled the village and then headed toward the pines.
Five years later, in 1740, a clergyman exorcised the demon for 100 years and it wasn’t seen again until 1890. Variants of the tale see the child born as the ghastly creature or changing soon after birth, the creature held captive by the witch in the attic or cellar, or alternately, killing the midwife en-route up the chimney.
The earliest reported sightings concern a Commodore Stephen Decatur (one of the U.S. navy’s greatest heroes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) who, whilst visiting the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his cannonballs being forged, sighted a flying creature flapping its wings and fired a cannonball directly upon it to no effect.
Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Emperor Napoleon and former King of Spain, is also said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Borden town estate around 1820.
In 1840, the devil was blamed for several livestock killings. Similar attacks were reported in 1841, accompanied by tracks and screams.
Claims of a corpse matching the Leeds Devil’s description arose in Greenwich in December 1925. A local farmer shot an unidentified animal as it attempted to steal his chickens. Afterwards, he claimed that none of 100 people he showed it to could identify it.
On July 27, 1937 an unknown animal “with red eyes” seen by residents of Downingtown, Pennsylvania was compared to the Jersey Devil by a reporter for the Pennsylvania Bulletin of July 28, 1937.
In 1951, a group of Gibbstown, New Jersey, boys claimed to have seen a ‘monster’ matching the Devil’s description and claims of a corpse matching the Jersey Devil’s description arose in 1957.
In 1960, tracks and noises heard near Mays Landing were claimed to be from the Jersey Devil. During the same year 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.
During the week of January 16 through 23, 1909, newspapers of the time published hundreds of claimed encounters with the Jersey Devil from all over the state, the eventual number rising to over a thousand. Amongst alleged encounters publicised that week were claims the creature “attacked” a trolley car in Haddon Heights and a social club in Camden. Police in Camden and Bristol, Pennsylvania, supposedly fired on the creature when spotted at the banks of a canal, to no effect other than a loud scream.
Other reports initially concerned unidentified footprints in the snow, but soon sightings of creatures resembling the Jersey Devil were being reported throughout South Jersey and as far away as Delaware and Western Maryland. The widespread newspaper coverage led to a panic throughout the Delaware Valley prompting a number of schools to close and workers to stay home. During this period, it is rumoured that the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the creature’s dung. The offer prompted a variety of hoaxes, including a kangaroo with artificial wings. A report from a Mr & Mrs. Nelson Evans of Gloucester detailed the following particulars of their late-night encounter at their bedroom window:
“It was about three feet and 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”.
There were many reports from various locales declaring that hoof-prints had been found in trees and rooftops but aside from a few dead chickens and being chased away from an attempted dog-napping attempt, there were no incidents of humans being hurt by the beast.
It was 1927 when sightings returned, the first seeing a cab driver changing a tyre one night whilst heading for Salem, when his car began shaking violently. He looked up to see a gigantic, winged figure pounding on the roof of his car. The driver, leaving his jack and flat tire behind, jumped into the car and quickly drove away.
In August 1930, berry pickers at Leeds Point and Mays Landing reported seeing the Jersey Devil crashing through the fields and devouring blueberries and cranberries. It was reported again two weeks later to the north and then it disappeared again.
In November 1951, a group of children were allegedly cornered by the Devil at the Duport Clubhouse in Gibbstown. The creature bounded away without hurting anyone but reports claimed that it was spotted by dozens of witnesses before finally vanishing again.
Similarly, in 1953, a man encountered the beast whilst walking down the street. During the mid 60’s, there were more infrequent sightings, though more carnage than usual, the carcasses of several fowl and dogs, including an Alsatian with its throat ripped out, were found.
Skeptics believe the Jersey Devil to be nothing more than a creative manifestation of the English settlers, Bogeyman stories created and told by bored Pine Barren residents as a form of children’s entertainment, and rumours arising from negative perceptions of the local population, known as “pineys”.
According to Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, folk tales of the Jersey Devil prior to 1909 calling it the “Leeds Devil” may have been created to discredit local politician Daniel Leeds who served as deputy to the colonial governor of New York and New Jersey in the 1700s.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand wrote that the spread of contemporary pop culture has overtaken traditional Jersey Devil legends. Jeff Brunner of the Humane Society of New Jersey thinks the Sandhill Crane is the basis of the Jersey Devil stories, adding, “There are no photographs, no bones, no hard evidence whatsoever, and worst of all, no explanation of its origins that doesn’t require belief in the supernatural.”
Outdoors-man 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.
One New Jersey group called the “Devil Hunters” refer to themselves as “official researchers of the Jersey Devil”, and devote time to collecting reports, visiting historic sites, and going on nocturnal hunts in the Pine Barrens in order to “find proof that the Jersey Devil does in fact exist.”
More forgiving, naturalistic explanations see the Jersey Devil as a bird, one suggestion being an invasion of ducks (!) others believing the devil is really a sandhill crane, a bird of around the right dimensions which, if confronted, will fight and emit a loud screaming, whooping sound. This could account for the screams heard by witnesses but doesn’t explain the killing of livestock, or indeed the bizarre facial features and tail.
The Jersey Devil has become a cultural icon in the state, inspiring several organizations to use the nickname. In professional hockey, the Eastern Hockey League Jersey Devils played from 1964 through 1973.
When the National Hockey League Colorado Rockies relocated to New Jersey in 1982, a fan poll voted to rename that team the New Jersey Devils. The Devil has also featured in films such as 13th Child (2002), The Jersey Devil (2005) and The Barrens aka Devil in the Woods (2012) and has been adapted as a comic book.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania.com