The Jersey Pinelands, America. 1735. A rugged and sometimes swampy land, covered in vast swathes of seemingly impenetrable forests. Living amongst this remote wilderness was one Deborah Leeds, barely eking out a living in such a dark and foreboding place with her 12 children. The mysterious yet beautiful birthplace of a monster. The last thing Mother Leeds needed was yet another child, yet she fell pregnant for a 13th time. She said the Devil could take it. One moody and stormy night, the baby arrived. The house full of family and friends. Folklore tells us that the child was, initially, normal, but within minutes, it took on a grotesque appearance, growing hooves, a goat’s head, bat’s wings and a forked tail. It growled and snarled. It lashed out and killed the midwife, before fleeing with pace up the chimney and out into the big, wide world, causing terror and mayhem wherever it went…
News spread quickly around the community. Grown men refused to venture out at night. Reports of dogs, geese, cats, livestock and even children going missing were all attributed to the creature, one that had been dubbed The Jersey Devil. Many still believed in witchcraft at the time. Deformed children were often seen as children of Satan or a curse from God.
80 years after this legend was born, Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoléon and King of Spain, leased a country house near to Bordentown in New Jersey. He said he saw Devil whilst hunting one day out in those infamous pinelands. Nearly 25 years later, a spate of sightings of a mysterious creature was reported all across the area. Some said that their sheep were taken by it. Some children even claimed they were chased by it. There were even reports of New Jerseyans hanging lanterns on their doorsteps, desperately trying to keep the ‘monster’ at bay…
1909. The police were inundated with thousands of calls, reports of a monster on the loose. Stories in their hundreds of a strange beast were reported in many newspapers. Unusual footprints were found and countless sightings were called in. Officer James Sackville said he spotted the Devil whilst on patrol one lonely night. Passing by a dark and dank alley, he claims he saw a winged creature, one that let out an almighty bloodcurdling scream. Sackville reached for his weapon and fired at the beast, but it spread its wings and vanished into the air.
There were reports, too, of the creature attacking a trolley car that night in Haddon Heights, and a social club in Camden. There were even reported sightings in Delaware and Maryland. It’s said that widespread school closures at the time were instigated by the reports. Workers stayed at home saying there were too frightened to go outside. Philadelphia Zoo even posted a $10,000 reward for the creature’s dung, leading to many, many hoaxes.
Pictures surfaces in 1925 of a corpse in Greenwich supposedly matching the Devil’s description. The photos were taken by a local farmer, who said the creature had tried to steal his chickens. He claims nobody he showed the photos to could identify it. In 1937, there were reports of an unknown animal with ‘red eyes’ seen by residents of Downingtown, compared to the Devil by a reporter at the Pennsylvania Bulletin. And in 1960, Camden merchants offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Devil, even offering to build a private zoo to house the prized beast.
And still, there are sightings to this very day. Undoubtedly a story born of folklore and propagated by fear and anxiety. Every unknown sighting is it. Every mysterious noise is it. The power of suggestibility is a powerful thing. What started as a legend of witchcraft soon became a legend of nightmares. Haunting the forests of rural New Jersey. We know this started as a story, but everything that happened after was real. People saw something. But a lack of hard evidence makes determining what they saw a difficult task.
We know Deborah Leeds was real. Her husband, Japhet Leeds, named 12 children in a will he wrote in 1736, information we can find in the historical archives. And he and his wife lived exactly where the legend says they did. The house is real and still there. Historian Brian Regal believes the story was created by ‘colonial era political intrigue,’ with Benjamin Franklin and rival almanac publisher Daniel Leeds, Japhet’s father, often portrayed at ‘political and religious monsters.’ Perhaps this metaphorical portrayal spawned a monster of evil.
Regal goes on to say, “References to The Jersey Devil do not appear until the 20th century. It is from [the 1909] sightings that the popular image of the creature… became standardised.”
Many agree this is little more than a creative manifestation from the early settlers of the area. Maybe a story told to children to frighten, utilising the mad couple from the creepy house in the pinelands. One that spun out of control and became widespread. Preying on a primitive people like a cancer, an idea that embedded itself into the very consciousnesses of those wandering through the pinelands in solitude, with nothing but a faint rustle enough to frighten and condemn all logical thought into an abyss of nothingness. Taken over by a belief in a monster, the Devil incarnate.
With little factual evidence, reports almost certainly mistaken, plus the sheer absurdity of such a creature even existing, it is highly unlikely the Devil does exist. But perhaps we were never meant to believe in it, only the notion that there could be something mysterious lurking in the shadows. A notion most foul, indeed, but a notion that has frightened humans for generations. And surely that’s the point of this tale. That age old desire to frighten and scare…
So I’ll give this creature an 89 on my patented Cryptid-o-Meter, putting it 39th in the list of 41, with the Basilisk still bottom and the Beast of Gévauden still holding top spot.
The Jersey Devil. A fascinating cryptid indeed.
Image (Click on It to Enlarge)
1) Deborah and Japhet Leeds’ House
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