What Is The Jersey Devil?
The strange creature that haunts the state of New Jersey has origins as old as the United States of America. The legends date back to the early 1700’s and claim that this monster can be traced back to one family – the Leeds. According to legend, Jane Leeds (sometimes called Mother Leeds) fell in love with a British soldier and was cursed for her transgression (this was around the time of the Revolutionary War).
Mother Leeds went on to have many children (presumably with the British soldier). After having 12 children she was exhausted and ready to stop giving birth. However, to poor Mother Leeds’ dismay, she had become pregnant again with her 13th child. Angry at her misfortune, she cursed the child in her womb, saying that it would be the devil. Though she did not know it at the time, this would create the monster that would go on to terrorize the entire state of New Jersey.
On the night that Mother Leeds went into labor, a group of her family and friends were gathered around to welcome the new child into the world. They waited in the next room while the midwife helped Mother Leeds give birth. At last, the child was born and all of the Leeds’ family and friends rushed into the room to see the new child. At first, it appeared to be normal and of good health.
Suddenly, things began to change. The innocent face of the child turned into that of an ugly goat (or horse according to some legends). Its hands became claws and its feet became hooves. The infant began growing at an alarming rate and suddenly resembled a strange cross between a wyvern and a farm animal. It sprouted a pair of leathery wings and finally unfurled its hideous transformation to the room.
The creature then killed the midwife and many of the friends that had gathered in the room. Some versions say that everyone but its parents were slaughtered. Either way, after killing some or all of those gathered in the room, it flew up the chimney and into the woods where it still resides to this day.
What Does The Jersey Devil Look Like?
The Jersey Devil is known to be both terrifying and disgusting – largely due to its horrendous appearance. The creature is known to have had an impressive transformation that makes it one of the most interesting cryptids, while also one of the most difficult to believe in.
When the Devil transformed, it is said that it sprouted horns from the top of its head first. The next thing to spring out were the claws, followed by the hideous fur and feathers that seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was growing at an alarming rate that was most certainly inhuman – and stopped only when it reached anywhere from 6 to 10 feet in length.
It grew a forked tail and sprouted disgusting leathery wings. Finally, the transformation was complete when its eyes began to glow a terrible shade of red. Its face now appeared to resemble both a dog and a horse. Perhaps most importantly though, the monster had one of the most saddening and terrifying screams that had ever been heard – sounding both like a tortured human being and a vengeful predator.
The Jersey Devil’s Not So Monstrous Origins
The Jersey Devil is a myth that has its origins rooted deep in American History. The beast has been known to cause several small scares in modern day, though this was not originally the case. In fact, it is entirely possible that the legend of the Jersey Devil started as a joke between rivals.
It seems that all of the elements of the Jersey Devil myth can be tied back to a rivalry between the Leeds family and the Quaker population that lived in New Jersey. This is further evidenced by the fact that before the 1900’s the creature was also commonly referred to as ‘The Leeds Devil’ as well as ‘The Devil of Leeds.’ Eventually, this rivalry would go on to include Benjamin Franklin himself – who could have been responsible for the start of the myth that would lead to the fascination of America in modern day.
It All Started with an Almanac
What is widely considered to be the true story of the Jersey Devil began in 1677 when a man named Daniel Leeds came to the colonies in America and settled down in Burlington in what are now the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. As the years went on, Daniel was known to become more and more involved in the Quaker community he lived in. Eventually, he would work with one of the first printers in the colonies to develop an almanac. This is when the trouble would begin.
Although the majority of the content in the almanacs was acceptable, there were references to astrology in the book that angered many of those who lived in the community. They were opposed to any sort of mysticism and accused Daniel Leeds of being involved in occultism. Instead of giving in to the will of the community, however, and taking out the references to astrology, Leeds only became more dedicated to the publishing of German mysticism.
There would be more and more problems that arose from this point on. Leeds continued to publish what was considered to be anti-Quaker material which continued to draw anger and disgust from the community. Additionally, when the colonists came to oppose the British rule in America, Daniel Leeds took the opposing side. He counseled Lord Cornbury (British Governor of the territory he lived in) and openly supported British rule. The community was outraged, seeing this as yet another offense by Leeds and went as far as to publish a tract that accused him of working for the devil.
Benjamin Franklin Gets Involved
Eventually, Daniel Leeds retired from almanac-making in 1716 and gave the company to his son, Titan Leeds. Titan took on the family business and continued to publish the almanacs – mysticism and all – largely without competition until Benjamin Franklin published his first edition of ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac’ in 1732. There was relatively little direct confrontation between the two until the 1733 edition was published, in which Benjamin Franklin predicted the day that Titan Leeds would die.
As expected, Titan Leeds was greatly angered by Franklin’s outlandish claim and did his best to take a stab at the new publisher’s credibility by calling him a ‘fool and a liar.’ Young Franklin responded quickly, claiming that Titan must be speaking to him as a ghost because only a dead man would have such a foolish response. With this, the rivalry between the two was started and Franklin continued this rivalry even when Titan did die in 1738. After Leeds’ death, Franklin continued to write about ‘the Ghost of Titan Leeds’ and went on to say that despite Titan’s passing he had been resurrected for the sole purpose of abusing Franklin. Although highly insensitive, there was little sympathy on the part of the community because of the Leeds family’s loyalty to the British.
The Creation of the Jersey Devil
There are many who speculate that the Jersey Devil legend could have been started by none other than founding father, Benjamin Franklin. It happened that Titan had a brother named Japhet Leeds who was married to a woman named Deborah. Historical records show that as of 1736, Japhet had 12 children in his will. Because this was the time period that was known to have been at the height of the rivalry between Benjamin Franklin and Titan Leeds, many people theorize that the story could have been invented by Franklin as a way of discrediting the Leeds family name.
There are many elements in the story that would lend credibility of this theory. The first is the time period. The ‘Franklin vs Leeds’ rivalry officially began in 1733. The story of the creation of the Jersey Devil takes place in 1735. This means the creation of the beast was known to have occurred in the middle of tensions between the two families.
Another important factor is that until the 1900’s, many people knew the Jersey Devil to be the Leeds Devil. This means that there was definitely some sort of connection between the two and that the creature certainly could have been created as a joke during the height of their rivalry. There is also the fact that ‘Mother Leeds’ was cursed because she fell in love with a British soldier. The Leeds family was known to be part of the Loyalist party, so this could have easily been an intentional stab towards the family.
Perhaps the most suggestive piece of evidence however, comes from the Leeds’ almanac itself. It is known that before Titan died, he re-designed the almanac cover to include his family crest. The crest is known to feature the wyvern – a dragon-like creature with leathery wings, clawed hands, and a forked tail. The wyvern and the Jersey Devil have more than a few things in common, making it entirely plausible that Franklin used the newly designed cover to poke more fun at the ‘traitorous Leeds family.’
Belief in the Creature Continues
Although there were many accounts of the creature that were known to be nothing more than cruel jokes towards the Leeds family, there were still groups of people that came to believe in the existence of the Jersey Devil. While many of the early believers remain nameless to history, there were some notable historical figures that were convinced in the cryptid’s existence. Additionally, modern day encounters with a strange creature that seemed to originate from the Pine Barrens would resurrect the credibility of the tale and lead to a new generation of Jersey Devil believers.
Commodore Stephen Decatur Shoots the Jersey Devil
One of the first sightings of the Jersey Devil to be taken seriously was reported by the famed war hero – Commodore Stephen Decatur. The timeline of this story is known to vary (possibly because of confusion with an account told by Joseph Bonaparte). The majority of the stories that tell of Decatur’s sighting claim the event occurred in 1778. There are, however, a few accounts that suggest the sighting took place in 1819 (one year before the sighting by Joseph Bonaparte) and was part of a Jersey Devil hunt that had been orchestrated by President James Monroe himself.
Regardless of which version you follow, the events are the same. The Commodore visited Hanover Iron Works (located in the Pine Barrens) while traveling to test cannon balls on their firing range. While there, he saw a strange creature that had a whiteish hue flying above the field. Heroically, he used the cannon to shoot a hole through the creature’s right wing. To his surprise and dismay, the monster continued to fly overhead, unaffected by the attack.
Fact or Fiction?
While the tale of Commodore Decatur’s bravery was told for many years, questions as to the authenticity of the event began to arise in 2007 when work was done on his house in Washington DC. While it has been confirmed that Decatur did, indeed, visit the Hanover Iron Works range to test cannonballs, it was also discovered that Dr. James Killian was included in his group of onlookers.
Killian was a cryptid hunter who gained his claim to fame for his study of all things paranormal. There are legends that suggest that Dr. Killian and Commodore Decatur were in the Pine Barrens to hunt the creature, making it possible that the story was invented in order to gain even more fame and respect in the area. The number of bystanders who also gave similar reports do help to restore some credibility, but not enough to be convincing.
Joseph Bonaparte Hunts the Jersey Devil
The older brother of ‘Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’, Joseph Bonaparte, was also known to be among those who believed in the Jersey Devil. He owned land in Bordentown, New Jersey, which was known to be part of the Pine Barrens area. There are several variations of the tale of his encounter. Some people claim that Joseph was hunting the Jersey Devil when he happened upon it and was startled to discover its existence. Others simply claim he was hunting on his property when he saw the creature. This supposedly happened in the year 1820.
Twenty years later there were more sightings of the creature. It was blamed for several livestock killings and strange screams that could be heard throughout the woods. Despite all of this, however, there was no concrete evidence that the creature actually existed.
Fact or Fiction?
Unfortunately, none of these encounters yield enough evidence or detail to suggest that the Jersey Devil actually exists. Many of the details could have easily indicated a known predator that was confused with the cryptid in the heat of the moment.
The Jersey Devil Causes Widespread Panic in 1909
After the 1840’s passed, the Jersey Devil wasn’t seen or heard from until the 1870’s when it was supposedly seen by several people during the winter months. Still, nothing caused more panic – or belief – about the existence of the creature than the sudden and strange events of January 1909 when it was spotted by thousands of New Jersey residents from January 16th to January 23rd. The sightings caused both widespread panic and excitement – and is also one of the reasons that the Jersey Devil has regained so much popularity in modern day. There were so many reports that sightings were published in newspapers across the country and precautions were taken that suggest local authorities really did believe their citizens were in danger. The events unfolded as follows.
On Saturday, January 16th, the Jersey Devil was seen flying over Woodbury, New Jersey. Though there was some panic, it was initially presumed to be an isolated event like all of the previous tales. The next day, however, there were more sightings in Bristol – this time with strange tracks that matched the description of the creature.
Things started to heat up on Monday, January 18th, when the Jersey Devil’s tracks were found in Burlington, New Jersey – the town where Daniel Leeds and his family first inspired the tale. With so many sightings however, people began to wonder if the Jersey Devil was more than just a cryptid who had been invented in the heat of a feud between Loyalists and Patriots. The tracks in the town seemed to defy what was biologically possible. It seemed that the perfect storm had been created. Thousands of citizens became concerned for their safety and started taking precautions.
On Tuesday the 19th, it became apparent that the Devil was just getting started. At 2:30 in the morning Nelson Evans and his wife spotted the Jersey Devil outside their window. They claimed in their description that the beast was nearly 3 ½ feet in height and had a strange head that started off looking like a collie dog but had a face similar to that of a horse. It’s neck was abnormally long and its wings were at least two feet in length. It was also said to have walked on its back hooves and simply held its two paws up while walking. They were able to shoo the creature away, but the event deeply frightened them. Later, two hunters from Gloucester (their hometown) came and followed the tracks left by the creature for 20 miles. They claimed it was able to jump over fences and squeeze under small gaps about 8 inches in size. This pattern matched what had previously been reported in other towns.
The next day, people in Haddonfield and Collingswood decided to form posses to hunt the cryptid. Though a few of the posses were able to spot the creature flying towards Moorestown, they weren’t able to catch it.
The Devil Attacks
On Thursday, the 21st, things became even more tense for the residents in the Pine Barrens when the Jersey Devil attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights. It was eventually chased off, but the widespread panic that was caused was more than evident in the population now. What’s more, is that the creature didn’t just make its last appearance with the trolley car attack.
Several poultry farmers in the area reported that something (likely the Jersey Devil) had killed all of their chickens. There were others who claimed to have seen the creature crash into electrical lines and continue flying as if nothing had happened. Later in the day, a telegraph worker just outside of Atlantic City shot the creature. Unfortunately, it was able to escape into the woods, though according to the worker it was limping.
Still, the Jersey Devil marched onward on its attack on the Pine Barrens. It was spotted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as well as Collingswood, New Jersey. People attempted to protect themselves by hurling projectile objects at the creature, but according to reports it was still unharmed.
Later in the day, a pet owner in Camden, New Jersey spotted the creature trying to eat her dog. She chased it away, but not before it ripped a chunk of flesh from her beloved pet’s face. This attack would be one of the most important to be reported in the 1909 sightings because it was the first time the Jersey Devil was directly connected to an attack on a live animal.
This is the event that would cause the most panic in the Pine Barren area. Armed guards were put on trolleys to ensure the safety of citizens in transit. Even more posses and hunting groups were created in the hopes that someone would be able to capture or kill the beast and end the attacks for good. However, even more people decided to seek the refuge of their homes until the attacks had stopped or the Jersey Devil had been killed. Many businesses and schools were closed out of fear of the cryptid. Additionally, loggers and lumberjacks who worked in the Pine Barrens refused to return to work until they were assured that the creature had been caught.
Friday the 22nd was the last day of sightings, but the damage had already been done. The people in the Pine Barrens had finally been convinced of the existence of the Jersey Devil. There are still reported sightings of the creature in modern day, though as of now nothing has surpassed the panic that was created in the winter of 1909.
Fact or Fiction?
Although many people are convinced of the events that are said to have unfolded in January 1909, there are still many who have their doubts. They point to the almost comedic writings of the newspapers who published the Jersey Devil sightings in 1909 as proof that the media didn’t take the attacks as seriously as legend would have us believe. Even skeptics, however, can’t entirely discredit the events of that winter, making the Jersey Devil one of the most infamous cryptids in modern day.