The Jersey Devil.

Posted on August 23, 2020

In New Jersey and Philadelphia lore, the Jersey Devil or the Leeds Devil is a cryptid said to dwell the Pine Barrens of South Jersey; the place they filmed THAT epic Soprano’s episode… It’s not just Atlantic City and monuments to the Boss, there’s more! The monster is frequently depicted as a winged biped with hooves, still, there are multiple abnormalities and shifts of description; everyone adding their own two cents to the creature’s facade. The general description is that of a bipedal kangaroo or wyvern being with a horse, leathery bat wings, horns, small T-Rex arms with fagged clawed paws, legs – like any good Devil – ending in cloven hooves, and a razor forked tail. 

The thing has been described as giving off a sulfuric stench and a high-pitched blood-curdling scream, the type that turns milk sour and makes women barren.

Newspaper depiction of Jersey Devil
Source: Wikicommon Philadelphia NewspaperPhiladelphia Papers in 1909

The Tale of Woe, Desolation and Bob Dylan like curlicues

According to grass-roots traditions, inherent in the land and passed down from one generation to another, the Jersey Devil popped into existence on the behest of Pine Barrens’ resident Jane Leeds. The saga goes like this:  Mother Leeds begot 12 kids – there really was no Netflix back then and the nights, the nights were really cold. Her husband was the proto-hipster; all muscles, lumberman jacked, and as roguish as they come. What is a poor girl, in the desolate wasteland of the Barrens, hormones aplenty to do? The house was a-rockin’ and whoever came knockin’ would turn red at the door and gasp in outrage.  

Anyway, no Netflix and two fine crazed lovers with time-to-kill… Yup, Jane went and discovered that once more her monthly visit had taken a holiday. She was pregnant with a 13th child. She hollered and screamed out of frustration, fretting that the child would be the devil

Black and white photo of Leed's House New Jersey
Source: LOC. Leed’s House New Jersey

 

 

Came 1735, 9 months after that wild night with the kids standing in the porch wondering “is dad killing mom? That don’t sound too healthy” and Mother Leeds was in labor. It was a stormy night, lightning and snow, hail peppering the shack, the wind doing its Big Bad Wolf impersonation. Her friends gathered around her, the woman screaming to high heaven, her husband in a corner saying “that’s it… I’m cutting it off.” The kid comes out… lol and behold… a normal child. Dodged that bullet. Or so it seemed – sometimes I wish we could put sound effects – imagine a villainous cackle right about now.The flames in the fireplace bloom up and from their fiery depth a face, Old-Scratch himself. The cloven one looks at the nativity scene and winks at Mother Leeds.

Suddenly, the baby starts to change. It falls on the ground and crawls around as tiny feet turn to hooves, his back slashes open and two enormous bat wings whistle out, itty-bitty head bones break and realign. The child turns to its mother, red eyes glowing and a snout where a dimpled nose should be and growls in hatred. The congregants try to catch it, but the creature beats them with its forked tail and slashed them to pieces with its massive claws. The Jersey Devil, triumphant over its would-be assassins, finally zooms out the chimney and disappears into the pine forest. Hollywood stuff right there!

In other variants of the story, Jane Leeds was supposedly a witch who did the horizontal mambo with the devil himself; the kid being the anti-Christ and all that jazz. 

Before, the early Twentieth century, and prior to a group of recorded sightings of the hippocampus during 1909, the Jersey Devil was simply referred to as the Devil and most of the accounts of hunters and foragers encountering it were concentrated in southern New Jersey town, Leeds Point.

Fact meet History… Now shake and be friends 

“Mother Leeds” has been named by some historians as Deborah Leeds not Jane Leeds, as the legend says. Leeds’ husband, Japhet Leeds, identified twelve kids a the will he inscribed during 1736, which fits with the fable. Deborah and Japhet Leeds also subsisted in the Leeds Point region of what is now Atlantic County; where the legend originated.

According to historian Brian Regal and Kean University, there’s a strong chance that the whole legend was nothing more than “colonial-era political intrigue.” The whole ordeal was an attempt to blackball an almanac publisher called Daniel Leeds. And attempt by whom? By none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had a rivalry with the man’s successor and used his connections to negatively paint the Leeds as monsters and Daniel’s wife as a lady of ill-repute that consorts with all types of stygian gentlemen. 

Portrait by Joseph Siffrein Duplessis of Benjamin Franklin
Joseph Siffrein Duplessis: Benjamin Franklin portrait

Daniel Leeds, part English Quaker, became shunned by his own community after his 1687 publication of almanacs containing astrological symbols and writings. His Quaker peers deeming the almanacs too pagan and blasphemous.

Over time, like a kid that has been told don’t do something and now has a hankering to do just that, Leeds ventured deeper into those forbidden taboo subjects. He continued with his printing and made each almanac even more esoteric than the last. Things brimming with angelology, natural magic, demonology, astrology, cosmology, Christian occultism, mysticism, and just about everything that could turn a Quaker into fanning shades of pale. 

A string of events led to another string of events, and mid-post Revolutionary Period, Leeds printed an almanac with a Regal Icon and British symbol. The man quite literally came to the end of his rope and his Quaker brothers hung him with the extra that was left. They used the printing to ostracise Leeds, and with the local constabulary deemed him a traitor for aiding the Crown and rejecting Quaker beliefs. He was subsequently dismissed from the community and labeled simply as “evil.”

In 1716, Leed’s son, Titan Leeds, inherited his father’s business and continued to use astrological content. His almanacs were very popular due to their pictograms and exotic subjects… so popular that it eventually competed with Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. The competition intensified and Franklin, like any good politician, started to play dirty and dragged out Titan’s family heritage screaming and buckling into the limelight. 

He started calling Titan “The Jersey Devil” and due to a fluke – in which Franklin managed to somehow predict Titan’s death, and subsequently anger the man – the Founding Father spread the rumor that Titan’s ghost was haunting the Pine Barrens; the specter waiting to get his revenge of Ben.

One thing led to another, and someone ran with the Leed’s Family Crest – a masthead of his almanacs. The Leeds family crest depicted a wyvern, standing upright on two clawed feet – and the Devil was born.

The 1900s and that weird year know as 1909

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the “Leeds Devil” had matured into a legendary monster or ghost story in the southern New Jersey area. 

Mentionings of the “Devil of Leeds” rose prominently in early printed material before the widespread usage of the “Jersey Devil” brand. In 1859, the Atlantic Monthly printed an essay analyzing the Leeds Devil folk tales popular among Pine Barren residents. A journal from 1887 reports sightings of a winged creature, regarded to as “the Devil of Leeds”, detected near the Pine Barrens and Burlington County, New Jersey:

“Whenever he went near it, it would give a most unearthly yell that frightened the dogs. It whipped at every dog on the place. ‘That thing,’ is not a bird nor an animal, but it is the Leeds devil… There is no mistake about it. I never saw the horrible critter myself, but I can remember well when it was roaming around in Evasham woods fifty years ago, and when it was hunted by men and dogs and shot at by the best marksmen there were in all South Jersey, but could not be killed. There isn’t a family in Burlington or any of the adjoining counties that does not know of the Leeds devil, and it was the bugaboo to frighten children with when I was a boy.”

  • The Colonel – from the Elkhart Sentinel 1887.

Encounters

There have been many cases of sightings and incidents involving the Jersey Devil.

  • According to myth, while attending the Hanover Mill Works to examine his cannonballs being produced, Commodore Stephen Decatur saw a flying creature and fired a projectile directly upon it, to no effect.
  • Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon, is also alleged to have observed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown estate in 1820.
  • In 1840, the Jersey Devil was accused of several livestock killings. Related attacks were recorded during 1841, accompanied by tracks and screeches from the creature.
  • In Greenwich during December 1925, a farmer fired on an unknown animal as it tried to steal his chickens and then photographed the remains. Later, he insisted that none of the 100 people he exhibited the photo could identify it.
  • In 1937, an unknown animal “with red eyes” was seen by residents of Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
  • In 1951, a gathering of Gibbstown, New Jersey boys claimed to have seen a ‘monster’ resembling the Devil’s description.
  • In 1957, claims of a corpse meeting the Jersey Devil’s description appeared in the local newspapers.
  • During 1960, tracks and sounds heard near Mays Landing were said to belong to the Devil. That same year the merchants around Camden offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Jersey Devil. They went so far as to promote a private zoo where people could come see the beast once it was caught.  

1909

1908-1909 was a really weird supernaturally charged year around the world; everything that could go wrong, at a paranormal level went wrong… just remember the Tunguska Event if you don’t believe me. 

  • During the week of January 16 through 23, 1909, publications of that wild time wrote hundreds of alleged contacts with the Jersey Devil from all over the state. 
  • Among alleged encounters that week were allegations that the creature “attacked” a trolley car in Haddon Heights and a social club in Camden.
  • Cops in Camden and Bristol, Pennsylvania apparently fired on the monster to no effect. Other reports depicted hunting parties following unidentified footprints in the snow. The pitchfork mob soon sighting the creature and turning tail.
  • Sightings of beings matching the Jersey Devil were being recorded everywhere in South Jersey and as far away as Delaware and western Maryland.
  • The widespread newspaper coverage generated fear throughout the Delaware Valley provoking a number of schools to close down and workers to stay home. Vigilante organizations and organizations of hunters scoured the pines and farmlands in search of the Devil.
  • It is even rumored that the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the animal. The offer inspired a variety of hoaxes, including a kangaroo decked out with artificial claws and bat wings.

For more macabre tales check out our blog.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Devil

https://newspaperarchive.com/profile/tee-veeed-1053301/