Thursday, August 25, 2011

Creature of the Month - The Jersey Devil by Dr. Bob Curran


In the South-western corner of New Jersey State lies a vast area comprising roughly two thousand square miles of bog, river and forest tract known as the Pine Barrens. This is an old area, once the haunt of the Lenni Lenape Indians, and unexplored by white men until the arrival of Henry Hudson and a Dutch expedition in 1609. The region, although boggy in places, seemed very infertile and was not adjudged to be suitable for farming. It was therefore passed over for a long period until a number of years before the outbreak of the War of Independence. A find of bog iron meant that the Pineys became an industrial centre, mining iron for use in American munitions.

When the iron ran out, the area was home to a sporadic lumber industry which also quickly collapsed and the region was left pretty much unused and acquired a rather unsavoury and disreputable reputation. A number of families who had moved there had been left practically destitute by the collapse of the lumber trade and many other questionable characters also moved in. The name “the Pineys” acquired a rather derogatory emphasis – it was a place decent people should not go. There were stories of queer ceremonies held away out in the Barrens by “degenerate folks” who lived there which alarmed many people and so they shunned the area.

It seems only natural that such an area should have its own monster/ghost. The origin of the devil creature is said to originate in the 18th century when in 1735 a Mrs. Jane Leeds , from one of those “degenerate families” gave birth to her thirteenth child. No doctor would venture out into the disreputable Barrens and so folks out there had to give birth pretty much on their own.

The birth it is said, took place at Shrouds House at Leeds Point, which is now a ruin. In one version, the father was given as a British soldier, which would push the origin-date to around the 1770s. It was, however, a very difficult birth – she had twelve other children and each one had been difficult but this one was especially tricky. In her pain she pain she cried out – “If this must be born, let it be the Devil”. Whereupon the child leapt from her womb – a horrible, deformed thing – skittered around the house for a few moments, vanished up the chimney and finally ran off into the undergrowth. It continued to dwell there, appearing from time to time to menace the community round about with its hissing and roaring.

Children began to disappear and livestock was attacked in mysterious circumstances. Because it was a devil-thing, it required an exorcism to drive it deeper in the swamps and in 1740, desperate local people asked a minister to perform such a ritual. This was done and the exorcism is said to have lasted only one hundred years, allowing it to return around 1840.

Despite being a fairly bizarre story and the fact that some of these elements are so obviously questionable, this is the “accepted” tale as to the origin of what became known as The Jersey Devil. From the mid-1800s down to the 1950s, various people have claimed to have seen the creature which has both menaced and terrified them and through their tales, it has found its way into local folklore. The descriptions given of the Thing, though sketchy are surprisingly similar. It has, say witnesses, a long reptilian body – over twenty feet long – a horse’s head, great bat-like wings, huge ripping claws and a forked tail.


It is not only ordinary people who are alleged to have seen the Devil – a number of celebrated witnesses are also named. According to tradition, when the American Naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens in 1800, he was on a firing range to test some cannon balls when, looking up he saw an alarming creature flying overhead. Taking aim Decatur fired at it and allegedly hit the Thing without any visible result.

A few years later, the Devil was allegedly seen by another celebrated figure – Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon and later ruler of Spain. He had least a country house in American on the outskirts of Bordertown between 1816 and 1839 and glimpsed the Devil whilst hunting with some friends in the Pine Barrens. Although he gave a fairly detailed report none of his friends saw the creature.

By 1840, some hysteria concerning the Devil was beginning to rise again. These flames of uncertainty were fanned by a local preacher who, knowing of the legend, suggested that the original exorcism was coming to an end and the monster might return. Children were kept indoors and even grown men refused to venture out after dark. Lanterns were hung on rural front porches to ward away the evil. Odd sounds akin to screeches and groans were said to have been heard issuing from the Barrens, all of which were attributed to the Devil crying out for fresh victims. Folktales about the creature continued, down through the years, even though actual sightings appear to have been few. Then in 1909, the monster suddenly appeared again.


This time hundreds of people all over the New Jersey State claimed to have seen it, leading to a State-wide panic in which people refused to go out and a number of schools were closed. It was first encountered by a police officer named James Sackville who was walking a beat in Woodbury, New Jersey when the Devil suddenly appeared on the other side of the street and emitted a loud scream. Sackville fired a revolver at it but does not appear to have hit it.

Around that same time, a number of other citizens of Woodbury and other towns claim to have seen the Thing including a Zack Cozzens who noticed it on the side of a rural road near Woodbury and a Mrs. J.H. White who was taking in her washing when she noticed a queer creature huddled in the corner of her yard. She fainted away but her husband came out of the house and chased the monster, which seems to have “spurted flames” at him as it went. It was even seen just across the New Jersey border in Bristol, Pennsylvania where it was glimpsed by a local postmaster, E. W. Minster.

In Trenton, New Jersey, the Devil was spotted by residents cavorting on the roof of a low building, prompting several police officers to fire on it without much effect. As it was January and there had been a heavy snowfall, odd tracks seemed to appear everywhere, each one attributed to the creature. The footprints were made in the snow and were all over New Jersey, Philadelphia and Delaware – in a sinister tone, they all bore tracks of the cloven hoof, the indisputable symbol of the Evil One.

The Devil started to take a more substantial form when the Philadelphia Zoo offered $10,000 for its capture. Two men, Norman Jeffries and Jacob Hope turned up with what they claimed was the creature bound and fettered. Actually, this turned out to be a kangaroo, which had been painted with stripes and had wings and claws glued to it. The “captors” claimed that it was not the actual Devil but some sort of Australian vampire!

Following this fraud the Jersey Devil seems to have disappeared for a lengthy period – perhaps it was outraged at the deception. Apart from a sighting by a taxi driver changing a tyre near Salem, New Jersey in 1927 and some berry pickers near Mays Landing in 1930, nothing more was heard of it until 1951.

A group of children were allegedly cornered by the Devil which screeched at them in a terrifying manner but bounded off without actually hurting them. However, its appearance coincided with a number of cattle mutilations along the edges of the Barrens and the hysteria which had surrounded the sightings in 1909 began to resurface once more. A small boy reported seeing it “with blood on its face” outside his window. The story was reported in the Philadelphia Record and fed the hysteria even more. Now descriptions of it varied some saying that it was a large caveman over seven feet high.

With another fall of snow, more tracks appeared and were accepted until police found a bear claw attached to a stick. They posted up signs all over the State “The Jersey Devil is a hoax” and proceeded to arrest all Devil-hunters they encountered. Nevertheless belief in the monster continued well into the 1960s.

In 1966, Steven Silkotch living near Trenton claimed that it had decimated his entire poultry livestock, pointing to the fact that two German Shepherds, acting as guard dogs had been literally ripped to shreds. Around this time, queer noises were heard coming from the Barrens. However, although stories still circulate, that was pretty much its last appearance.

So what was the Jersey Devil? An unknown animal living in the Barrens and there are all sorts of predatory creatures out there – coyotes, bobcats, foxes. But is there something else. Or is it just a case of hysteria, whipped up by some old folktale? One thing’s for sure – I wouldn’t like to go out in the eerie Barrens to investigate! Let’s not dismiss the Jersey Devil just yet!

Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland, but left to travel and work in the United States., France, Italy, Mexico, North Africa, Spain, Holland, and parts of Eastern Europe. This has given him insight into the cultures and beliefs of people around the world. Living again in Northern Ireland, he holds several university degrees and acts as a consultant to such bodies as the Office of First, Deputy First Minister, and Tourism Ireland Ltd. He is author of many popular books on folklore such as Vampires; Werewolves; Man-Made Monsters; Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms; and due in October 2011 World's Creepiest Places. He can be found musing on drbobcurran.blogspot.com.

3 comments:

  1. Hmmm interesting i looked this up after i watched the x files tv show why is it that things happen alot of them in america and why do so many people just right it of like its all hoaxs we cant all be going crazy lots of people have seen diffent things where could they all be coming from

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  2. I am a Woodbury, NJ historian and there was only one sighting in this city on that fateful night in 1909. The officer Sackville mentioned was walking his beat in Bristol, PA, where the creature was sighted numerous times after the Devil's night in Woodbury.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=9kTYZmW4HZUC&pg=PA39&dq=woodbury+jersey+devil&hl=en#v=onepage&q=woodbury%20jersey%20devil&f=false

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  3. Thank you for the comment. I am sure, as historian, particularly of the area in question, you will know that there are a number of accounts of the Jersey Devil from that period. Not living in New Jersey I was unsure which reports - and I can give you at least half a dozen - I should include from that time or location. If I had omitted some, I would have had some other historian writing in to tell me that I had done so. I therefore thought it best to include the references which I had. However, thank you for your contribution which has been very valuable and I'm glad you took time and interest to read the article

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