Creepy Cryptids: The Jersey Devil

Gather round ghouls and goblins, because this post is going to be long. As we get closer and closer to spooky season, we will be tackling more and more of the looming topics in each category. As you hopefully saw from this post’s title (you do read the titles, right?), this week’s post is one of the heavy hitters from the cryptid realm. I hope you’re ready, because this is going to be a long post. Now, join me and let’s explore the lore of the Jersey Devil.

Description

         I want to start this off by attempting to describe what the Jersey Devil looks like. And I say attempt because there are so many different versions of the Jersey Devil that I can’t possibly cover all of the bases. There seem to be three main versions of what he actually looks like – those versions may have variations, but I’ll just cover the broad strokes so you have a mental image as we go through the rest of the details of the lore.
        The first version is what I’ll refer to as the Dragon Devil. This version is bipedal with short front legs. Imagine a Velociraptor with bat wings. That about covers it, really. The front legs may or may not have claws. The back legs may or may not resemble chicken legs – remember what I said about variations earlier? Some have claimed that the Jersey Devil has a forked tail and breathed fire – both common attributes to dragons in most mythologies.
        The second version is the strangest of the three, and I’ll refer to it as the Goblin Devil. This is the version that most resembles a man. The only way I’ve seen this version portrayed is in two or three images. The top half of the Goblin Devil strongly resembles a leprechaun – round cheeks, impish nose, and even a hat. The bottom half shows furry legs and cloven feet. He sometimes has nubs of horns barely sticking out from beneath his hair or hat, but they are not prominent features. The Goblin Devil does have wings in most depictions as well, but they, like the horns, are not prominent.
        The last version is the one most often portrayed, and I’ll refer to it as the Goat Devil. This depiction often has the head of a goat with human or humanlike features. The horns on the Goat Devil’s head are very prominent and often long enough to curl. The Goat Devil, like the two previous depictions, is bipedal, but the descriptions of his limbs vary wildly from image to image. Some images show his front legs as being very, very short. Some images show them as being very long and ending in razor-sharp talons. The wings on the Goat Devil’s back are large and are often the focal points of the images depicting the Jersey Devil.
          Across the board, some things remain consistent despite the differences in each depiction. First, each depiction has some variation of horns and wings. Second, each depiction shows some sort of reference to goats. Both of these are tied to depictions of Satan. So, how did the Jersey Devil become so…goaty? Let’s look into some of the different origin stories for the infamous cryptid.

(Artist renderings of the Jersey Devil.
via
Pinelands Preservation Alliance)

Origin Stories

          Like the creature’s overall description, there are also many variations in its origin story. I am going to cover the two main ones that I came across: the Place of the Dragon and the Leeds Family Curse. These two versions of the folklore each have many different versions, morphing with each retelling – such is the nature of folklore and legends. I’m sorry if the two I cover don’t exactly align with what you’ve always heard growing up, or what you personally believe, but this is the result of synthesizing a lot of information from a lot of different resources, and basically boiling it all down to the common parts. Here are the basics of each origin story.
          As local legend goes, the Lenape tribes in what is now New Jersey referred to the Pine Barrens as “Popuessing,” which allegedly translates to the “Place of the Dragon.” When Swedish explorers began to set foot on the east coast, they referred to the area as “Drake Kille” in Dutch. This roughly translates to “Dragon River” – there is no exact translation for “kille” in English, as it seems like it can refer to any offshoot of an ocean or sea, such as a river, inlet, or even something small like a creek. Regardless, the conclusion that most draw between these names and the Jersey Devil is that it has always been there – possibly even before humans. Now, whether you take that to mean it’s something prehistoric or something supernatural is up to you, but…here (might) be dragons, y’all.
          The other big theory when it comes to the Jersey Devil revolves around a woman known as Mother Leeds. The legend goes that Mother Leeds had twelve children. When she found out she was pregnant with a thirteenth child, she cursed her own pregnancy – which seems really counterintuitive to me, but okay – stating that the child would become the devil upon birth. In this version, there’s no record of Mother Leeds practicing witchcraft or being endowed with magic prior to her act of cursing, so I suppose the implication is that Satan heard her curse and claimed the child as his own. (In other versions, she is a witch and the father of the child is literally Satan.) When Mother Leeds gave birth, the child immediately grew bat wings, a goat head, a forked tail, and hooves (so…baphomet, basically?) and proceeded to beat everyone in the room with its tail before escaping up the chimney.
          There was a woman named Deborah Leeds who has been proven to have had twelve children in the correct timeframe of the Mother Leeds legend, but most theorists argue that the actual identity of Mother Leeds matters less than her family tree’s socio-political intrigue does. The Leeds Clan in New Jersey had quite the reputation built up around them, and a man named Daniel Leeds even became Benjamin Franklin’s publishing rival at one point. These reputations may have led to the term “Devil” being introduced to the mix, when they were being cursed out. These people being metaphorical devils may have transformed over the years to there being a literal devil in the pine barrens. Then that literal devil took its own shape and dre much, much more notoriety than the infamous Leeds clan. I could go much, much deeper into the Leeds Lore, but this suffices for our purposes. If you’re interested, I suggest reading this Skeptical Enquirer piece on the Jersey Devil.

Sightings and Encounters

          You may be asking yourself “gee, dear author, just how often is the Jersey Devil spotted? We have so many different descriptions of it.” Well, dear reader, the answer is a bit strange. The Jersey Devil is not necessarily spotted that often, but the sightings do seem to appear in clusters. There will be years – decades, even – between sightings, but then there will be multiple sightings within a year or two. This section is by no means meant to be comprehensive. If I were to attempt to document each Jersey Devil sighting, it would be my full time job and I would be writing entire books, not blog posts. Instead, I’ll go over the most well-known, well-documented, and notable sightings of the Jersey Devil.
          The first sighting we’ll be discussing occurred in 1778. While visiting an iron works in the Pine Barrens to test cannonballs, a man named Stephen Decatur saw a large, winged creature flying overhead. Rather than simply observe the strange creature…he fired at it. And allegedly hit it square in the wing. This did not seem to bother the Jersey Devil, as it just continued to fly on, unbothered.
          In 1820, one of the more notable Jersey Devil encounters took place. Joseph Bonaparte, older brother to Napoleon and former King of Spain, was living in exile in New Jersey. One afternoon Joseph Bonaparte was on a solo hunting trip in the Pine Barrens. The fact that it was snowy is key, as he noticed some strange tracks. He followed them, trying to figure out what kind of animal could have made them. They looked like donkey hooves, but there were only two. As he pondered what had left the, he heard a sort of hissing noise. When he turned to find the source, he faced an animal the likes of which he – and, perhaps, no one else – had ever seen before. It had the head of a horse, bird legs, and enormous wings. Despite the fact he was holding a gun, he did not make a move to harm the creature and it eventually flew away. That’s the bottom-line of the Bonaparte sighting, but you can read more about it here, at American Folklore.

(A newspaper clipping showing a photo of Jersey Devil Tracks.
via
The Philadelphia Inquirer)

          In 1840 and 1841, several herds of  livestock were brutally slain and farmers claimed to have heard “unearthly” screams afterwards. There were flurries of sightings in 1859, 1873, and 1887. The 1887 sighting took place outside of  a homestead, during which the Jersey Devil apparently scared the wits out of a child that resided there. Then, like with Decatur in 1778, it was shot in the wing but seemed unaffected by the shot.
          In 1909, the biggest wave of sightings occurred. There were about a dozen sightings in the span of a week, though some contemporary newspapers claim that encounters numbered in the hundreds. The purported encounters supposedly took place across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even Delaware. I won’t go into details of individual supposed encounters here, but some highlights will suffice. The 1909 sightings allegedly included the Jersey Devil attacking a trolley and a social club, being fired on by police, and killing animals. This rash of sightings prompted public fear that led to schools being closed, workers staying home, and groups of vigilantes to form and patrol the Pine Barrens in search of the creature. The Philadelphia Zoo also purportedly offered a reward for the creature as a result of this flap.
          But after that episode, things slowed down a bit. In 1951, several boys claimed they saw a humanoid creature screaming in Gibbstown, NJ, which honestly sounds more like a different cryptid to me, if not simply another person or a prank. In 1957, a carcass resembling the Jersey Devil was found. I have to say that, while I’ve read about the 1957 encounter from multiple sources, I can’t find who found it or where they found it, so I’m very skeptical of this account. In 1960, a reward was offered by shop owners in Camden, NJ for the capture of the Jersey Devil. That same year in Mays Landing, residents heard strange noises and saw tracks that they eventually attributed to the Jersey Devil.
          Then there was another break in sightings. The next sighting I found with significant backing information took place in 1991. A pizza driver saw a horse-like creature on the road. Again, this doesn’t sound like the Jersey Devil to me, but maybe the moonlight was playing tricks with its coloring. The next significant sighting took place in 2007 in Freehold, NJ. A local woman saw a creature with enormous bat wings near her home. Later that year near Mount Laurel, NJ a man spotted what he described as a “gargoyle”-like creature perching in a tree near the road. In 2008 near Litchfield, PA, a man claimed that the Jersey Devil flew out of the roof of his barn.
          That last sighting we’re going to discuss today took place in 2017, somewhere over Pennsylvania. The person who took the photo, which is examined in a youtube video here, remains anonymous to this day. The anonymous man says the creature in the photo has the same markings as the Jersey Devil. He described it as looking like a “massive vulture” sitting in a tree near the side of the road. To be honest, it just looks like a bat to me.

Theories

          So…what is the Jersey Devil? It’s been a shadow over the Pine Barrens for nearly 300 years. It is perhaps due to this long tenure that so many stories have become attached to the  Devil. Locals, visitors, cryptid enthusiasts, and citizen sleuths have all been trying to figure out the mystery of the creature – does it exist? If so, why is it still around? If it isn’t real, why is the tale so enduring? Let’s take a look at the theories that assume the Jersey Devil is a flesh and bone creature first.
          It is possible that the Jersey Devil is some sort of animal running loose in the Pine Barrens. One possible species to note as a possible explanation is the Sandhill Crane. Now, if you’re an active consumer of Cryptid-centric media, you’re probably groaning. People always want to blame things on sandhill cranes. I mean, look at Mothman (we’ll get to him in another post). The logic here is that the sandhill crane’s wingspan is over five feet and has been known to make noises akin to screams. Another theory in the same vein is that the Jersey Devil is a yet undiscovered species of animal hiding in the vast Pine Barrens. Or maybe it is just what’s been described – a demon from hell or a human child cursed to live as devil spawn or however you want to put it. A genuine cryptid.
          Now let’s move onto the less physical theories of what the Jersey Devil may be. One interesting approach that I only saw in a few places is that the devil is a harbinger of war – an entity that appears to warn those that see it of oncoming danger and impending attacks or battles. Now, whether that means he is a spirit tied to the area for this purpose is not elaborated on – he could still be Mother Leeds’s cursed 13th child, trying to protect the area from incoming danger. But, again, this theory was not fleshed out much besides some surface correlation between sightings and important war dates.
          The final three theories we’ll take a look at are for the skeptics, so gather ‘round. First, many people believe that people who believe they sighted the Jersey Devil actually saw something else and their subsequent panic caused mass hysteria. Mass hysteria leaves a lasting impact on the community it is contained in – their history, their customs, and their folklore all morph in an attempt to document and understand the hysteria. The tale Jersey Devil could have been born of a few people seeing a strange animal in the woods – or even just believing they did – and then the ripple effects from those sightings.
          Or perhaps the Jersey Devil was the result of a prank or a deliberate hoax? An art installation gone wrong? We don’t know what goes on in any wood, let alone one as dense and vast as the Pine Barrens. I could definitely see someone rigging up a horse-like structure to scare a friend, or trying to build wings that would allow horses to fly and testing them on horse dummies. My imagination could run wild. Or maybe some locals built a monster to scare people away from the woods for some reason. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
          Finally, and perhaps my personal favorite theory: maybe the Jersey Devil was built up as a bogeyman to keep people away from real danger in the Pine Barrens. Every kid hears tales of what waits in the dark to gobble them up if they put a toe out of line. I imagine that the Pine Barrens has more than its fair share of danger – given its sheer overwhelming size and wild nature. Who knows what animals one would cross paths with if they were to wander into its depths? What pitfalls and cliffs and roots to twist their ankles on? And what people dare take refuge in its leafy depths? So maybe the Jersey Devil is just a tall tale, carefully crafted to keep people away from the Pine Barrens and the dangers it may hold.
          The world may never know.

Sources

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