The Legend of the Jersey Devil
Stretching from Toms River in Ocean County, to Cape May lies a tract of forest that has captivated people since pre-colonial times. Some of the first permanent settlements in North America were in the Delaware River area. Dutch, Swedes, Portuguese, and English settlers all found the area a harsh but profitable area to settle.
In the early years of British Colonials, iron making towns sprang up, converting the local bog iron found in the cedar streams to a crude form of iron – pig iron. These foundries provided much needed ammunition for the American fight for freedom.
But there is something else about these woods that makes it a place shunned by many. The Pine Barrens are truly a world cut off from the rest of society. Within the Pine’s stretches many strange things have happened. Paint Island Spring, a natural hot spring, has been said to cure many illnesses. A tree in Burlington County that a man was murdered in front of is perpetually green – as is a patch of grass in front of it. A huge forest of stunted pines lay nearly in the center of the forest – you could look from horizon to horizon and not see a tree bigger than four feet.
And then there’s one thing that makes many of the locals dive for cover, when eerie screams ring out and cloven footprints appear in the ground – what many of the locals call the Leeds Devil, or to those outside of the pines, the Jersey Devil.
The weather that usually accompanies supernatural events is the standard “dark and stormy night”? stuff. And indeed, this night was one of those nights. Leeds Point, where our story begins, is located on the Southern shore of the Great Bay in Burlington County. Leeds Point today is a small dot on the map, just a few houses that are used only seasonally. Leeds Point, back in pre-colonial days, was a larger community, located conveniently on the Mullica River and the Great Bay.
Like any good folklore, the details of the Leeds Devil’s birth are shadowed by the mists of time. The most commonly accepted belief is that a lady known only as Mrs. Leeds (although many insist that her name was Mrs. Shourds) was blessed with 12 children. Upon finding out that she was pregnant with her 13th, she cried out, “May this one be the devil!”? Her wish was granted. The birth was normal, but accounts say that almost immediately, the infant began changing. It’s skin grew rough and scaly, it’s hands and feet elongated and grew hooves, it’s back sprouted a pair of bats wings and serpentine tail, and it’s face twisted and changed to have the face of a horse. Reeling about, it thrashed everyone in the room with it’s tail and flew up the chimney and off into the night.
The devil began raiding local farms, feeding off of crops and livestock, it’s most favorite animal being chicken, which would either be missing when their owners would check them in the morning, or be found dead, for apparently no reason. In 1740 one of the wandering missionaries that preached from town to town in the Pines exorcised him for 100 years. This may not have been effective, because the Devil was reported seen a few times between 1740 and 1840.
Another theory is that Mrs. Leeds refused food to a wandering gypsy, and that the gypsy cursed her unborn child. Another version has it that someone other than Mrs. Leeds had the child – that a young woman was impregnated by a British soldier, and that the offspring was the Devil itself. The latter is probably just Revolutionary War propaganda, because in the eyes of colonials, the Redcoats were the devil themselves! It should be noted that the British had several campaigns against smugglers and pirates in the area, and that the disastrous Battle of Chestnut Creek was fought not far from Leeds Point.
No matter what the variants on the legend, the basics are the same. It was man sized, with a forked tail, cloven hoofs, and the head of a horse. Sprouting from it’s back were two large leathery bat wings. It’s diet consisted of crops and livestock, but oddly enough, there are no reports of it every attacking a human. Many people believe the Devil to be a harbinger of doom. He has been spotted right before every major war, and legend has it that the Leeds Devil will perform some act of mischief on you if you hold evil thoughts.
The Devil was also not alone in the lonely pines. He has been seen with the spirit of a pirate thought to be one of the infamous Captain Kidd’s crew, killed so that his spirit would guard the treasure. The Devil was also thought to be cavorting with a mermaid out to sea, and a beautiful white clad girl with radiant golden hair.
Week of Terror – January, 1909
Many people had hoped that the new century would see the end to the Jersey Devil. He had remained quiet since the late 1880’s, when he was last seen raiding sheep near the New York – New Jersey border. However, fear and panic struck Burlington county in the latter half of January, 1909 – and a new era of Devil sightings were about to begin.
January 16-23 was a week not forgotten quickly by residents of the Delaware River valley. Thousands heard or saw the devil himself, or his footprints. Factories and schools closed for lack of attendance. Many people refused to come out of their homes unarmed, and that was in daylight. Trolley conductors were armed, and posses roamed the countryside following mysterious tracks that would lead for miles, crawl through areas with less than eight inches of clearance, hop fences, or suddenly disappear. His name also changed. In newspaper articles, he was given names like “jabberwock,” “kangaroo horse,” “flying death,” “kingowing,” “woozlebug,” “flying horse,” “cowbird,” “monster,” “flying hoof,” and “prehistoric lizard.”
Saturday, January 16th was the first day that sightings started being reported. A lone sighting in Woodbury, NJ, and two in Bristol, PA started off the furor. The Woodbury sighting, reported by Thack Cozzens, was quick – he just saw the Devil crossing the road near the Woodbury Hotel. He described it as moving faster than an auto, with two spots of phosphorescence for eyes. In Bristol, one sighting was made by Patrolman James Sackville, later chief of the Bristol Police Department. He described the beast as being winged, but hopped like a bird, with features of a “peculiar animal.” It’s voice was like a terrible scream. The creature fled after Sackville started firing his service revolver. Immediately after, E. W. Minster, the postmaster of Bristol reported seeing the Devil flying across the Delaware River at two o’clock in the morning.
Monday found Burlington in an uproar. Hardly a yard was untouched by them. The contents of many trash cans were strewn about and half devoured. Many people attempted to capture the devil, and the woods were filled with steel traps. Dogs would refuse to follow the tracks of the Devil. Posses combed the woods, shouting “If you’re the devil, rattle your chains.”
The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Evans awoke to ungodly sounds in their back yard. Peering out their bedroom window, they watched as the Devil perched atop their shed. Evans told the press:
“It was about three and a half feet high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and it’s back legs were like a crane, and it had horse’s hooves. It walked on it’s back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It didn’t use the front legs at all while we were watching. My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the window and say, ‘Shoo’? and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away.”
More tracks appeared throughout Burlington and Gloucester counties. This time the descriptions varied. Some claimed the Devil to be the size of a dog, while others claimed it had antlers, and still others claimed it had three toes and was dog-like.
An unidentified policeman in Burlington was sure he saw a Jabbwerwock Wednesday morning. It’s eyes were like blazing coals, he claimed. It had no teeth “and other terrible attributes.”? The Leeds Devil was seen in Collingswood by a posse as it flew towards Morristown, where John Smith saw it near the Mount Carmel cemetery. He chased it unit it disappeared in a gravel pit. Later in the evening, the beast frightened riders of a trolley car in Springside. The driver, Edward Davis, reported that “It looked like a winged kangaroo with a long neck.”
The next sightings happened early Thursday morning, the 21st of January. It’s first stop was the Camden area, where it appeared to the Black Hawk Social Club at 1 a.m. It again frightened passengers on a trolley, circling above the tracks, hissing ominously. Fortunately, it kept with it’s pattern of not attacking humans, and was off into the night. The Devil then flew North to Trenton, where it made tracks in the park and several yards. The Devil also tried to enter the home of Trenton councilman E. P. Weeden, but was foiled by a locked door. Many residents elected not to venture outside of their homes until they were sure the threat of the monster was gone. So frightened were local residents that ministers noted an increased attendance at their churches.
Many poultry farmers also reported missing large numbers of chickens. Further adding mystery to this, chickens were soon found dead with no markings on them. Farmers speculated either choking or fright. They all agreed on one thing – that the Jersey Devil was at the root of the problem.
The monster didn’t limit it’s activities to New Jersey on Thursday, either. He was seen running up the Chester Pike in Leiperville, Pennsylvania running along on it’s hind legs faster than an automobile. This time the devil had skin like an alligator, and was about six feet tall. The Devil didn’t stay for long in Pennsylvania – William Wasso, a trackwalker for an electric railway company, watched as the Devil sniffed the center rail. He then saw the devil touch the rail with it’s tail, and explode, melting the track for twenty feet in either direction. Finding no trace of the creature, Wasso believed that it was dead.
The Devil, however, has a history of being impervious to harm. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a captain in the Revolutionary Navy, was in Batsto testing some ordinance when he spied the Devil flying overhead. He ordered the cannon to be fired at it, but the shot passed right through the beast. It flew away unharmed.
Friday saw the Devil back in Camden, observed by another policeman who described him to be a Jabberwock. By this time, the strain of the events of the week had taken their toll on the citizens of the area. Schools closed, and theater performances were canceled. The Devil was seen in Mount Holly, where William Cronk spied him from his window while eating his supper. The Devil was supposedly captured in the barn of C. C. Hilk in Pennsylvania. Two farmhands had locked him in there while he was riding on a wagon driven by one of the farmhands. Many curious people crossed the Delaware to see the beast, but in it’s usual fashion, it was nowhere to be found.
The Jersey Devil was also not the only strange being to appear this Friday. Dan Possack of Millville had a struggle with “one of the strangest freaks of nature, or a monster straight from the bad place.”? While Dan was doing his chores he heard someone in the backyard walking around, calling out to him. When he turned around, he beheld a “monster beast-bird” about 18 feet high. The visitor demanded to know where the garbage can was, asking in perfectly good English. Dan, terrified, ran towards the barn, but the bird caught up with him. It wrapped it’s sinewy and red beak around Dan’s body. Dan began hitting it with a hatchet that he kept in his belt. He was astonished to see that he could chop splinters out of the body, much like he could out of wood. While he was chopping, the beast whispered something in Dan’s ear, and with a mighty blow, Dan set the hatchet square into the monster’s face. Out popped an eyeball, and with a scream of pain, the assailant took in a long breath, filled it’s body like a balloon, and floated into space.” Mass hysteria was certainly gripping the area.
What is It?
Many theories abound as to what the Leeds Devil was. Many were proposed in seriousness and in jest. Some believed that it was a prehistoric creature trapped in a submerged limestone cave. With plenty of air and a constant supply of food (fish) life could continue, separated from the rest of the modern world. The caves could have been opened by seismic activity. The Grand Banks area is known for earthquakes – could one of these opened up the cave that held the Devil?
Or could it be Mrs. Leeds 13th child? Was there really ever a Jersey Devil? According to Rutgers University Folklorist Angus Gillespie, no. Gillespie tells of the first written tale of the Devil, found in the diary of a woodsman named Vance Larner. Stories of the beast Larner say gradually emerged into the Leeds Point myth. Why Leeds? The Leeds, like many early Pines settlers, had been around the area for ages, and many people carried the surname. It might have been easy to pick the Leeds name. The stories of the Devil haunting the woods might have also been devised to discourage federal agents from sweeping the area looking for contraband – something hard to sneak into New York or Philadelphia, but relatively easy in the Pines. It may also have been the perversion of a mothers warning – “Don’t be out late or the Jersey Devil may get you!.”
Nonetheless, the Jersey Devil in recent years has been quiet. He made a brief appearance in the 1950’s, and aroused many curious citizens to thrash around the bushes of Leeds Point. Maybe he’s silent now because his name has been commercialized. Countless bars and taverns bear his name, as well as a potent drink and a hockey team. Maybe the ever encroaching population that replaces more and more trees with modular homes and Sport Utility Vehicles has driven the devil farther and farther into the woods.
Yet there are many people who refuse to go into the pines, be it daylight or night. The pines are an eerie place, physically separated from civilization only by a few miles, but lost in an age of its own.
“Where stunted pines of burned over forest are revealed in darksome pools, the Jersey Devil lurks”? wrote the late New Jersey historian Henry Charlton Beck. Maybe he’s is right.
Beck, Henry Charlton, Jersey Genesis: The Story of the Mullica River, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1963.
McGloy, James & Miller, Ray Jr. The Jersey Devil Middle Atlantic Press, Wilmington, Delaware, 1976.
Mother Leeds Curse, World & I Magazine, November, 1995, Vol. 10, Issue 11, p202
A Haunted Place, House Beautiful, November 1994, Vol. 136, Issue 11, p20
Claim They Have Seen “Leeds Devil”?, Asbury Park Evening Press, January 22, 1909, p2
An Awful Struggle, Asbury Park Evening Press, January 22, 1909, p2
What Mysterious Tracks Are These?, Asbury Park Evening Press, January 20, 1909, p2