Sunday, May 25, 2008

Jersey Devil


We're gonna share one of our neighbor's tales with you today as we gaze eastward towards the woodlands of New Jersey and its' infamous Devil. The well-traveled Jersey Devil has been known to cross state lines to spook small town Pennsylvanians, so we figure it's fair game for this blog.

The Jersey Devil is a legendary critter said to generally cavort in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. It's sort of a cross between a pterodactyl and a horse.

The Jersey Devil's home is the Blue Hole. According to popular folklore, the pond is a gateway to Hell. The water in the hole is always frigid, even during the summer. And the pool is said to have a whirlpool effect on any person who dives into it, swirling you into the depths of Hades - or the Jersey Devil's living room.

Unlike the surrounding rivers and lakes in the region, the Blue Hole has crystal clear water, which is one of its stranger features. Clean water in Jersey? Now that's eerie. (Actually, the Pine Barrens is one of the state's major aquifers.)

The most popular version of the Jersey Devil legend begins in the 18th century when Jane Smith arrived from England and went to the Pine Barrens to marry a Mr. Leeds, who wanted heirs to continue the family name. As a result, the missus was continually preggers, getting frumpier and grumpier by the child.

After bearing twelve healthy children, she lost it when she became pregnant with her thirteenth kid. She cursed the unborn child, saying she'd rather have the Devil's child than another Leeds' legacy. Guess the blush was off the rose by then, hey?

According to legend, her wish was granted. Her new child had cloven hooves, claws, and a tail. The gruesome babe devoured the other Leeds children and then its' parents before escaping through the chimney to begin its' reign of terror. (Yah, it seemed odd to us too that all the witnesses became Devil chow. Maybe the nanny busted it.)

This version, cool as it may be, is waylaid by the fact that Mother Leeds has descendants that, as of 1998, still lived in Atlantic County NJ according to the New York Times. Bummer.

But there are several twists of the Leeds tale, like the one claiming that in 1735, Mrs. Leeds discovered that she was pregnant with her 13th child. She complained to her friends and relatives that the “Devil can take the next one”, and he did.

The child was born with horns, a tail, wings, and a horse-like head. Leeds threw it out of the house, but the creature came by and visited its' mom everyday, like a good son. And every day, she stood at the door and told it to leave. After awhile, the Devil took the hint and never came back, retiring to the Barrens.

Another similar bit of folklore says a Mrs. Shourds made a wish that if she ever had another child, she wanted it to be a devil. Watch what you wish for.

Her next child was born misshapen and deformed. She hid the baby in the house, so the curious wouldn't see him. One stormy night, the child flapped it's arms, which turned into wings, and escaped out the chimney and was never seen by the family again.

The Shourds House (Leeds Point, Atlantic County, NJ) is considered sacred ground for Jersey Devil devotees. It's alleged to be the Devil's birthplace, and the ruins of its' old stone house still remain. So whether its' ma was Mrs. Leeds or its' home was Leeds Point, the Jersey Devil is also often known as the Leeds Devil.

But there are other older origins for the Jersey Devil legend besides the Leeds' family feud. The local Lenni Lenape tribes called the area around Pine Barrens "Popuessing," meaning "place of the dragon." Swedish explorers later named it "Drake Kill", "drake" being a Swedish word for dragon, and "kill" meaning river.

Some skeptics believe the Jersey Devil is nothing more than a morality tale of the English settlers. The Pine Barrens were shunned by the early locals as a desolate, threatening place. Isolated in the misty forest, it became a natural refuge for those on the lam, such as religious dissenters, loyalists, fugitives and deserters in colonial times.

The runaways formed groups known as "pineys", some of whom became bandits called "pine robbers". Pineys were further demonized after two early 20th century eugenics studies depicted them as inbred congenital idiots and criminals (Modern geneticists say that the studies weren't worth the paper they were written on, but the stigma is hard to shake, even today.)

It's easy to imagine early tales of terrible monsters arising from a combination of sightings of wild life, fear of outlaws, and dread of the Barrens. Don't you love it when a story comes together?

But Jersey Devil lore is backed by many reputable eyewitnesses who have reportedly seen the creature, dating over two centuries to the present day.

In 1778, Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of Tripoli, visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens to test artillery at a firing range, where he witnessed a strange, pale white creature flying overhead. Using cannon fire, Decatur punctured the wing of the creature, which continued on its' merry way without missing so much as a flutter.

The problem with this tale is that Decatur wasn't born until 1779. But it could have happened between 1816 and 1820, when he was the Naval Commissioner in charge of testing equipment and materials used to build new warships.

Joseph Bonaparte, the oldest brother of Napoleon, is said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown estate around 1820.

In 1840, the Devil was blamed for cattle killings. Similar attacks were seen in 1841, accompanied by strange tracks and unearthly screams. The devil made an 1859 appearance in Haddonfield. Bridgeton witnessed a flurry of sightings during the winter of 1873.

About 1887, the Jersey Devil was sighted near a house, scattering the local rugrats. The Devil was spotted in the woods soon after that, and just as in Decatur's story, it was shot in the right wing, but still kept flying.

There were reported Jersey Devil sightings throughout the 1800s, include an 1899 raid on Vincentown and Burrsville, during which many sheep and chickens disappeared, presumably becoming a quick snack for the Devil.

January of 1909, however, was the mother of all Devil sightings. Thousands of people claimed to witness the Jersey Devil during the week of January 16–23 in towns, hamlets, and farms all over New Jersey. Newspapers nationwide followed the story and published breathless eyewitness reports.

The Philadelphia Zoo posted a $1M reward for the Devil's capture. The offer set off a chain of hoaxes, including one involving a kangaroo with artificial wings. None were good enough to pass the Zoo's muster, and the reward remains unclaimed to this day.

Since that week of the Devil, sightings have been much less frequent, but didn't end by any means. In 1951 there was an uproar in Gibbstown after local boys claimed to have seen a screaming humanoid monster.

A telephone lineman working near Pleasantville was chased up a telephone pole by the Jersey Devil. He stayed there until a co-worker arrived and shot the Devil in the wing, wounding it. The Devil escaped into the surrounding woods.

In 1991, a pizza delivery driver in Edison described a night encounter with a white, horselike creature. In Freehold, in 2007, a woman supposedly saw a huge creature with bat-like wings near her home.

In August of the same year, a young man driving home near the border of Mount Laurel and Moorestown reported a similar sighting, claiming that he spotted a "gargoyle-like creature with partially spread bat wings" of an enormous wingspan perched in some trees near the road.

In January 23, 2008 the Jersey Devil was spotted again, this time in Litchfield, PA, by a local resident that claims to have seen the creature standing on his barn roof.

Many theorists believe that the Jersey Devil could possibly be a very rare, unclassified species which instinctually fears and attempts to avoid humans. Pretty smart critter, no?

Supporters of the crypto theory point out the similarities of the creature's appearance (horselike head, long neck and tail, leathery wings, cloven hooves, blood-curdling scream), with the only difference being the height and color.

Another fact supporting the cryptozoological theory is that it's much more likely that a species could endure over a span of several hundred years, rather than a single creature surviving since the days of the Lenni Lenape.

Some people think the Sandhill Crane (which has a 7' wing span) could be the Jersey Devil. But the physical descriptions of the Devil seem to be match up with the species pterosaur, Jurassic Park era dinos known popularly in museums as "winged lizards."

A rotting corpse vaguely matching the Jersey Devil's description was discovered in 1957, leaving some to believe the creature was dead. However, there have been several sightings since that time, soooo...

How ingrained is this story into the Jersey psyche? Well, the New Jersey Devils hockey team takes its name from the legendary critter. It sure beats the New Jersey Sopranos, right?

(The top and bottom images are from the
Elk Township - Jersey Devil site.)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

growing up in southern new jersey, we played in the woods and saw and heard many weird sounds and sights that would said us all home in a hurry crying and scared of the devil, his footprints were seen by many of us garden kids in the wooded woodbury area, there was a spring with red clay we called red clay hill where footprints of a weird animal always appeared to drink.