The Jersey Devil

New Jersey is the only state that has an official “State Demon”, based on an odd legend that involves Benjamin Franklin, a prominent New Jersey family, and Satan.

The Jersey Devil, as depicted in 1909                            photo from WikiCommons

Although New Jersey is a heavily populated state, the northern portion, known as the Pine Barrens, is surprisingly empty, consisting of open stretches of forest. 

Rumor has it that this is where the New York Mafia buries its victims (including, in some versions, Jimmy Hoffa). In my younger days I spent time camping and backpacking in the Barrens, and became familiar with one of the many legends that surround this place: the tale of the Jersey Devil.

There are several different versions of the Jersey Devil story, but they all begin with “Mother Leeds”. She was a member of the Leeds family that was prominent in this part of New Jersey and who owned a large amount of land in the Pine Barrens. In the 1710s, Daniel Leeds was a successful printer who was publishing an almanac. He did well—until he upset the local Quaker community by printing astrological horoscopes in his volumes. The devout Quakers considered this to be idol-worship and blasphemy, and they shunned him. Leeds then made the split permanent by converting to Anglicanism and writing articles which denounced the Quakers.

When Daniel Leeds died in1720 his son Titan took over the business, and he did well enough to compete successfully with another almanac, published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin.  But Titan continued his father’s practice of printing horoscopes in his books, and Franklin took advantage of this to sarcastically publish his own “astrological calculation” predicting that Leeds would die in October 1733. When Leeds then wrote a letter to Poor Richards pointing out that he was still alive, Franklin mockingly replied that his astrology was correct, that Leeds really did die, and that this letter must be from a ghost who had returned to haunt him.

In 1735, however, the legend goes, Mother Leeds learned that she was pregnant again, with her 13th child. In some versions, destitute, with a lazy husband, and facing yet another mouth to feed, she impulsively uttered a curse to Heaven, “Let this one be a devil!” In other versions, Mother Leeds was herself a witch who practiced dark arts in the pine woods, and who had summoned Satan himself to pass through the gates of Hell—and fornicated with him to produce a child.

Today, many researchers identify “Mother” Leeds as Deborah, the wife of Japhet Leeds—who, according to his 1736 will, had 12 children. They lived at Leeds Point in the Barrens.

On the night that Mother Leeds’ 13thchild was born, it was turbulent and stormy: violent lightning rent the air. In the upstairs bedroom, accompanied by midwives and, in some versions, family, lay Mother Reeds. At first, the child looked like an ordinary baby boy. But suddenly, after a lightning strike or, in some versions, after being exposed to the light of the full moon, the child began to transform: with shrieking screams it sprouted cloven feet and hairy legs like a goat, long claws emerged from its fingers, the face was drawn out into a fanged muzzle, the eyes turned glowing red, and a pair of batlike wings sprouted from its back. With its terrible claws the creature tore apart several people in the room, then swiftly climbed up the chimney onto the roof and flapped away into the trackless expanse of the Pine Barrens. And, the legend says, it still lives there today.

The source of the story would seem to be pretty apparent: it is a tall tale made up about a family that nobody seemed to like very much (and it may not be a coincidence that the English coat of arms of the Leeds family bears the figure of a long-tailed bat-winged dragon known as a Wyvern).Although the legend of the Jersey Devil was familiar to every resident of the Pine Barrens (known as “Pineys” or “Pine Rats”), however, it remained little more than a local tale.

At least, until 1909, when there was a sudden outburst of “monster” stories. At first, these told of strange cloven-hoofed footprints that seemed to pass through walls or over rooftops. Then, accounts came of blood-curdling shrieks in the forest, said to sound like a woman screaming, or fingernails on a chalkboard, or sometimes like a rusty gate. Finally, there were descriptions of encounters with bat-winged red-eyed creatures that suddenly appeared and then flapped off into the night. Within weeks, there were hundreds of “monster sightings” from as far away as Maryland. Children stayed home from school, and in Newark even the timber workers would no longer venture into the Pine Barrens.

Old “sightings” now suddenly surfaced: it was reported that US Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur had once shot at the Devil with a cannon while inspecting the Hanover Mill Works, and Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, was said to have seen the creature in the early 1800s.

At the Arch Street Museum in Philadelphia, meanwhile, which had been struggling for some time, publicist Norman Jeffries saw an opportunity to bring in some paying crowds. He purchased a young Kangaroo from a traveling circus, glued some fake talons to its paws and attached large batlike wings to its back, then exhibited it as a “captured Jersey Devil”. The exhibit must have been pretty dimly lit for it to fool anybody, but the hoax attracted a lot of visitors to the museum. (It also makes one wonder how much involvement Jeffries might have had with the original newspaper stories which set off the flap in the first place.)

Even today, there are still occasional stories of encounters.

The Pine Barrens are primeval, and they can indeed be a hazardous place for inexperienced or unprepared hikers. There are bears and cougars here (and it may be relevant that one of the many names for the cougar is “mountain screamer”), though the real danger comes from the Barrens itself. The endless pine forest looks the same from any direction, making it easy for a backpacker to get lost—and they are empty enough that you could wander here for days without seeing anyone.

I can still recall one story that I heard, of a traveler from New York City who, while passing through the Pine Barrens in winter, stopped along the road to pee. He was never seen again. The footprints found in the snow near his abandoned car told the story: he had walked a short ways into the woods, peed on a tree, and then apparently, in the dark, he forgot in which direction the road lay. His footprints wandered aimlessly for a time, then went off away from the road, deeper into the woods. His body was never found.

Some whispered that the Devil got him.

7 thoughts on “The Jersey Devil”

  1. I think we share a love for cryptozoology stories. Pity that during your film making days, you never thought of “Bigfoot versus the Jersey Devil”… 🙂

    1. You may enjoy Stephen King’s novel “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” if the idea of getting lost in the woods gives you sleepless nights… 🙂

    2. Heh, I’m an old backpacker who did a lot of hiking in pre-GPS days. I never got lost–though a few times I wasn’t exactly sure where the heck I was. 😉

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