The Jersey Devil is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, United States. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many different variations. The common description is that of a kangaroo-like creature with the head of a goat, leathery bat-like wings, horns, small arms with clawed hands, cloven hooves and a forked tail. It has been reported to move quickly and often is described as emitting a “blood-curdling scream.”
Origin of the legend
The Lenape tribes called the area “Popuessing” meaning “place of the dragon”. Swedish explorers later named it “Drake Kill” (“drake” being a word for dragon, and “kill” meaning channel or arm of the sea (river, stream, etc. in Dutch).
Japhet Leeds House, Moss Mill Road, Leeds Point, Atlantic County, NJ (c.1937)
A popular origin of the story is as follows: “It was said that Mother Leeds had 12 children and, after finding she was pregnant for the 13th time, stated that this one would be the Devil. In 1735, Mother Leeds was in labor on a stormy night. Gathered around her were her friends. Mother Leeds was supposedly a witch and the child’s father was the Devil himself. The child was born normal, but then changed form. It changed from a normal baby to a creature with hooves, a goat’s head, bat wings and a forked tail. It growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the pines. In 1740 a clergyman exorcised the demon for 100 years and it wasn’t seen again until 1890.”
“Mother Leeds” has been identified by some as Deborah Leeds, grounds that Deborah Leeds’ husband, Japhet Leeds, named twelve children in the will he wrote in 1736, which is compatible with the legend. Deborah and Japhet Leeds also lived in the Leeds Point section of what is now Atlantic County, New Jersey, which is commonly the location of the Jersey Devil story.
Brian Regal a historian of science at Kean University, wrote that Mother Leeds was merely part of the popular legend of the Jersey Devil created in the 20th century. Regal contends that long-forgotten “colonial-era political intrigue” involving early New Jersey politician and rival almanac publisher Daniel Leeds (1651–1720) led to the Leeds family being portrayed as “political and religious monsters”, and it was his negative portrayal as the “Leeds Devil”, rather than any actual creature, that spawned the later legend of the Jersey Devil. According to Regal:
References to the Jersey Devil do not appear in newspapers or other printed material until the twentieth century. The first major flap came in 1909. It is from these sightings that the popular image of the creature—batlike wings, horse head, claws, and general air of a dragon—became standardized.
Brian Dunning of Skeptoid also wrote that the “Leeds Devil” was likely created to discredit Daniel Leeds.
There have been many claims of sightings and occurrences allegedly involving the Jersey Devil.
According to a legend of unknown origin, while visiting the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his cannonballs being forged, Commodore Stephen Decatur sighted a flying creature flapping its wings and fired a cannonball directly upon it to no effect.
Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon, is also claimed to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Borden town estate around 1820. In 1840, the devil was blamed for several livestock killings. Similar attacks were reported in 1841, accompanied by tracks and screams. There unfortunately tends to be a lack of citations contemporary with the supposed events.
Claims of a corpse matching the Leeds Devil’s description arose in Greenwich in December 1925. A local farmer shot an unidentified animal as it attempted to steal his chickens. Afterward, he claimed that none of 100 people he showed it to could identify it. On July 27, 1937, an unknown animal “with red eyes” seen by residents of Downingtown, Pennsylvania was compared to the Jersey Devil by a reporter for the Pennsylvania Bulletin of July 28, 1937. In 1951, a group ofGibbstown, New Jersey boys claimed to have seen a ‘monster’ matching the Devil’s description and claims of a corpse matching the Jersey Devil’s description arose in 1957. In 1960, tracks and noises heard near Mays Landing were claimed to be from the Jersey Devil. During the same year the merchants around Camden offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Jersey Devil, even offering to build a private zoo to house the creature if captured.
Sightings of 1909
During the week of January 16 through 23, 1909, newspapers of the time published hundreds of claimed encounters with the Jersey Devil from all over the state. Among alleged encounters publicized that week were claims the creature “attacked” a trolley car in Haddon Heights and a social club in Camden. Police in Camden and Bristol, Pennsylvania supposedly fired on the creature to no effect.
Other reports initially concerned unidentified footprints in the snow, but soon sightings of creatures resembling the Jersey Devil were being reported throughout South Jersey and as far away as Delaware and Western Maryland. The widespread newspaper coverage led to a panic throughout the Delaware Valley prompting a number of schools to close and workers to stay home. During this period, it is rumored that the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the creature’s dung. The offer prompted a variety of hoaxes, including a kangaroo with artificial wings.
Skeptics believe the Jersey Devil to be nothing more than a creative manifestation of the English settlers, Bogeyman stories created and told by bored Pine Barren residents as a form of children’s entertainment, and rumors arising from negative perceptions of the local population (“pineys”). Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand wrote that the spread of contemporary pop culture has overtaken traditional Jersey Devil legends. Jeff Brunner of the Humane Society of New Jersey thinks the Sandhill crane is the basis of the Jersey Devil stories, adding, “There are no photographs, no bones, no hard evidence whatsoever, and worst of all, no explanation of its origins that doesn’t require belief in the supernatural.”
Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown, Jr. spent several seasons living in the wilderness of the Pine Barrens. He recounts occasions when terrified hikers mistook him for the Jersey Devil, after he covered his whole body with mud to repel mosquitoes.
One New Jersey group called the “Devil Hunters” refer to themselves as “official researchers of the Jersey Devil”, and devote time to collecting reports, visiting historic sites, and going on nocturnal hunts in the Pine Barrens in order to “find proof that the Jersey Devil does in fact exist.”
Gordon Stein in Encyclopedia of Hoaxes (1993) noted that the alleged footprints of the Jersey Devil in 1909 resembled a horse’s hoof. According to Stein a man later admitted he had faked some of these footprints.
Geoff Tibballs in The World’s Greatest Hoaxes (2006) has claimed that Norman Jeffries was involved in hoaxing the Jersey Devil:
Norman Jeffries, publicist for Philadelphia’s Arch Street Museum and renowned hoaxer, was well aware of the stories about the Jersey Devil. So when the museum proprietor, T. F. Hopkins, admitted that it was in danger of closure unless Jeffries came up with something to boost attendances, the publicist decided that a captive Jersey Devil would be the ideal crowd-puller.
He also planted fictional newspaper stories about new sightings of the Devil. In 1909, Jeffries with his friend Jacob Hope, an animal trainer, purchased a kangaroofrom a circus and attached claws and fake bat wings onto it with glue. They declared to the public they had captured the Devil and it was put on display at themuseum. Twenty years later, Jeffries admitted to the hoax.
The Jersey Devil has become a cultural icon in the state, inspiring several organizations to use the nickname. In professional hockey, the Eastern Hockey League Jersey Devils played from 1964 through 1973. When the National Hockey League Colorado Rockies relocated to New Jersey in 1982, a fan poll voted to rename that team the New Jersey Devils.
The Jersey Devil has also appeared in many television shows, movies, video games, and other media.