Friday, January 15, 2010

Searching for the Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil. No, we're not talking hockey (though that's where the team gets its name), but that legendary creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey.

The Pine Barrens has a rich folklore in its oddly-named towns (Double Trouble, Ong's Hat, Mount Misery - even a few "ghost towns" like Martha and Colliers), and it also has rich

There are many studied and protected birds, animals and rare flora in the 1.1 million acres. And lovers of nature walk the the white-sand trails and paddle tea-colored cedar rivers.

And most natives of New Jersey have heard of the Jersey Devil, a creature whose legend dates back more than two centuries.

If you had to pick a place in NJ to be the home of a strange and elusive creature, the isolated Pinelands would be it.

Once, the area was known for its ironworks, but if you find the 18th-century ironmaking town of Martha, you'll find that it has been deserted and swallowed up by the Pinelands.
The remaining stone foundations and cellars where houses once stood would be a good habitat for the Jersey Devil.

"Pineys" (the not-so-complimentary but common term for residents of the Barrens) go back three to five generations. They are an independent group. Their musical tastes often go to fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, banjo, guitar, and dulcimer tunes. It's a part of NJ that most outsiders would have trouble identifying with Jersey. Here is where the legend of the Jersey Devil took root.

It probably started with Lenni Lenape Indians who called the region Popuessing, or "place of the dragon."

Following the Native Americans of the area, Swedish explorers named the area "Drake Kill" - "drake" being a Swedish word for dragon, and "kill" meaning channel or arm of the sea, river, or stream.

The Jersey Devil (AKA the Leeds Devil) is a legendary creature (cryptid) and it's hard to even find agreement on a description of it. Commonly, it has been described as a flying biped with hooves.

As far as the Leeds Devil story:  Mother Leeds had 12 children and, after giving birth to her 12th child, stated that if she had another, it would be the Devil. In 1735, Mother Leeds (supposedly a witch) gave birth (on a stormy night) to #13. Though it looked normal at birth, she claimed the father was the Devil himself.

Soon after the birth, the baby changed form to a creature with hooves, a horse's head, bat wings and a forked tail. It growled, killed the midwife, flew up the chimney and headed for the pines.

History-checkers say Deborah Leeds was the mother. Her husband, Japhet Leeds, named twelve children in the will he wrote in 1736. They lived in the Leeds Point section of what is now Atlantic County.

There are records of searches for the creature. Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Emperor Napoleon) is said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown, New Jersey estate around 1820.

Reports of sightings peaked 101 years ago in January 1909. Thousands of people claimed to witness the Jersey Devil during the week of January 16–23. Newspapers nationwide followed the story and published eyewitness reports about the creature flying over Woodbury, leaving tracks in Bristol, Pennsylvania and Burlington.

A Gloucester couple saw the creature outside their window and said: "It was about three feet and a half 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 its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves. It walked on its 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."

In Haddonfield and Collingswood, posses were formed to find the devil. They supposedly watched the creature fly toward Moorestown, where it was later seen by at least two more people. It got bolder and attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights.

Despite several reports of a few rifle shots hitting the creature, it always seemed to get away.

And, even though the Jersey Devil terrified people, a report of it biting a dog that month was one of the few reported attacks on a living creature - and there are no reports of an attack on a human.

The Philadelphia Zoo supposedly posted a $10,000 reward for the creature's capture that year. In 1960, the merchants around Camden also offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Jersey Devil. (A pretty safe offer to make for a legendary creature.)

Sightings after the 1909 frenzy have been infrequent. 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. He claimed that he spotted a "a creature resembling a gargoyle with enormous bat-like wings" perched in some trees near the road.

In 2008, the Jersey Devil was supposedly spotted in Litchfield, Pennsylvania by a resident that claims to have seen the creature come barreling out of the roof of his barn.

Last September, a young man driving home on Interstate 80 near Parsippany, NJ (far from the Pine Barrens in North Jersey, but not the only North Jersey sighting) claimed he saw "a black long-necked creature with a with a long tail" run across the road, and disappear into the darkness on the other side of the road.

Some have credited the sightings to misinterpreted encounters in the dark with bears, wild dogs, sandhill cranes and even antlered deer. Most people think it's a fun legend to scare kids with on a visit to the Barrens. (I am guilty of doing that with my own sons on camping trips to Wharton State Forest - and it was fun.)

Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown, Jr. says he has scared hikers who mistook him for the Jersey Devil, when he emerged from the woods covered in mud (to repel mosquitoes).

Not surprisingly, the Jersey Devil legend is fueled by the various testimonials from alleged eyewitnesses who have reported to have encountered the creature, from precolonial times to the present day, as there are still reported sightings within the New Jersey area.

Those who study the creature with cryptozoological interest point out that for it to exist over a span of several hundred years, we are talking a species rather than a single creature. Could it be a pterosaur or a dimorphodon? Oh, that would be great!

People have been adding to the Wikipedia entry on the creature since the wiki began. 

Sightings have been collected at

More Reading

The Jersey Devil
Tales Of The Jersey Devil
Mystery of the Jersey Devil 

Yes, there is a Jersey Devil action figure.

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