The historic states along America’s Atlantic Seaboard
have given birth to hundreds of ghostly tales and unusual stories over
the years. One of the strangest is undoubtedly that of the Jersey Devil,
a creature that is believed by some to be a mythical creature and by
others, a real-life monster of flesh and blood. Its origins date back to
when New Jersey was still a British colony.
According to the legend, Mrs. Jane Leeds came from a
poor family who eked out an existence in the Pine Barrens of Jersey, a
rugged place with vast forests, sandy soil and patches of swamp. 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. When the baby was born, he was monster! He
immediately took on a grotesque appearance and grew to more than 20 feet
long, with a reptilian body, a horse’s head, bat wings and a long,
forked tail. He thrashed about the Leeds home for a bit and then
vanished up the chimney. The creature, or the “Jersey Devil” as he was
dubbed, began haunting the Pine Barrens.
The New Jersey Pine Barrens
As the story spread, even grown men declined to venture out
at night. It was said that the beast carried off large dogs, geese, cats,
small livestock and even occasional children. The children were never seen
again, but the animal remains were often found. The Devil was also said to dry
up the milk of cows by breathing on them and to kill off the fish in the
streams, threatening the livelihood of the entire region.
In 1740, the frightened residents begged a local minister
to exorcize the creature and the stories stated that the exorcism would last
100 years, however the Devil returned to the Pine Barrens on at least two
occasions before the century was over. Legend has it that naval hero Commodore
Stephen Decatur visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens in 1800 to test
the plant’s cannonballs. One day on the firing range, he noticed a strange
creature winging overhead. Taking aim, he fired at the monster and while some
say that his shot struck it, the Devil continued on its path.
A Map of Jersey Devil Sightings
(Rosemary Ellen Guiley)
The second sighting took place a few years later and
this time the Devil was seen by another respected witness. Joseph
Bonaparte, the former king of Spain and the brother of Napoleon, leased
a country house near Bordertown from 1816 to 1839. He reported seeing
the Jersey Devil while hunting game one day in the Pine Barrens.
In 1840, as the minister warned, the Devil returned
and brought terror to the region once again. It snatched sheep from
their pens and preyed on children who lingered outside after sunset.
People all across South Jersey locked their doors and hung a lantern on
the doorstep, hoping to keep the creature away.
continued to be told and the lore of the Devil was recalled throughout
the 1800’s, although actual sightings of the creature were few. Then, in
1909, the Jersey Devil returned again and literally thousands of people
spotted the monster or saw his footprints. It became so bad that schools
closed and people refused to go outside.
A police officer named James Sackville spotted the monster
while walking his beat one night. He was passing along a dark alley when a
winged creature hopped into the street and let out a horrific scream.
Sackville fired his revolver at the beast but it spread its wings and vanished
into the air.
In spite of the sightings, the beast
was always considered a regional legend until the bizarre flap in 1909, which
even the most skeptical researchers admit contains authentic elements of the
unexplained. Many people saw the creature during the month of January,
including E.W. Minster, the postmaster of Bristol, Pennsylvania, which is just
over the New Jersey border. He stated that he awoke around 2:00 in the morning
and heard an “eerie, almost supernatural” sound coming from the direction of
the Delaware River. He looked out the window and saw what looked to be a
“large crane” that was flying diagonally and emitting a curious glow. The
creature had a long neck that was thrust forward in flight, thin wings, long
back legs and shorter ones in the front. The creature let out a combination of
a squawk and a whistle and then disappeared into the darkness.
Sightings continued. On January 19, 1909, Mr. and Mrs.
Nelson Evans were awakened in the early morning by the sound of a large animal
on the roof of their shed. They described it as: “about three and a half feet
high, with a face like a collie and a head 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.”
One afternoon of that same week, a Mrs. J.H, White was
taking clothes off her line when she noticed a strange creature huddled in the
corner of her yard. She screamed and fainted and her husband rushed out the
back door to find his wife on the ground and the Devil close by, “spurting
flames”. She chased the monster with a clothesline prop and it leapt over the
fence and vanished.
A short time later, the creature struck again. This time,
it attacked a dog belonging to Mrs. Mary Sorbinski in south Camden. When she
heard the cry of her pet in the darkness, she dashed outside and drove the
Devil away with a broom. The creature fled, but not before tearing a chunk of
flesh from the dog. Mrs. Sorbinski carried her wounded pet inside and
immediately called the police.
By the time that patrolmen arrived, a crowd of more than
100 people were gathered at the house. The crowd was witness to the piercing
screams that suddenly erupted from nearby. The police officers emptied their
revolvers at the shadow that loomed against the night sky, but the Devil
escaped once again.
Eyewitness accounts of the Devil filled the newspapers, as
well as photos and reports of cloven footprints that had been found in yards,
woods and parking lots. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the
capture of the Devil, but there were no takers.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the Devil vanished again.
The creature did not return again until 1927. A cab driver
was changing a tire one night while headed for Salem. He had just finished
when his car began shaking violently. He looked up to see a gigantic, winged
figure pounding on the roof of his car. The driver, leaving his jack and flat
tire behind, jumped into the car and quickly drove away. He reported the
encounter to the Salem police.
In August 1930, berry pickers at Leeds Point and Mays
Landing reported seeing the Devil, crashing through the fields and devouring
blueberries and cranberries. It was reported again two weeks later to the
north and then it disappeared again.
In November 1951, a group of children were allegedly
cornered by the Devil at the Duport Clubhouse in Gibbstown. The creature
bounded away without hurting anyone but reports claimed that it was spotted by
dozens of witnesses before finally vanishing again.
Sightings continued here and there for years and then
peaked once more in 1960 when bloodcurdling cries terrorized a group of people
near Mays Landing. State officials tried to calm the nervous residents but no
explanation could be found for the weird sounds. Policemen nailed signs and
posters everywhere stating that the Jersey Devil was a hoax, but
curiosity-seekers flooded into the area anyway. Harry Hunt, who owned the Hunt
Brothers Circus, offered $100,000 for the capture of the beast, hoping to add
it to his sideshow attractions. Needless to say, the monster was never snared.
The most recent sighting of the creature was said to have
been in 1993 when a forest ranger named John Irwin was driving along the
Mullica River in southern New Jersey. He was startled to find the road ahead
of him blocked by the Jersey Devil. He described it as being about six-feet
tall with horns and matted black fur. Could this have been the reported Jersey
Devil - or some other creature altogether? Irwin stated that he and the
creature stared at one another for several minutes before the monster finally
turned and ran into the forest.
Today, there are only a few, isolated sightings of the
Jersey Devil. It seems as though the paved roads, electric lights and modern
conventions that have come to the region over the course of two and a half
centuries have driven the monster so far into hiding that it has vanished
altogether. The lack of proof of the monster’s existence in these modern times
leads many to believe the Devil was nothing more than a creation of New Jersey
folklore. But was it really?
If it was merely a myth, then how do we explain the
sightings of the creature and the witness accounts from reliable persons like
businessmen, police officers and even public officials? They are not easy to
dismiss as hearsay or the result of heavy drinking. Could the Jersey Devil
have been real after all? And if so, is it still out there in the remote
regions of the Pine Barrens - just waiting to be found?
© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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