COULD THE NEW JERSEY DEVIL BE REAL?
These days it seems as if every lake has a monster, every forest a bigfoot, every jungle a surviving dinosaur and every city has mutant animals living in the sewers. This is great for local folklore and tourism, but it has overshadowed the reality that some places – just a few of them – might really have something weird going on.
The Jersey Devil is one of the oldest and most persistent of the paranormal creature beliefs in North America dating back hundreds of years to even before the first European settlers arrived. This creature, often but not always, described as a horse-shaped devil with large bat-like wings and devil’s tail, is alleged to haunt the forests of New Jersey in the United States of America. It has featured in numerous reports including newspapers and even a Readers Digest book.
Sightings of this creature have been recorded in New Jersey for more than two centuries thus making it one of the more persistent monster mysteries. New witnesses come forward almost every year and range from the sincere to the ludicrous.
What’s the Legend?
The origin of the New Jersey Devil usually involves a woman and mother called Mrs. Leeds. The year was most likely 1735 when New Jersey was still a British colony and Mrs. Jane Leeds, a resident of Smithville, discovered that she was pregnant again and this time with her thirteenth child. It must be remembered that this was a time when people believed in witchcraft and forests were dangerous places even without supernatural creatures.
Having already given birth to twelve children one would expect that she would have had a fairly easy delivery, but it appears that this was not the case and as the contractions started with an unusual viciousness she screamed out “Let it be a Devil”.
Why she should say this is peculiar and it has been suggested that she actually may have screamed, “It hurts like the Devil” or even “It hurts, it must be a Devil”. One source states that she cried, “Enough of this pain, the Devil may have it.” Whatever she actually yelled out, her cry invoked a curse and the child was born a demon.
Some versions claim it was born normal and then transformed in front of the horrified woman while other versions claim it was born in the shape of the demon. In both cases the demon grew quickly and escaped from the house before it could be destroyed. In one variation of this story the monster first kills and eats everyone in the house before bursting out through the roof.
Further myths and legends surrounding the origin of this New Jersey monster include the curse of a starving gypsy woman who was turned away by the pregnant Mrs. Leeds as well as the possibility that the child was known to be illegitimate and thus cursed by the townsfolk.
Whatever the origin, a winged beast was soon being sighted around the region and the Pine Barrens became synonymous with a creature known as the Jersey Devil. This monster attacked livestock and left their remains scattered in the woods. There is even the suggestion that it carried off the occasional child, but no records actually validate this claim.
There is no doubt that those people living near the Pine Barrens were soon terrified. For five years the inhabitants had many visitations and had numerous incidents of livestock disappearing and buildings damaged. So bad had the situation become that in 1740 a clergyman performed a ritual exorcism and overnight the visitations ceased. However, there was a catch. The exorcism would only be effective for 100 years.
The Jersey Devil was seen only occasionally during this hundred-year period and in all cases seemed almost oblivious to the presence of the people who witnessed it. Two reports stand out:
“Whilst visiting the Hanover Iron and metal Works (near the Pine Barrens) to test the quality of the cannon shot, Commodore Stephan Decatur perceived a bizarre animal flying overhead. He at once fired a cannonball through the wing of the monster but was highly bemused to see it continue to fly away.
A further observation was recorded by Joseph Bonaparte who is recorded as having been the brother of the Emperor of France – Napoleon Bonaparte. The incident occurred while Joseph was a resident of Bordertown between 1816 and 1839. In particular it occurred out on the Pine Barrens while Joseph was hunting.
Why was the beast witnessed at all if the exorcism was still in effect? Jersey Devil enthusiasts and researchers believe that the creature’s indifference to the humans is the key to the answer. In effect, humans had found the beast as opposed to the beast seeking out humans.
However, this placid state came to an end precisely when the clergyman predicted it would. Within weeks livestock began to disappear and people were once again terrified with monstrous visitations. Mysterious tracks, those of a cloven hoof, appeared and all attempts to capture or kill the creature ended in failure. So often was the Jersey Devil seen by people that its existence became accepted as fact over the next sixty to seventy years.
The early 1900’s once again saw an intense spate of New Jersey Devil sightings and in 1909 it is alleged that more than 100 people witnessed the creature in a single week. A particularly impressive, and possibly the longest sighting, was made by Mr. and Mrs. Evans on the 19th of January 1909. Woken by disturbing noises from outside their home, they peered through their window and observed the creature (Devil) for a full ten minutes. Mr. Evans described the beast as follows:
“It was about three feet and 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.”
Over the decades that followed Devil sightings became progressively less. This is perhaps attributable to advances in both technology and education. Powerful electric lights, better cameras, less hysterical news reporting and two world wars contributed greatly to the demise of the legend. In particular, a series of New Jersey Devil scams and hoaxes, that were subsequently debunked, led people to be predisposed to disbelieve claims rather than accept them. An example of this took place during the early 1900’s
A particularly unscrupulous carnival man attached wings to a kangaroo and kept it in a dark room where he charged and entrance fee to see the Jersey Devil. In the end he claim clean and admitted it was all a hoax.
During 1951 and 1952 the Jersey Devil made a significant reappearance in the Gibbstown and Paul Borough region. For a period the residents of the area were again gripped by “Devil Fever” and newspapers ran sardonic stories claiming mass hysteria.
Harry Hunt, owner of the Hunt Brothers Circus, posted a reward of $100,000 for the capture of the Jersey Devil knowing full well that he stood to make ten times that by displaying to the public. He wasn’t successful.
Although both the sightings and their intensity lessened, they still continued and one in particular stands out for its viciousness.
“In 1966, a farm was raided and 31 ducks, 3 geese, 4 cats, and 2 dogs were killed. One of the dogs was a large German Shepard which had its throat ripped out.” (Dave Juliano – The Shadow Lands)
With regard to modern sightings, they occur on a strangely regular basis. The most famous recent sighting was in 2015 when a man photographed what looked like a flying goat. Very few people seem to really believe the creature exists and the sighting continue and often from reliable and serious witnesses. Is it possible that there really is a mysterious creature out there?
The key to the answer is the size of the Pine Barrens area where the Jersey Devil is supposed to live. It’s a well forested area, 1,465.6 square miles in size and sparsely populated by people. In fact, the area makes up just under 20 percent of the state of New Jersey. A quarter of this area has been designated a national reserve and has been designated a United Nations Biosphere reserve. Huge areas of the Pine Barrens have no easy access but are rich in wildlife and excellent quality water.
Given the size of the region, it is entirely possible that a creature could live deep in the forest and rarely encounter human beings particularly if it was reclusive, largely nocturnal and hibernated in winter. For example, while most large predators can no longer be found in the area black bears are still very occasionally spotted. Pine Barrens locals acknowledge that the Jersey Devil could easily hide in the forests but are still broadly sceptical that it exists. Perhaps we’ll find out for certain one day in the future.