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 birth 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 claims 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 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 (the New Jersey Devil) 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
“One man in particular went to extremes to create a very elaborate (New Jersey Devil) hoax. This man obtained a wild kangaroo, painted stripes on its fur, attached "wings" to its shoulder blades, and kept the creature in a dimly lit cage, charging all curious visitors a fee to take a peek at what he claimed to be the Jersey Devil. When the visitors approached the cage, a man sitting behind the kangaroo (armed with a long stick with a nail in one end) would smack at the creature, causing it to lunge forward and shriek in pain - frightening all who saw. Eventually, the man came clean on his hoax, and since then the Jersey Devil has not been taken as seriously as it had been before.” (Laura K. Leuter – The Devil Hunters)
During 1951 and 1952 the Jersey Devil made a significant reappearance in the Gibbstown and Paul Borough (boro) region. For a period the residents of the area were again gripped by “Devil Fever" and newspapers ran sardonic stories claiming mass hysteria. It’s interesting to note that the resurgence that occurred during this period was about the same time that the original UFO fanaticism started to grip the USA and the Cold War with Russia had begun to play on the nerves of the American population. Project Blue Book, a USA Government investigation into the possible existence of UFO’s was launched in 1952. Still, this was last significant mass sighting of the Jersey Devil.
One source claims that in 1960, 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)
Any yet, with all the advances in modern technology, two key issues remain. Firstly, sightings of the New Jersey creature continue even to this day and secondly, no hard evidence of its existence has ever been found.
In recent years, as increasingly professional news media are wary of running what the industry identify as sensationalist stories, it has become assumed that the New Jersey Devil is only occasionally seen or experienced. This may not be the case at all. With regard to sightings, The “Devil Hunters” Website lists more than 70 possible incidents since the year 2000 and these continue to occur.
There have been many theories, often ridiculous, put forward about the “truth” behind the legend. These range from the existence of a dragon or prehistoric pterodactyl to the genetic hybrid of a horse and a human.
However, two theories stand out as possible. In the first the Creature is actually a Sandhill Crane, a bird that stands about 40 – 48 inches tall with a wingspan of six to seven feet. This animal is believed to have once been indigenous to New Jersey but is now rarely, if ever, seen in the area. In particular, the Crane emits a loud shriek as, according to reports, so does the New Jersey Devil.
|The fruit bat has is very similar to the description of the Jersey Devil - Pity it's much to small.
Could human imagination transform this bird into a monster? We believe that it could. In 1984 one member of our team was exploring a wild and remote gorge (Tonquani) in South Africa and decided to camp at the bottom of a 400ft gash in the rock. During the night there was a huge and frightening disturbance in the ferns that carpeted the rocky walls and an inhuman coughing was heard.
The guys pressed themselves to the gorge walls behind the campfire and spent most of the night pointing their handguns, two Colt 45’s and a Ruger 357 magnum to be precise, at the ferns. At the time all were convinced that some supernatural beast (possibly a Raka) was lurking just beyond their vision. (Handguns were legal at the time). In the morning they discovered two bodies – a large male baboon and a leopard that had fought to the death. No monsters!
The second, and perhaps most likely explanation, is one that needs more understanding about the time period in which the legend od the New Jersey Devil originates. 1735 was a time of great superstition. Witch trials had been common and babies that were born deformed were often seen to be the work or even offspring of the Devil. The infamous Salem witch trials (1692) had taken place only forty years earlier and Salem, in Massachusetts is not that far from New Jersey.
At the time there were essentially two groups of people living in the area. These were townsfolk and woodsmen. Interbreeding was more common than sanitised history books would have people believe and mutations were not uncommon. Contrary to popular myth, many of these children were not destroyed at birth but achieved adulthood and lived reclusive lives in the woods away from the condemning eyes of the more puritanical townsfolk. Feral and desperate, they would raid the farms and lands of their wealthy neighbours - and so fears and stories are born.
Still, neither theory explains why the legend of a Jersey Devil is so persistent in this particular region. Perhaps because the media gave it a lable in New Jersey and didn’t elsewhere or perhaps because there really is something inexplicable out there in the Pine Barrens we may never know. Still, the sightings and incidents continue. This story of the New Jersey Devil isn't finished yet.
The New Jersey Devil Story - To be continued ...