Jersey (Leeds) Devil

For over two centuries, the state of New Jersey has been haunted by the creature known as the Jersey Devil, or sometimes as the Leeds Devil.  Although strictly speaking it is a legendary creature, many Jerseyites have claimed encounters with it.  Their descriptions vary widely, however.  But perhaps before we discuss the Devil as a "real" animal, we should summarize the legends of its origin.

1) One version says that a Mrs. Shrouds of Leeds Point wished that if she ever had another child, it would be a devil.  She got her wish, and the child was born deformed and disfigured. She kept it in the house, but one night its arms changed into wings and it flew out through the chimney.

2) Another variation says that the Devil's mother was a young woman from Leeds Point who fell in love with a British soldier during the Revolutionary War.  The other people of Leeds Point cursed her, since the child was born of an act of treason.

3) In another legend placing the birth of the Devil in Leeds Point, the creature was said to be punishment by God upon the people of the town for their mistreatment of a minister.

4) The Devil's birthplace was Estellville.  A Mrs. Leeds became pregnant for a 13th time and wished the child to be a devil.  It was born not only deformed, but with horns, a tail, wings, and a demon's head.  After flying off, the Devil came by to visit its mother every day, and every day she told it to leave.  Eventually it did.

5) Mother Leeds of Burlington was a supposed witch.  One night in 1735, she gave birth to the Devil's child, who changed into a horrible winged creature and flew out the chimney after beating everyone present at the birth.

6) There are many other variants, as well.

A common fact binds the first four variants together--the use of the name Leeds, whether as the birthplace or the mother's name.  Atlantic County historian Alfred Heston says that a Daniel Leeds came to Leeds Point in 1699, and the Shrouds, the family mentioned in Variant 1, also lived in the town.  Prof. Fred MacFadden of Coppin College in Baltimore says that a "devil" was mentioned in Burlington records from approximately 1735.  All these facts seem to suggest that there is some basis in fact for the Devil legend.

Sometime early in the nineteenth century, the famous naval hero Stephen Decatur was firing several cannons when he saw a flying creature.  Sometime between 1816 and 1839, Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, saw the Devil in Bordentown.  In the winter of 1840-1841, many sheep and chickens were slaughtered by an unknown beast of prey.   In 1859-1894, there were several sightings of the Jersey Devil in the Leeds Point area.  Finally, in 1899, George Saarosy of Pearl River, New York saw a "flying serpent" he identified as the Devil.

In 1903, the American folklorist Charles Skinner related his belief that the Jersey Devil legends would cease with the turning of the century.  He couldn't have been more wrong.

For six years, it seemed that Charles Skinner's prophecy was coming true--there had been very few reported sightings of the Jersey Devil.  But all that changed in one week, January 16-23, 1909.  In that single week, literally thousands of people all over New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania saw the Devil.

The first sighting of this "flap" came early on the morning of the 16th.   That's when Zack Cozzens saw it by the side of the road as he was driving through Woodbury.  "I first heard a hissing sound," said Cozzens, "Then, something white flew across the street.  I saw two spots of phosphorous--the eyes of the beast...It was as fast as an auto."

On the other side of the Delaware River, in Bristol, Pennsylvania, liquor store owner John McOwen heard a scratching sound, and looked out the window to see something like a gigantic bird.  Later on that night, James Sackville, a patrolman, saw the creature flying and screaming. About the same time, the postmaster, E.W. Minster, was awakened by a sharp scream, and saw a flying monster with a long neck and a horse-like head. The next morning, the Devil's hoofprints were found in the snow.

Back in New Jersey, in the city of Burlington, the Lowdens woke up to find their trash half-eaten and mysterious hoofprints all around.  Many of Burlington's yards contained these strange marks.  Similar tracks--going up trees, over walls and rooftops, and disappearing in the middle of a field, were also found in Columbus, Hedding, Kinhora and Rancocas.  Dogs used to follow the trail seemed oddly reluctant to do so.

The next day, two hunters near Gloucester managed to find the Devil and track it for 20 miles, following its trail of hoofprints.  The prints were found throughout southern New Jersey.  That same day, a group of people in Camden saw it.  It barked and flew into the air.

Very early Wednesday morning (at approximately 2:30 AM), Mr. & Mrs. Nelson Evans, residents of Gloucester, were awakened by an odd noise.  Looking out their window, they observed a creature that could only have been the Jersey Devil.

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...I managed to open the window and say, 'Shoo', and it turned around and barked at me, and flew away.

A Burlington police officer and Rev. John Pursell of Pemberton both saw the Devil.   Rev. Pursell said that the creature was like nothing he had ever seen.  The inexplicable hoofprints were found near Haddonfield and Riverside; the Devil was seen flying about near Collingswood. At the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Moorestown, John Smith saw the flying monster, as did George Snyder of the same town.

The next day, the Devil was seen flying above a trolley car near Clementon.  In Trenton, E.P. Weeden heard wings flapping and found more inexplicable hoofprints, which were also found at the arsenal in Trenton.  Trolley cars in Trenton and New Brunswick were supplied with armed conductors in case of a Devil attack, and churches in Pitman and many other New Jersey communities were filled with people.  Farmers on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware found their chickens mysteriously killed, and the firemen of West Collingswood fired at the creature with their hoses.

In Camden, a Mrs. Sorbinski heard a strange noise, and looked outside to see the Devil standing there, its paws gripping her dog's back.  She hit the creature with a broom and it dropped her dog and flew off.  The police, hearing her screams, managed to fire upon the creature near Kaigan Hill.

The next morning, one of Camden's policemen, Louis Strehr, said that he saw the Jersey Devil drinking from a horse trough.  In Mt. Ephraim, the school was closed due to lack of attendance, for fear of the Devil, as were factories in Gloucester and Hainesport.   Later on that day, both Blackwood policeman Merchant and Jacob Henderson of Salem saw the Devil.
The last sighting of 1909 took place in February.

The next sighting after Leslie Garrison's sighting in February of 1909 was a vague report from West Orange of a "flying lion," seen in 1926.  The next year, a cab driver outside of Salem got a flat tire.  As he was changing the tire, a hairy creature, a beast that today would be called "Bigfoot," leaped onto the roof of his car and shook it.   The driver threw down his jack and tire and fled.

This incident probably served as the inspiration for an early episode of The X-Files, which presented their interpretation of the Devil.  However, these Bigfoot-types, as well as the feral person in the episode, bear no resemblance to the Jersey Devil of tradition.

The hairy humanoid version of the Devil put in an appearance at Uwchland, Pennsylvania (near Downington) in 1932, shambling out of some undergrowth and scaring John McCandless.   It also put in an appearance in Woodstown, New Jersey, in 1936.

1951 saw the beginnings of a second flap not nearly as large as that of 1909.  The Philadelphia Record recounted the story of a ten-year-old boy who saw a bloody-faced monster outside his bedroom window.  This was in Gibbstown.  The Gibbstown sighting gave way to new sightings of the Devil.  There were at least three reports of screams in the forest, although even witnesses to the Devil's appearance could not agree on it.   Reports varied from the traditional 1909 demon, a seven-foot Bigfoot, and a relatively short "caveman."

The police investigated sightings of mysterious pawprints in the snow, and found only a bear's paw on the end of a stick.  Soon, they posted signs proclaiming "The Jersey Devil is a hoax." The police arrested several freelance Devil hunters who took to the forest with shotguns and rifles.

Phillip Smith of Salem saw the Jersey Devil walking down a street in 1953.  On October 31, 1957, Department of Conservation workers found something odd in the Barrens -- the skeleton of a bird-like creature.  Locals quickly proclaimed the Devil was dead, and would be seen no more. Of course, the skeleton proved to be a Halloween hoax.

Mysterious bird-type tracks were found on the shores of Lake Atsion in 1960. Berle Schwed, one of the witnesses, said they were similar to a bird's.  And the next year, 2 couples in a car heard a screeching noise outside, followed by something heavy jumping on their car's roof and flying away.

In 1966, Steven Silkotch of Burlington County blamed the deaths of 31 ducks, 3 geese, 4 cats, and 2 dogs -- German Shepherds, no less -- on the depredations of the Devil.   That same year, Ray Todd and some friends saw a strange, faceless, scaly creature with black hair moving across a field near Morristown, New Jersey.  Todd was later driven to the Municipal Hall by a young lady who claimed to have seen a similar creature in 1965.

Jerseyite Joe Springer recalled years later how a man heard the Devil's screams in the Barrens in 1974.  In 1981, the Devil returned to Lake Atsion, and was seen this time.   And in 1987, a German Shepherd was found lying 25 feet away from its chain.   It was torn apart and partially consumed.  All around its body were strange tracks.

So what is the Devil, if indeed it exists?  This is not an easy question, as the descriptions of the Devil's appearance are not easily reconciled.  Some reports clearly describe a hairy humanoid or Bigfoot-type creature, while others refer to what may be simply erratic animals. Then there are the "traditional" sightings of a winged monster.

Most researchers concentrate on the Devil as it is traditionally described in New Jersey folklore.  In this case, there are several theories.  One, proposed in the heyday of the devil sightings, held that the Devil was a pterodactyl, which survived to the present day in caverns under New Jersey.  Another theory, advanced as a joke, identified the Devil as a "jabberwock." Another "joke" theory said that the Devil was something called an "astormundiakins."

Semi-serious theories held that the Devil was some type of bird.  One had it that there had been an invasion of scrowfoot ducks, but the traditional Jersey Devil was distinctly un-ducklike.  Another popular theory holds that it, like the "Mothman" of West Virginia, was a sandhill crane.  This theory seems most likely of the two.

Another, proposed by folklorist Jack E. Boucher, states that perhaps Mrs. Leeds merely had a deformed child, keeping it in the house and feeding it.  After she died, the creature escaped the house, raiding farms to get food.  Even after its death, the legend of the "devil child" lived on.  This is probably the most likely of all.

The Jersey Devil is one of many creatures for which we have no shortage of sightings, but which seems a biological impossibility.  Whether it proves to be a biological entity, some paranormal phenomenon, or merely an interesting footnote in folklore, the Devil is certainly a unique creature.

FORT, Charles
    1974     Lo! (pp. 539-841, The Complete Books of Charles Fort).   New York: Dover.

MCCLOY, James F. and Ray Miller

    1976     The Jersey Devil.  Wallingford, PA: Middle Atlantic.


    1998     The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens.  Strange Magazine Website.

SKINNER, Charles

    1896     American Myths and Legends.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott.

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