The Horrors Of The Jersey Devil

By Grace Taylor

Japhet Leeds House, Moss Mill Road, Leeds Point, Atlantic County, New Jersey, May 7, 1937. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Sure, your state may have an official flower, animal, and flag, but does it have an official devil? If you're from New Jersey, the answer is yes, as the so-called Jersey Devil has reportedly roamed the vast Pine Barrens since the early 1700s.

Birth Of A Devil

As with most legends, it's hard to say what, if anything, about the Jersey Devil is true, and stories vary according to the time and teller. For the most part, however, the legend of the Jersey Devil begins with a poor woman named "Mother" Leeds, who had 12 children and a deadbeat husband. Upon learning she was pregnant with her 13th child, she is said to have somewhat understandably shrieked a curse to the sky, proclaiming that it would be a "devil." When the baby was born, all seemed well: 10 fingers, 10 toes, etc. However, within a matter of minutes, the child is said to have grown into a deformed and terrifying beast with wings, claws, and hooves for feet and attacked many in the house before eventually flying up the chimney and escaping into the piney wilderness.

Jersey Devil strip from 1909. (Philadelphia Bulletin/Wikimedia Commons)

The Legend Grows

For the next two centuries, the beast was spotted throughout the region, most notably by Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon's older brother) in 1812, when he claimed to have seen the Devil while he was hunting around Bordentown, New Jersey. Following tracks on the ground that he believed to belong to a donkey, Bonaparte claimed to have come upon a strange creature which had a horse-like face but stood on two feet and hissed at him before unfurling its great wings and lifting off into the sky. Supposedly, Bonaparte had never even heard of the local lore when he met this bizarre beast, lending credibility to his story in the community.

However, it wasn't until 1909 that the Jersey Devil went from local lore to full-blown folk legend as newspapers across the East Coast began picking up reports of sightings. It was all kicked off by Navy Commander Stephen Decatur, who claimed to have shot at the monster with a cannonball only for it to carry on as if unfazed. Soon, hundreds of reports came pouring in of weird footprints and bloody tracks that bloodhounds refused to follow, and sightings began increasing, even all the way over in Philadelphia. Either this creature worked very fast, or the region's collective imagination did.

3-D printed, hand-painted miniature model of the Jersey Devil from the board game Fearsome Wilderness. (Dystopiamatt/Wikimedia Commons)

The Truth About The Jersey Devil

While it's easy to shrug off these kind of stories, there may actually be some truth to the legend of the Jersey Devil. There really was a Deborah Leeds in the area at the time, and she really did have 12 children, although there's no record of the cursed 13th. She was married to Japhet Leeds, whose father was Daniel Leeds, the publisher of a farmer's almanac that dealt heavily with astrology. Such things were decried as the occult by the nearby Quaker community, who banned the almanac, making it difficult to find a wide readership.

After Daniel Leeds's son, Titan, took over the publishing business, founding father Benjamin Franklin—not wanting a rival for his own Poor Richard's Almanackjumped at the chance to link the Leedses to the supernatural world and thereby discredit them, even going so far as to claim the younger Leeds had died and continued publishing from beyond the grave. It didn't help that Leeds's own family crest featured a wyvern symbol that actually sort of looked like the description of the Jersey Devil. Sightings are rare in the modern day, but if you're ever in New Jersey, be sure to keep an eye out for any winged, kangaroo-size creatures with cloves hooves, as the devil may still be lurking around the eerie Pine Barrens.

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Grace Taylor

Author