Artwork and text by Sara Caruso
On a crisp November evening, two young men hunt whitetail deer by their forest home. They follow tracks of what they think is a buck. As they near a shallow bog in the center of the clearing they notice movement between the trees. They take aim, but through the briers and bushes what they see is no deer. At first they think it must be a moose, but moose have been extinct in New Jersey for decades. The creature looks toward the men and lets out a deafening screech. Then it launches into a tree, crashing down branch after branch. The men race back to their cabin and barricade the door. The next morning they gather the courage to revisit the bog to see if they can find proof of their encounter. All that remains among the torn undergrowth are footprints, each about eight inches long and cleaved in three toes like a lizard’s. The men conclude that the animal they saw was no deer, owl, bear, coyote, wolf, moose, or human. The creature must have been the devil himself.
The Jersey Devil has haunted the forests and beaches of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York since the late 1700s. The resident monster has been forgotten after repeated hoaxes and a population consumed by technology. However, here is the most well known legend of how the devil came to
The Birth of the Beast
Mrs. Leeds was the mother of twelve children in a small house in the depths of the Pine Barrens, now known as Leeds Point. She was outcast as a witch—a common practice for society to single out persons who lived on the edges of town, particularly women. After learning she’d become pregnant with her thirteenth child, she became enraged and yelled “Lord, let this one be a real devil!” With that, there was a knock at the door. A charming gentlemen disguised as Satan entered the room and offered to take the child once Mrs. Leeds had given birth. He asked that she sign a pact with him to never go looking for the “little monster” once he took him away. Exhausted and desperate, this strong Catholic woman dissolved under the Devil’s hooves and relented.
A few months later, Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a baby boy. Memories of the Devil’s curse and her angst for this child escaped her. As she gazed into his ice blue eyes and curly blonde hair, she noticed the boy’s skin began to darken and scale and the body elongate. The baby twisted out of his mother’s arms and contorted into grotesque formations on the floor. Wings sprouted from his shoulder blades, toes morphed into hooves, and a winding tail grew from the base of his spine. The baby, now a beast, screeched a blood curdling call as it began to flap around the room wildly like a canary in a cage. The nurse and Mr. Leeds caught the demon child in one of the birthing blankets and threw him in the basement. The beast clawed the door but Mr. Leeds held it shut with all his might not letting this “thing” get out, until finally after some time the creature was silent.
The family heard a loud bang from downstairs and bravely opened the door to discover that the furnace was ruptured as if from a force inside. The demon child was nowhere to be seen and seemed to have climbed through the piping to escape. Suddenly they heard another loud screech outside the house and, as they peered through the frost covered windows, there stood a creature bristling with brown scales and fur with face like a horse. The only evidence that it was ever the Leeds boy was a scrap of the torn birthing blanket that remained.
Sightings of the devil date back to Native American beliefs, who dubbed the Pine Barrens as the “Den of the Dragon.” This suggests that the creature may have not been a rumor of a forlorn mother, but a real animal not yet identified by science. As sightings in the 1800s and early 1900s increased, along with the growing popularity of the spiritualist movement, the devil found a new home in the minds of the East coast. Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, claims to have seen the creature while out hunting near his Bordentown estate in 1820.
The third week of January 1909 changed the devil’s story once and for all. Within that week, thousands of sightings happened around South Jersey and Pennsylvania. It started on the night of Sunday, January 16, when Mr. John McOwen, who lived near Delaware Division Canal, was awakened by the cry of his baby daughter. He went to her room and heard a strange noise outside. When he peered outside the baby’s bedroom window, which faced the canal, he saw “a creature that was larger than an eagle hopping along the tow-path.” On Monday, the devil’s tracks were seen all over Burlington backyards and rooftops every twenty yards or so and then they would vanish as if to take off from the ground. On Tuesday it was seen in a shipyard in Camden. On Wednesday a fisherman described it as “three feet tall with long black hair and cloven feet,” and by Thursday it was stealing chickens from the Delaware Valley. By the end of the week there wasn’t a newspaper in all of New Jersey or the Delaware Valley region that didn’t have a devil story posted in it.
A sighting occurred in Barnegat Bay in which the devil was seen cavorting with mermaids and laughing when a ship sank. To this day, sightings of the devil more frequently happen during the late fall and deep winter months. As recently as 2005, a woman and her son were outside removing Christmas decorations from their house when her son screamed as a large creature leaped from a tree to their roof. Come morning, they climbed up on the roof to check for damage and found gigantic three-toed tracks sprawled across his roof. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded it had been a large owl, the family, who has lived in the Pine Barrens for generations, knows it was too big to be an owl.
Deer, especially bucks with their fully grown antlers, could have set off a large number of sightings, as well as feral dogs or even coyotes who have a strange howl. Other animals once found in New Jersey, such as wolves, played into the hysteria of early sightings, especially with shepherds and cattle ranchers. Though sightings are less frequent today, one man tried to keep the legend alive.
The Man Who Became Monster
For 18 years, Cliff Oakley brought the legends of the Jersey Devil and “Smokey the Bear” to life. Born in Trenton and raised in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island, Cliff spent much of his time in the Wells Mills cranberry bogs of his family farm deep in the Pine Barrens. Now the Ocean County Park, the family’s bogs became the devil’s headquarters. Cliff would dress up for children outside the family cabin. His devil suit was furry, black and red, and looked like a very elaborate Halloween costume, not like the horse-headed beast of legend. He especially tried to be “a good devil” but would accidentally scare people on occasion. He rekindled the legend in the hearts of the young and old before retiring from his devilish work in 2005. Sadly, in 2008 he left the pines for good when he peacefully passed away in his home. The legend of the Jersey Devil did not die with him, and perhaps new forms of science can bring a light to the devil’s story.
Cryptid or Crank?
To believe the Jersey Devil is anything more than a hoax or myth made up to scare good church folk is laughable to some. However, the descriptions of this creature over the years paint an interesting and strangely logical being that could potentially exist in an environment such as the Pine Barrens.
Cryptozoology is the study of animals that are not yet recognized by science and considered a pseudo-science by many academics. It has contributed to the discovery of new species that were thought to be the myths of hysterical shamans, such as the okapi, an antelope-like animal related to the giraffe. Upon first glance, the design of the devil makes no sense when it lines up with its story. However, the devil has an ever ready food supply with New Jersey’s exploding deer population. If it had wings they would have been thin strips of membrane attached between the wrist and ribs and running down the side of the animal like a bat’s wings. Their claws, which could be used to climb, were so long they likely walked on their knuckles like a chimp giving the appearance of hooves from a distance. Although this is all speculation, the Jersey Devil is a great example of why we can’t assume everything is a myth or a hoax. Nature proved time and again that the animals which science deemed extinct can pop up in places we never expected. For lovers of legends, the Jersey Devil is a culture hero and a hope for new discoveries.
The Last Tail to Tell
Many legends have faded into history because they were dismissed as hoaxes or mass hysteria. Technology is bringing some of those stories back, but eliminating the need for them. It is likely that everyone who lives in New Jersey today had an ancestor who either saw or knew someone who saw the Jersey Devil. It has become a cultural icon, a hockey mascot, and a hero to those who hold out hope that a new species can be discovered every day.
In 2010, an expedition to Suriname, South America found 46 new species and cataloged over one thousand and thirteen variations of existing rare species. Science argues that human encroachment and the destruction of the rainforests could wipe these animals out. The average person probably wouldn’t be affected by this, and worse wouldn’t give two shakes of the devil’s tail.
If the Jersey Devil story should teach us anything, it’s that the forests are important to humanity’s existence. The Pine Barrens decreases in size each day from developers who need to make new homes for an ever-expanding population. What once connected New York and Pennsylvania by trees is now less than a quarter of its size and getting smaller. This forces animals to come out of their homes in search of food, such as black bear, which are now hunted in parts of Northern Jersey to keep their numbers down. Without top predators like the bears, coyotes and wolves, the deer and rabbit population will continue to increase and become more of a hazard on our roads and in our towns. For what it’s worth, we need the Jersey Devil. It reminds us of our place on Earth and perhaps it will save us from destroying our home and making a really big mistake.