Cryptozoology is the pseudoscience that is set out to determine whether or not mythological and folkloric creatures are real as well as discovering and identifying unknown creatures and shedding light on animals once thought extinct. It is well known for its attempted discovery of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and even the goat-suckers of Mexico, the Chupacabra. However, when you start delving into the far reaches of cryptids, some of the creatures get really odd. It’s among those creatures that the most bizarre and unreal start to appear and perhaps the strangest unveils itself with the Jersey Devil.
In New Jersey, the state most remembered for Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore, a mostly uninhabitable area known as the Pine Barrens exists, an area upwards of 1.1 million acres of heavily forested coastal terrain with acidic and sandy soil. It’s within this unexplored territory, among deadly plant life and dangerous predators, that the legend of America’s strangest myth was born.
In a fashion similar to the greatest campfire tales, this one starts on a stormy night. In 1735, a downpour unlike any other hit the Pine Barrens, and Mother Leeds was pregnant with her 13th child. In the middle of labor, Mother Leeds cursed the child for the pain, deeming it ‘the Devil.’ From here, the story moves in a few different directions. One states that the baby, born a normal human, transformed into a demon-like creature, complete with wings, horns and a forked tail, flying up through the chimney after killing the midwife. Another spin of the yarn tells that Mother Leeds was in fact a witch and the child was fathered by Satan himself. After his birth, the creature would kidnap and murder children with numerous clergymen attempting to exorcise the beast. Some suggest it murdered the whole family before making its way out while others still claim it simply spread wings and flew away. The core of the myth remains: Mother Leeds gave birth to some kind of demon.
As folklore, it’s not the most outrageous story. The strangest part is that now, over 200 years later, the creature persists and keeps New Jersey within its thrall. Sightings have continued for more than two centuries but maybe one of the things keeping the creature relevant is the amount of backstory that exists, the fascination with the weird, because it doesn’t get any weirder than the Jersey Devil.
Descriptions of the beast are perhaps its most bizarre attribute. Although the stories tell of a demon child, the details of the creature’s appearance barely even constitute as demonic in origin. Varying accounts paint an interesting picture, but through time, one constant image has pretty much remained. Imagine, if you even can, a kangaroo like creature with a goat-like head, leathery bat wings, small velociraptor type arms, cloven hooves and a forked tail.
As with the famous Surgeon’s Photo of Nessie and the infamous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage, the Devil too has a day of infamy. In 1909, starting on January 16th and lasting only a short week, the Jersey Devil made headlines and held the people Delaware Valley in its thrall. A series of reports were published indicating that strange animal footprints had been found in the snow, travelling countywide over and under fences and on rooftops, travelling through to even larger cities such as Camden and Philadelphia. What would be laughed at nowadays, or hardly even bothered with, instead struck a chord of terror with the townsfolk and a form of mass hysteria spread like wildfire. Suddenly, mills were closing due to people afraid to leave the house, the same going for attendance at schools, and reports of bloodhounds too terrified to track the animal made their rounds.
The monster didn’t stop there. In Bristol and Camden, it was spotted by police, shot upon, but never hit. In Haddon Heights it attacked a trolley car full of people, only a few days after terrorizing a social club in Camden. Days later, scattered reports from different people cited a strange kangaroo-like creature skittering in front of their cars. News came in from Bridgeton and Millville of varied sightings and numerous chickens and small animals being killed and eaten, eventually even supposedly attacking a dog before being shooed away by the owner and a broom. Slowly, the sightings died down until they once again became a sporadic, spread out occurrence. The frenzy and fervor of the 1909 sightings never struck back up, but reports have trickled down even to current day. A few years later a man named Norman Jeffries, a renowned hoaxer, teamed up with museum owner T.F. Hopkins and the two claimed to have captured the elusive and mysterious Leeds Devil. In reality, years later Jeffries himself confessed that it was a kangaroo with horns and wings taped to it. It’s job was to stir up interest in the beast again, which it did.
Since 1909, the Jersey Devil has never quite left the imagination of the people of the Pine Barrens or those obsessed with the supernatural. It has appeared in numerous movies, is the name of a professional hockey team, the titular character of a video game and an ancillary character in numerous comic books. The odds are not in favor of the reality of the Jersey Devil existing. It’s a fun idea, but the story of a goat headed, horse legged demon-human hybrid isn’t exactly within the realm of logic. Many scientists point to the fact of no bone records existing and its somewhat similar appearance to the Sandhill Crane as major indicators of its nonexistence. Yet, against those same stacked odds, the creature exists and continues to live in the imagination of those who want to believe.