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The chilling legend of the Jersey Devil

Domagoj Valjak

Urban legends have always been part of New Jersey’s history. In a time before the internet, television, or movies, these fascinating pieces of folklore were perhaps a means of entertainment. Spooky and delightful at the same time, New Jersey’s urban legends have been passed down from generation to generation and they continue to mesmerize.

Without a doubt, the Jersey Devil is among the most popular of the state’s legends. Similar to other folktales, there are several variations of the story, but the creature itself is certainly the main character in all of them.

When the professional hockey team the Colorado Rockies relocated to New Jersey in 1982, a statewide fan poll decided that the team should be renamed the New Jersey Devils to honor the legendary elusive beast.

Over the years, the Jersey Devil has appeared in various forms throughout popular culture, but the creepy origins of the legend date back to the 18th century.

A dense Atlantic White Cedar swamp in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Barrens_(New_Jersey)#/media/File:2013-05-10_11_04_57_A_dense_Atlantic_White_Cedar_swamp_along_the_Mount_Misery_Trail_in_Brendan_T_Byrne_State_Forest_in_New_Jersey.jpg

A dense Atlantic White Cedar swamp in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Famartin CC BY-SA 3.0

The creature has been described as a biped resembling a kangaroo, but with cloven hooves, leathery bat-like wings, small hands like those of the T-Rex, and the head of a goat.

Semi-famous newspaper illustration of the New Jersey Devil, from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, January 1909. It was drawn from an account of a Devil sighting by Nelson Evans of Glouchester, New Jersey, USA: "It was about three and a half feet 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 [he and Mrs. Evans] were watching."

Semi-famous newspaper illustration of the New Jersey Devil, from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, January 1909.

Witnesses who claimed to have seen the creature at the beginning of the 20th century reported that it produced chilling high-pitched screams. All sightings were documented in the forest area of the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey.

According to the popular legend, Deborah Leeds and Japhet Leeds of Leeds Point (now part of Atlantic County) had 12 children. In 1735, Deborah gave birth to her thirteenth child, and although there was nothing wrong with the baby at first, it went on to grow cloven hooves and small leathery wings in a matter of hours. It then slaughtered the midwife while howling and screaming, flew up the chimney, and escaped into the darkness of the Pine Barrens.

“The Jersey Devil flies over the countryside. ‘

“The Jersey Devil flies over the countryside. ‘

Legend has it that several months later, Japhet discovered the most shocking thing: His wife, with whom he fathered 12 children, was, in fact, a witch and that the real father of the creature that flew up the chimney was none other than the Devil himself. The creature terrorized the nearby villages for several years until an exorcist was summoned, who supposedly expelled the creature from the Pine Barrens.

Japhet Leeds House, Moss Mill Road, Leeds Point, Atlantic County, NJ (c.1937)

Japhet Leeds House, Moss Mill Road, Leeds Point, Atlantic County, NJ (c.1937)

The creature was nowhere to be seen until more than 100 years later when, in January of 1909, newspapers from all over the state reported hundreds of encounters with the Jersey Devil in a single week. Schools were closed and the workers were advised to stay at home, as the creature was believed to have attacked a social club in Camden.

The Philadelphia Zoo supposedly offered a huge reward for anyone who could provide the creature’s feces so that they could be tested. Many people probably tried to claim the reward by providing feces of regular animals. What is certain is that the existence of the creature was never proven.

Jersey Devil strip from 1909

Jersey Devil strip from 1909

Some of those who don’t believe in existence of the Jersey Devil claim that perhaps someone went as far as releasing a kangaroo from the Philadelphia Zoo and mounting makeshift wings on its back.

Some people claim that the legend is a hoax, a children’s tale created and told by the bored townsfolk, while others firmly believe that the Jersey Devil indeed existed in the dark forests of the Pine Barrens and claim that the horrifying creature is still around, terrorizing the region just like it did for centuries in the past.

Here is another story from us: Mother Ludlam’s Cave – The place where the Devil stole a cauldron from the white witch

Even today, people in New Jersey find strange tracks in the soil and, in fear, say that the Devil has returned.