story of the Jersey Devil is an authentic folk legend. It is as varied as
the number of people who claim to have seen or heard him. For over 250
years, tales have circulated about the nocturnal ramblings of a creature
emerging from the mists of a lonely desolate marsh. As interest in the
supernatural has grown, tales of the Jersey Devil have grown to blend folk
belief with South Jersey history.
Carol Johnson and David Munn, Atlantic County Library
THE JERSEY DEVIL
To understand the legend
of the Jersey Devil, you must first understand his birthplace. It is a remote
region extending 1700 square miles across southeastern New Jersey. It is
actually a giant aquifer with dense stands of white cedar. Inside, the air is
calm, still and cool - the shadows heavy. The cedar stands throughout the
swamp stain the streams red with tannin. One area of stunted trees is called
the Pygmy Forest. While many consider it a barren wilderness, twenty-seven
varieties of orchids grow there. In the early days, travel was difficult for
the cedar swamps were great obstacles. Some roads are old Indian trails.
Others are old stagecoach roads. Some roads are paved, others are sandy. Roads
lead to places named Hog Wallow, Double Trouble, Sooy Place and Mary Ann
Furnace. These names date back to colonial times when settlers first came to
New Jersey. The birthplace of the Jersey Devil is called the Pine Barrens.
Many of the area
residents descended from early farmers trying to make a small living from the
sandy soil. Some may have been Hessians who escaped to the Barrens during the
Revolutionary War and stayed rather than return to Europe. During that war,
the Pine Barrens occasionally became a haven for those reputed to be Tories
still loyal to England. Lenape Indians also inhabited the region. And then
there were the pirates.
During the War of
1812, the Weymouth Forge / Furnace was a supplier of shot and bombs to the
United States Government.
At the time of
the American Revolution, the wide salt marshland located between the Pine
Barrens and the Atlantic Ocean was part of old Gloucester County. That
area today is part of Atlantic County. The earliest settlers mined the
white cedar, made tar and pitch. Furnaces and forges worked day and night
turning out munitions for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the War
of 1812 and the war with the Barbary pirates. But by 1850, New Jersey's
finite supply of bog iron had played out. For a short while, resources in
the Pines made the glass and paper industries profitable. As material
became scarce, people moved from the towns and villages and sought refuge
in the forests. They tried to eke out a living with seasonal work by
picking blueberries or cranberries. But life was hard for those who
The Devil's Origins
One of the most famous
stories tells of a place called Leeds Point. On a stormy night in 1735, a
Quaker woman gave birth to a child during a thunderstorm. The room flickered
with candlelight. The wind howled. Some believed her to be a sorceress. The
impoverished woman, known as Mother Leeds, was believed to have many other
children – as many as twelve. Some say the child was born deformed. Some say
she cursed the child because of her dire straits. Other accounts say the child
was born normal and took on odd characteristics later.
Characteristics such as an elongated body, winged shoulders, a large horse-like
head, cloven feet and a thick tail. According to legend, the child was confined
until it made its escape either out the cellar door or up the chimney. The
Jersey Devil had been born.
Another story tells of a
young Leeds Point girl who had fallen in love with a British soldier. The
British had come to the region because the iron furnaces at Batsto were
supplying the privateers. In 1778, the British engaged the Americans at the
Battle of Chestnut Neck. The townsfolk opposed the match, calling her liaison
an act of treason. They cursed the girl. According to legend, when she later
gave birth to a child – it became known as the Leeds Devil.
A variation on the tale
tells of a young woman who encounters a passing gypsy begging for food. She
was frightened and refused. The gypsy cursed her for her refusal. Years later
in 1850, with the curse forgotten, when the girl gave birth to her first child
– a male – he became a devil and fled into the woods.
Another famous version:
In October of 1830, a resident of Vienna, New Jersey, a Mr. John Vliet was
entertaining his children with a mask he had made. A mask of a monstrous face.
It became a yearly tradition and was adopted by the local townsmen. Its
popularity grew and was repeated late in October as parents and children alike
put on scary faces and costumes.
The Devil's Deeds
Tales of the Devil's
exploits abound. He has taken on a variety of forms. Because of the Devil:
crops have failed, cows stopped giving milk and droughts ensued. He blew the
tops off trees and boiled streams. He was blamed for the loss of all
livestock. Some believed the Devil appeared every seven years. Others said he
foreshadowed disaster and foretold of war.
Prominent citizens or
government officials were among many who had witnessed sightings of the
creature. They included businessmen, postal officials, and policemen who had
seen or heard the creature and saw his tracks left in the snow. This marks the
beginning of the change from local folklore to the Devil's presence in
Sighting the Devil
Commodore Stephen Decatur was an American naval hero in the early nineteenth
century. According to legend, he visited the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his
cannonballs being forged. While there, he visited a firing range and sighted a
flying creature flapping its wings. He fired a cannonball directly upon it. It
had no effect and the creature flew away.
Joseph Bonaparte, the
brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former King of Spain, was reported to have
seen the Devil. The incident took place in Bordentown, New Jersey while he was
game hunting in the nearby woods.
The infamous Captain
Kidd is reputed to have buried treasure in Barnegat Bay. Legend has it he
beheaded one of his men to guard forever his buried treasure. Accounts claim
the headless pirate and the Jersey Devil became friends and were seen in the
evenings walking along the Atlantic and in nearby marshlands.
In Clayton, New Jersey,
the Devil was chased by a posse to the edge of a wooded area. The Devil fled
into the wood. The posse, afraid to pursue him, halted and declared " if
you're the Devil, rattle your chains."
The Devil's taste
varies. He was seen cavorting at sea with a mermaid in 1870. And he is reputed
to have had a ham and egg breakfast with a Republican – Judge French. But the
Devil is not known to have specific political leanings.
The Devil's sightings
have covered great geographic distances. – from Bridgeton to Haddonfield in
1859; to the New York border in 1899; and from Gloucester City to Trenton in
1909. Until this time, tales of the Devil were passed by word-of-mouth.
However, published police and newspaper accounts during a famous week in
January of 1909 took the story of the Devil from folk belief to authentic folk
legend. Thirty different sightings in a one-week period told of the Devil
sailing across the Delaware River to Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Newspaper articles created a near panic in the region.
After the 1909
appearances, the scientific community was asked for possible explanations.
Reportedly, science professors from Philadelphia and experts from the
Smithsonian Institution thought the Devil to be a prehistoric creature from
the Jurassic period. Had the creature survived in nearby limestone caves? Was
it a pterodactyl or a peleosaurus? New York scientists thought it to be a
marsupial carnivore. Was it an extinct fissiped? However, the Academy of
Natural Sciences in Philadelphia could not locate any record of a living of
dead species resembling the Jersey Devil.
search was on. Superintendent Robert D. Carson, of the Philadelphia Zoo,
offered a $10,000 reward for the Devil's capture.
The reward remains
trainers at the Arch Street Museum in Philadelphia had their own idea. For
publicity purposes, they created a Devil -- from a kangaroo painted with
adding a set of false wings.
A later theory: Was
the creature a sandy hill crane? The crane stands four feet high and is
about fifteen pounds. It has up to an eighty-inch wingspan. Its ferocity
when cornered is well documented and it gyrates when flying.
The Devil's form
has been suggested to be the blending of human and devil, as are gothic
gargoyles. Devil lore began in the region about 1735 shortly after Ben
Franklin's fictitious story in the Pennsylvania Gazette about a Burlington
County witchcraft trial. Early folk belief was often at odds with religious
or scientific doctrine of the period.
The farther north
you go in New Jersey, the more benevolent the stories of the Devil become.
In fact, the Devil had not been known to harm anyone or break any local
ordinances. Servicemen from the Vietnam War era have said the Devil is an
anti-war symbol. Comparisons have been made between the Devil, the Loch Ness
Monster, and the Abominable Snowman. In 1973, he gained nationwide attention
after a feature film was made entitled "The Legend of Boggy Hollow". In
1996, it was reported that Berlin-based Cosmic Comics had created a
character "JD" based on the Jersey Devil who protects the environment and
searches for truth.
Since the early industrial
days of iron ore, southern New Jersey has seen some remarkable activity. Glass
and paper manufacturing have expanded. Military complexes have been developed at
Maguire Air Force Base and Fort Dix. Atlantic City and the Jersey shore have
become prominent resort communities. This growth and development coupled with
the emergence of a well-lit highway system have caused the Devil's appearances
to be less frequent. But the legend of the Jersey Devil will not die. He has
been exorcised, electrocuted, shot, incinerated, declared officially dead and
declared officially foolish.
In 1939, the New Jersey
Devil was reportedly named the Official State Demon. Walter Edge, twice governor
of the state, was quoted as saying: "When I was a boy. . . I was never
threatened with the bogey man. . . we were threatened with the Jersey Devil,
morning noon, and night." Periodic sightings and theories will probably continue
for generations to come. Or at least until the Jersey Devil emerges from the
mists of the Pine Barrens himself to tell us his own story.
Cohen, David Steven.
The Folklore and Folklife of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ.
McCloy, James F. and
Miller, Roy Jr. The Jersey Devil. Wallingford, PA: Middle Atlantic Press,
Yarvis, Joel and Callahan,
Michael. "Devil's Advocate". New Jersey Monthly. June 1996. Vol. 21,
Issue 6, p. 13.
Gilmore, Christopher C.
and Nikosey, Tom. "The Devil Among Us". New Jersey Monthly. Sept. 1996,
Vol. 21, Issue 9, p. 67.
NJ: New Jersey Historical Society. Vol. X, No. 4, 1973. p1-4.
"Leeds Devil". South
Jersey Republican. January 30, 1909.
"Better lighting, roads
banished Jersey Devil". Atlantic City Press, 10 Feb. 1957, p. 10.
"The Jersey Devil: some
swear by him; others swear at him". Philadelphia Bulletin. 2 Dec. 1979,
Renner, Craig J. "Mother
Leeds Curse". World & I. Nov. 1995, Vol. 10, Issue 11, p. 202.
New Jersey – Guide to
its present and past. Federal Writers Project. New York: Hastings House,
"A Haunted Place". House Beautiful. Nov. 1994, Vol. 136, Issues 11, p.
Maloney, E. Burke. "The
Jersey Devil—Anybody seen him?" Atlantic City Press, 12 Nov. 1967.
Weiss, Harry B. and Weiss,
Grace M. Some Early Industries of New Jersey. Trenton, NJ: New Jersey
Agricultural Society. 1965
This material collected from
Atlantic County On Line