The historic states along America’s Atlantic Seaboard have given birth to hundreds of ghostly tales and unusual stories over the years. One of the strangest is undoubtedly that of the Jersey Devil, a creature that is believed by some to be a mythical creature and by others, a real-life monster of flesh and blood. Its origins date back to when New Jersey was still a British colony.
According to the legend, Mrs. Jane Leeds came from a poor family who eked out an existence in the Pine Barrens of Jersey, a rugged place with vast forests, sandy soil and patches of swamp. In 1735, Mrs. Leeds discovered that she was pregnant with her 13th child. She complained to her friends and relatives that the “Devil can take the next one”, and he did. When the baby was born, he was monster! He immediately took on a grotesque appearance and grew to more than 20 feet long, with a reptilian body, a horse’s head, bat wings and a long, forked tail. He thrashed about the Leeds home for a bit and then vanished up the chimney. The creature, or the “Jersey Devil” as he was dubbed, began haunting the Pine Barrens.
The New Jersey Pine Barrens
As the story spread, even grown men declined to venture out at night. It was said that the beast carried off large dogs, geese, cats, small livestock and even occasional children. The children were never seen again, but the animal remains were often found. The Devil was also said to dry up the milk of cows by breathing on them and to kill off the fish in the streams, threatening the livelihood of the entire region.
In 1740, the frightened residents begged a local minister to exorcize the creature and the stories stated that the exorcism would last 100 years, however the Devil returned to the Pine Barrens on at least two occasions before the century was over. Legend has it that naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens in 1800 to test the plant’s cannonballs. One day on the firing range, he noticed a strange creature winging overhead. Taking aim, he fired at the monster and while some say that his shot struck it, the Devil continued on its path.
A Map of Jersey Devil Sightings
(Rosemary Ellen Guiley)
The second sighting took place a few years later and this time the Devil was seen by another respected witness. Joseph Bonaparte, the former king of Spain and the brother of Napoleon, leased a country house near Bordertown from 1816 to 1839. He reported seeing the Jersey Devil while hunting game one day in the Pine Barrens.
In 1840, as the minister warned, the Devil returned and brought terror to the region once again. It snatched sheep from their pens and preyed on children who lingered outside after sunset. People all across South Jersey locked their doors and hung a lantern on the doorstep, hoping to keep the creature away.
The stories continued to be told and the lore of the Devil was recalled throughout the 1800’s, although actual sightings of the creature were few. Then, in 1909, the Jersey Devil returned again and literally thousands of people spotted the monster or saw his footprints. It became so bad that schools closed and people refused to go outside.
A police officer named James Sackville spotted the monster while walking his beat one night. He was passing along a dark alley when a winged creature hopped into the street and let out a horrific scream. Sackville fired his revolver at the beast but it spread its wings and vanished into the air.
In spite of the sightings, the beast was always considered a regional legend until the bizarre flap in 1909, which even the most skeptical researchers admit contains authentic elements of the unexplained. Many people saw the creature during the month of January, including E.W. Minster, the postmaster of Bristol, Pennsylvania, which is just over the New Jersey border. He stated that he awoke around 2:00 in the morning and heard an “eerie, almost supernatural” sound coming from the direction of the Delaware River. He looked out the window and saw what looked to be a “large crane” that was flying diagonally and emitting a curious glow. The creature had a long neck that was thrust forward in flight, thin wings, long back legs and shorter ones in the front. The creature let out a combination of a squawk and a whistle and then disappeared into the darkness.
Sightings continued. On January 19, 1909, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Evans were awakened in the early morning by the sound of a large animal on the roof of their shed. They described it as: “about three and a half feet high, with a face like a collie and a head 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.”
One afternoon of that same week, a Mrs. J.H, White was taking clothes off her line when she noticed a strange creature huddled in the corner of her yard. She screamed and fainted and her husband rushed out the back door to find his wife on the ground and the Devil close by, “spurting flames”. She chased the monster with a clothesline prop and it leapt over the fence and vanished.
A short time later, the creature struck again. This time, it attacked a dog belonging to Mrs. Mary Sorbinski in south Camden. When she heard the cry of her pet in the darkness, she dashed outside and drove the Devil away with a broom. The creature fled, but not before tearing a chunk of flesh from the dog. Mrs. Sorbinski carried her wounded pet inside and immediately called the police.
By the time that patrolmen arrived, a crowd of more than 100 people were gathered at the house. The crowd was witness to the piercing screams that suddenly erupted from nearby. The police officers emptied their revolvers at the shadow that loomed against the night sky, but the Devil escaped once again.
Eyewitness accounts of the Devil filled the newspapers, as well as photos and reports of cloven footprints that had been found in yards, woods and parking lots. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Devil, but there were no takers.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the Devil vanished again.
The creature did not return again until 1927. A cab driver was changing a tire one night while headed for Salem. He had just finished when his car began shaking violently. He looked up to see a gigantic, winged figure pounding on the roof of his car. The driver, leaving his jack and flat tire behind, jumped into the car and quickly drove away. He reported the encounter to the Salem police.
In August 1930, berry pickers at Leeds Point and Mays Landing reported seeing the Devil, crashing through the fields and devouring blueberries and cranberries. It was reported again two weeks later to the north and then it disappeared again.
In November 1951, a group of children were allegedly cornered by the Devil at the Duport Clubhouse in Gibbstown. The creature bounded away without hurting anyone but reports claimed that it was spotted by dozens of witnesses before finally vanishing again.
Sightings continued here and there for years and then peaked once more in 1960 when bloodcurdling cries terrorized a group of people near Mays Landing. State officials tried to calm the nervous residents but no explanation could be found for the weird sounds. Policemen nailed signs and posters everywhere stating that the Jersey Devil was a hoax, but curiosity-seekers flooded into the area anyway. Harry Hunt, who owned the Hunt Brothers Circus, offered $100,000 for the capture of the beast, hoping to add it to his sideshow attractions. Needless to say, the monster was never snared.
The most recent sighting of the creature was said to have been in 1993 when a forest ranger named John Irwin was driving along the Mullica River in southern New Jersey. He was startled to find the road ahead of him blocked by the Jersey Devil. He described it as being about six-feet tall with horns and matted black fur. Could this have been the reported Jersey Devil - or some other creature altogether? Irwin stated that he and the creature stared at one another for several minutes before the monster finally turned and ran into the forest.
Today, there are only a few, isolated sightings of the Jersey Devil. It seems as though the paved roads, electric lights and modern conventions that have come to the region over the course of two and a half centuries have driven the monster so far into hiding that it has vanished altogether. The lack of proof of the monster’s existence in these modern times leads many to believe the Devil was nothing more than a creation of New Jersey folklore. But was it really?
If it was merely a myth, then how do we explain the sightings of the creature and the witness accounts from reliable persons like businessmen, police officers and even public officials? They are not easy to dismiss as hearsay or the result of heavy drinking. Could the Jersey Devil have been real after all? And if so, is it still out there in the remote regions of the Pine Barrens - just waiting to be found?