What in the Hell is the Jersey Devil

In the folklore of the American colonies there exist so many specimens of primeval megafauna, apex predators, and fantastical creatures to comprise a unique sub-genre of bestiaries, the most famous being Fearsome Critters, published in 1939. A compendium of the tall tales told in lumber camps across the North Eastern U.S., Fearsome Critters (and its 1910 predecessor Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods), describe now iconic cryptids, and preposterously silly monstrosities. Most of these critters are unmistakably imaginary, with comedic attributes like the Squonk which is said to be so ugly that it weeps incessantly and dissolves into a puddle of tears on sight. Others explain uncanny deep wood phenomena: the Agropelter throws items at passersby; the Hidebehind is an unseen predator that stalks lumberjacks attacking from the rear; oversize humanoid footprints found near logging camps were attributed to Bigfoot. The Wampus Cat is an extraordinary panther-like animal similar to the melanistic Jaguars of Amazonia, but regional variations often imbue it with supernatural powers. None of these implausible beasties is more impossible or unnatural than the Jersey Devil. This diabolical chimera is said to have hooves and claws, with the head of a goat, a whip-like tail and huge bat wings.

Unlike other Fearsome Critters, the Jersey Devil is alleged to be a purely supernatural entity. According to the local legend, a woman known as Mother Leeds was so displeased to find herself pregnant a thirteenth time that she cursed the child. On a stormy night in 1735, she gave birth to a baby boy who promptly transformed into a devil and flew up the chimney. Some versions of the story go on to claim Mother Leeds was a witch who had willfully fornicated with the Devil, but more on that later.

I dismissed the tales of the Jersey Devil as nonsensical legends, until I visited the Pine Barrens. A few years ago, I had the privilege of dating someone whose family owned a humble vacation home on the edge of southern New Jersey’s infamous underdeveloped wilderness. I’ve experienced spooky woods, I seek them out, and, I can state without hesitation that there is something exceptionally spooky to those woods. Even in daylight, even in the ordered woods on their property, I felt the discomfort of being watched. Which was not enough to make me believe in the Jersey Devil, but it did help me to understand why those who live near those woods are disposed to believe there is something evil watching from the tree line.

The colonial era tax records contain a will for one Japhet Leeds (1682-1748) providing for twelve children and his wife Deborah. Japhet was the son of Daniel Leeds (1651-1720), who had been ostracized by his Quaker community for publishing almanacs containing information on astrology. Daniel Leeds was the son of a Royal surveyor, also named Daniel, who had secured land for himself and his family in what would become southeastern New Jersey. The younger Daniel Leeds would continue to include astrology in his American Almanack, and was condemned by the Philadelphia Quaker Meeting as a blasphemer and heretic during the 1690’s. He retired from running his almanac in 1716, passing the business on to his son Titan (1699 – 1738). By reputation, Daniel Leeds was among Colonial America’s earliest and most preeminent occultists. In his lifetime he was reviled by his Quaker neighbors as “Devil Leeds” an ill reputation that Titan Leeds encouraged by increasing the astrological and esoteric content of the American Almanack, and redesigning the cover to include the Leeds family crest.

In 1732, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin used his almanac to lampoon Leeds, who was both direct commercial competition and a political opponent. In a satirical horoscope “Poor Richard” forecast the death of Titan Leeds, and when the predicted date passed Franklin printed an obituary anyway. Franklin carried on this prank insisting that Leeds had died and that inferior impostors were publishing under his name. Six years later when the thirty-nine year old Leeds did die, Franklin published a letter from “the ghost of Titan Leeds” confessing to have been dead all along. It happens that Franklin’s campaign to discredit Titan Leeds occurred during the same decade that the Jersey Devil is said to have been born.

The legendary “Mother Leeds” has a historical parallel in Japhet’s wife, Deborah Leeds, a person it is very likely Franklin knowingly targeted in his attacks on his rivals’ character. In either case, over the decades following the alleged birth of the Jersey Devil the Pine Barrens became a haven for outcasts. Runaway slaves and displaced Natives formed hidden communities in the wild woodlands inland from Leeds Point. Later during and after the Revolution, the region would become a refuge for Loyalist renegades. By the early Nineteenth Century the notion that the Pine Barrens were haunted by an assortment of ghosts and devils was well established in the lore of the Mid-Atlantic. In 1820, Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the deposed French Emperor, claimed to have seen the beast on his estate near Bordentown. Two decades later the devil was blamed for a spate of inexplicable livestock slayings in the region. A full century after the beast was alleged to have been born, the denizens of isolated Pine Barrens believed the monster was alive and well.

Due west of the coastal floodplains haunted by the Leeds Devil, the German settlers of Fredrick County, Maryland, were brought to grief during the 1730’s by a phantom they called the Schneller Geist, a winged terror that snatched livestock from pastures and unfortunate travelers off of mountain trails. Descendants of these settlers continue to paint seven-pointed stars on their barns to keep the Snallygaster at bay. This folkloric Appalachian dragon became the subject of national attention in 1909, when reports of the beast inspired the Smithsonian Institution to offer a reward for a specimen and hunting parties to beat the foothills for weeks attracting even Theodore Roosevelt’s attention. The 1909 hunt for the Snallygaster was not restricted to western Maryland, as there was a simultaneous Jersey Devil flap around Philadelphia, and throughout the Delaware Valley. The quality of these eye witness reports varies widely, but, in the early Twentieth Century there was a sudden widespread belief that a dragon-like monster was flying between southern New Jersey and western Maryland.

There is no denying that the physiology of the Jersey Devil is simply impossible. It is an irrational mix of unrelated animals, part horse part goat part bat. A flying animal so massive that it should be physically impossible for it to fly. Unlike other North American cryptids, there is no extinct species that looks like the Jersey Devil. The descriptions most consistently resemble the heraldic wyverns depicted on the Leeds family crest. Returning us to the rivalry between Benjamin Franklin and Titan Leeds. It is easy to imagine the whole legend could be the product of Franklin’s mischievous genius, but how does a malicious joke take on a literal life of its own?

Manifestations of the Leeds Devil and the Snallygaster persisted in their respective localities well into the Twentieth Century. Even accounting for known hoaxes, the number of credible sightings of the winged beasts remain unexplained. During an era when news traveled slowly, reports of similar monsters appeared sporadically for over a century and a half before the great flap of 1909. Shoebill storks, flying foxes, and harpy eagles might resemble various descriptions of these fearsome critters, but all were undiscovered inhabitants of far away lands when our story began.

I no more believe there is a hidden population of Central African storks in the Pine Barrens than I think a baby turned into a dragon and flew up the chimney. I might accept that the region of the Cumberland Gap was once the home of a North American species of harpy eagle that was driven to extinction before it was recognized by science, leaving behind only tall tales of the Snallygaster. But, to date we have no obvious solution to the mystery. It is an interesting coincidence that the Fredrick, Maryland, is directly to the East of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, home of another more infamous flying phantom. In deed, traveling by air from the home where the Leeds Devil was allegedly born in 1735, across the 1909 hunting grounds of the Snallygaster, the flight path to the town where the Mothman was first sighted in 1966 is a perfectly straight line.

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