This is the fourth installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.
One stormy night in 1735, a New Jersey woman named Mother Leeds went into labour. Her husband was an alcoholic and Mrs Leeds had been forced to provide for her twelve other children alone – naturally, it had not been an easy pregnancy. So the legend goes, upon discovering she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, Mrs Leeds had exclaimed: “Let this one be a devil!”
All seemed to be going well as the midwives assisted Mrs Leeds with the delivery of a healthy baby boy. However, before the eyes of the shocked women, the newborn began to metamorphose into something unspeakable. It grew in size, sprouted enormous draconic wings and a forked tail, and its head became that of a goat. The creature roared, slit the throats of all the assembled midwives with one great sweep of its claws (in some versions, it kills Mrs Leeds too), and then vanished up the chimney and flew away into the night. Mother Leeds never saw her child – or whatever foul beast she had given birth to – again.
The eerie tale of the Jersey Devil, sometimes called the “Leeds Devil”, is one heck of a legend. But is it just that – a legend? Those who still call the Pine Barrens home think not.
Throughout the 19th century, many claimed to have spotted the Jersey Devil lurking in the forests of New Jersey. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph believed he had seen the creature while out hunting in the grounds of his Bordentown estate in 1820. The Jersey Devil was also blamed for a number of livestock killings in the 1840s, but sightings truly peaked in January 1909. Between 16th and 23rd January, hundreds of reports were published in newspapers across New Jersey, each containing a strange encounter with the state’s most famous monster. The hysteria spread from NJ to Delaware and even Maryland, with schools closing, workers refusing to leave their homes and vigilantes roaming the woods in search of the beast.
As is often the case with these things, no evidence was ever found and no-one could prove anything. That said, reports from rural townspeople and farmers kept on stacking up until well into the late 20th century. The odd sighting is even recorded today.
Of course, we all love an occult mystery like this, but it’s the historical context that surrounds the legend which interests me most. Brian Regal, a professor of the history of science at Kean University, wrote an article for Skeptical Inquirer in 2013 which delved into the story’s bizarre links with 17th-century Quakers. Daniel Leeds arrived in NJ in 1677 and began publishing an almanac (a type of reference book for weather forecasts and calendars). But Leeds’ almanac contained material related to astrology and symbolism which his fellow Quakers frowned upon as “pagan”. The Quaker community accused Leeds of working for the Devil; Regal points out that the use of astrology in Daniel Leeds’ publications indicates he was likely a Christian occultist rather than a devil worshipper. He eventually converted to Anglicanism and continued publishing his almanac – and arguing with the local Quakers while doing so – until 1716, when his son Titan took over the family business. Regal writes: “Titan redesigned the masthead [the heading at the top of the almanac’s front page] to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as Wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.” Titan Leeds entered into a feud with Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) which lasted six years until Leed’s death in 1738. Franklin had “predicted” Titan would die on 18th October 1733 (mocking the Leeds family’s interest in astrology) and, when Titan plainly didn’t, he continued to joke that Leeds’ ghost was the one attacking him in the press. According to Regal, “Largely out of fun, Benjamin Franklin had publically cast his rival almanac publisher as a ghost, brought back from the great beyond to haunt his enemies. It is interesting to note that the traditionally believed period of the “birth” of the Jersey Devil (the mid-1730s) coincides with the death of Titan Leeds.”
The Jersey Devil is perhaps not the cursed child in which we are led to believe. I think it’s much more likely that the legendary beast is the result of a number of historical and cultural forces. Brian Regal summed it up thus: “The elements that led to the creation of the Jersey Devil are by and large unknown to even monster aficionados. The Quaker rivalries, the almanac wars, Daniel Leeds and his son Titan, as well as their monstrous family crest drifted into the mists of time, leaving only the vague notion of a frightening denizen of the Pine Barrens.” The Leeds family gave their name to Leeds Point, an area in the Pine Barrens which features heavily in the myth of the Jersey Devil, and many local people are still able to trace their heritage back to this bunch of rebellious Quakers and almanac-makers. When interviewed for Vice, Bill Sprouse – a direct descendant of the Leeds family – remarked: “”I think suburban New Jerseyans want the same things suburban kids anywhere want: a sense of belonging to a place, a sense of history, a sense of local identity… and the Jersey Devil story helps fill that vacuum to an extent.” The people of the Pine Barrens, known as “pineys”, encourage the legend and you can understand why they would. It’s good for tourism, it provides a link with their state’s history and it’s a fantastically scary story.
I try to keep an open mind while writing this series of blog posts and usually I’m successful, yet I find the tale of the Jersey Devil just a little too hard to believe.
Having said that, would I want to find myself in the Pine Barrens, alone on a dark and stormy night? Definitely not.
- Lost Tapes: Jersey Devil (2009) (documentary clip (2:31)), Animal Planet
- Lost Tapes: Jersey Devil (2009) (full documentary), Animal Planet
- History of a Legend: Mrs Leeds and The Jersey Devil (2015), NJTV News
- The Jersey Devil (2017), Weird N.J.
- The Jersey Devil: The Real Story (2013), Brian Regal for Skeptical Inquirer, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
- Jersey Devil “sighting” reignites excitement but experts pour cold water (2015), Alan Yuhas for The Guardian
- Why the Urban Legend of the Jersey Devil Won’t Die (2015), Peter Moskowitz for Vice
- Monsters and Mysteries In America: Jersey Devil (2014), Destination America