The Hidden Files #4: The Jersey Devil

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.

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The Jersey Devil, as depicted in Animal Planet’s Lost Tapes (2009)

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.”

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Philadelphia Post, 1909

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.

Further Reading

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The Hidden Files #3: Mothman

This is the third installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Author’s note: in this article, I alternated between referring to the creature as “Mothman” or “the Mothman”. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the name among cryptozoologists, so I used both.

“Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something”

That was the headline chosen by the Point Pleasant Register for their report on a sighting of Mothman. The story was first printed on 16th November 1966, and it detailed the experiences of two young couples who had spotted something otherworldly standing in the middle of the road when they were driving outside of town.

They described the creature as being grey in colour, with glowing red eyes and a ten-foot wingspan. It followed them for some time, flying overhead as they drove.

Oddly, this matched a sighting from a few days prior, in which five gravediggers in Clendenin, West Virginia, claimed to have seen a humanoid figure fly out from the trees and over their heads. Over the coming weeks and months, more and more reports piled in of a strange creature sighted overhead around Point Pleasant.

There are lots of theories regarding what witnesses were seeing (or believed they were seeing) in the late 1960s in West Virginia, ranging from demons to aliens. The most common is that it was a case of mistaken identity. Sandhill cranes may have wandered outside of their usual migration route. Similar to witnesses’ descriptions, they can have a wingspan of seven feet and have red markings around their eyes. Sandhill cranes aren’t native to West Virginia, which would explain why the witnesses were unable to recognise them. Other likely culprits include large owls or herons. There are still Mothman sightings being reported today – the most recent incidents I could find happened in Chicago between 15th and 16th April 2017 and were recorded by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in this article. In November 2016, a man driving along Route 2 in Point Pleasant even managed to capture a photograph of a creature he believed to be the Mothman.

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(c) WCHS, viewer-submitted photo (2016)

You might be tempted to dismiss the Mothman as just another big bird mistakenly identified, but, for those who believe, the plot only thickened in 1967. On 15th December, the Silver Bridge – crossing the Ohio River and connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, Ohio – collapsed, resulting in the tragic deaths of 46 people. The bridge collapsed due to a tiny crack in a single link (called an eye-bar). In a suspension bridge, all the weight is equally distributed and just one minor break can cause an immediate collapse of the entire structure. It took no longer than a minute for the bridge to fall.

Journalist and UFOlogist John Keel posited in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies that the Mothman makes portentous appearances before major disasters. The book deals with his investigation of the Mothman sightings, reports of animal mutilations and strange phone-calls he received, with these unusual events culminating in the collapse of the Silver Bridge. According to a Portalist article, creatures similar to Mothman have been spotted prior to some of the worst tragedies of the modern era. Before the 1986 disaster at Reactor 4, Chernobyl, the article states: “… a bizarre winged creature was seen flying over the town [Pripyat] on numerous occasions. A few workers at Chernobyl also allegedly saw the same creature hovering over the plant… Many claimed the creature resembled a man-like bird with red eyes, and some came to refer to it as “the Black Bird of Chernobyl.” Was the Black Bird of Chernobyl the same creature as the one seen prior to the Silver Bridge disaster?” In 2007, another bridge – this time, Interstate 35 in Minneapolis – collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring 145. Again, reports “trickled in that a Mothman-like figure started appearing near the bridge about a month prior to its collapse.”

There isn’t a contemporary event which receives more press from conspiracy theorists than 9/11 (jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, anyone?) and Mothman has made its way into the witness reports there too. The Portalist article notes that reports emerged that a strange crane-like creature had been spotted near the World Trade Centre in the days before the terrorist attack. This article from Ranker also describes the creature seen around the Twin Towers as “a black winged creature” and refers to another creature, sighted by an American tourist not long before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, which was “large and black” and appeared with “a loud whooshing sound and a terrible screeching”. Whether you believe all these catastrophes to be connected or not, it’s undeniably an unsettling hypothesis. Does Mothman appear simply as an omen of disaster? Or is the creature more deeply involved?

Although we may never have all the answers, Mothman is evidently still at the forefront of the popular imagination. Since 2002, the town of Point Pleasant has hosted their annual Mothman Festival and in 2003 a 12-foot tall metal sculpture of Mothman was erected. 2005 saw the opening of the Mothman Museum and Research Centre. John Keel’s book was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Richard Gere, which was released in 2002.

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Mothman statue, created by local artist Bob Roach

I find the Mothman case fascinating. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, but I appreciate that the good folks at the Mothman Museum and Research Centre in Point Pleasant are keeping the story alive and continue to investigate.

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Further Reading

The Hidden Files #2: Bigfoot

This is the second installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Bigfoot is, undoubtedly, the most famous cryptid in Western culture. It is an iconic and instantly recognisable legendary figure – a primate measuring more than 7 feet and making its home in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.

But how did Bigfoot make its way into the popular imagination? Why do we pore over every blurry photograph and shaky piece of footage?

In the 1920s, the accounts of J.W. Burns were compiled and published. These detailed his interviews with the indigenous people of Chehalis, British Columbia, and recorded their belief in giant “wild men”. Burns used the term sásq’ets to describe this race of hairy hominids, a word he borrowed from the Halkomelem language. Sásq’ets would later be Anglicised and become Sasquatch, a synonym of Bigfoot still used today. For many white Canadians and Americans, Burns’ compilation was their first brush with Bigfoot.* “Wild men” commonly feature in Native American and First Nations mythology,  and the white settlers who liaised with indigenous North Americans often found that the tribes had very clear ideas of where “Bigfoot territory” was – whether that was in the mountains or in a certain section of the forest.

According to Doubtful News, there were 3,313 sightings of Bigfoot between 1921 and 2013. This data was compiled by Josh Stevens, a PhD candidate, into an infographic which you can see here. The sightings span America, with a particular density of sightings along the West coast. However, the most famous piece of Bigfoot evidence is probably the Patterson-Gimlin film. Even if you don’t recognise the names, you’ll likely recognise this iconic still from the footage:

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Frame 352, Patterson-Gimlin film (1967)

For many people, this is the image that springs to mind when you think of Bigfoot. Filmed in 1967 in Humboldt County, California, by Roger Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin, the footage is alleged to show a female Bigfoot. Since it was released to the public, the film has been stabilised and analysed. Despite extensive investigation, the Patterson-Gimlin film has never been definitively proven to be a hoax, unlike other Bigfoot “evidence”.

Although no Bigfoot specimens, living or dead, have ever been found, sightings persist and the numbers keep growing. The towns and counties said to harbour Bigfoot populations encourage this. In Skamania County, Washington, it has been illegal to kill a Bigfoot since 1984. To do so would incur a $1,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to a year. Although the Skamania authorities neither confirm nor deny the existence of the creature, they believe the law promotes other types of conservation via public awareness. Furthermore, the town of Willow Creek in Humboldt County – on the border of the Six Rivers Forest, where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was filmed – has built a roaring tourist trade with more than a little help from Bigfoot. The town is known as “the Bigfoot capital of the world” – it is home to a Bigfoot museum and even a Bigfoot restaurant. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that this is obviously big (pun fully intended) business, but it’s also a testament to Bigfoot’s legacy. The creature has become part of the fabric of American society. Bigfoot is as All-American as any cryptid could be.

On a personal level, I think Bigfoot is the most likely of all recorded cryptids to exist. Maybe that’s the result of growing up in the UK rather than within the culture that fostered the Bigfoot mythos. However, the standard Bigfoot description – that of a large primate – seems plausible to me, a layman (or laywoman, as it happens).

*Note: we could have a much longer discussion about how Native and indigenous mythology is appropriated, misinterpreted and downright falsified by some cryptid enthusiasts, but I’ll save that for another article. The current Bigfoot “mythos” (for want of a better word) owes a lot to indigenous tribes who are rarely credited for much of the information.

Further reading:

The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

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Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

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Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger and big cat tales nationwide are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.