“Tall tail” (Jersey Devil)

DEVIL

Even by the lax standards of cryptozoology, the Jersey Devil seems an unlikely creature. It is less biologically plausible than a bipedal ape, a modern-day plesiosaur, a Himalayan half-hominid, or a canine-reptilian hybrid. Descriptions of the Devil more resemble a chimera. His serpent body stands about four feet high, he has an equine head, cloven hooves, two small, mostly useless arms with talons, a forked tail, and it takes to flight utilizing leathery wings reminiscent of a bat’s.

This Devil’s tale is split into two periods. The latter started with a glut of sightings around 1909. The first stretches back another three centuries. That legend centers of the offspring of Daniel Leeds, an English immigrant and historical footnote who published the American Almanack in days or yore when they spelled almanac that way.

In the story, Leeds’ wife, Deborah Smith, gave birth to her 13th son in 1735. Different versions exist as to what happened immediately after. One story is that Smith or her clergyman cursed the newborn; others say it was horribly deformed (not sure what other kind of deformity there is); the least believable version is that the infant transformed into a monster who killed his mother, then escaped up the chimney. A less macabre version excludes the matricide, but still has a Devil being unleashed into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  

Biographical records, however, show that even mundane elements of this tale are in error. Leeds died in 1720, 15 years before the diabolical birth. And he was married to Ann Stacy, then Dorothy Young, but never to a Deborah Smith.

Leeds’ writings and the foreboding locale in which he penned them likely contributed to this legend. He started as a Quaker, but had a falling out with the church and a long-running feud was born. His former church dismissed his work as a blasphemy for attempting to blend Christianity with occultism or science. For example, he would use astronomy to try and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of God, a technique that got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. Leeds suffered a fate nowhere near that excruciating but Quakers were forbidden from reading his work, and church leaders were only too happy to point out that the Leeds family crest featured a dragon, and indeed, later descriptions of the Jersey Devil corresponded with the animal on the Leeds crest.

Meanwhile, the foreboding appearance of the Pine Barrens made them a natural stomping ground for a creepy creeping cryptid. There are close to a thousand legendary animals said to exist worldwide, but I know of none who have an urban industrial district or strip mall as their place of origin. Nay, to be mysterious and captivating, a beast need arise in a deep loch, underground cavern, enchanted forest, foreboding windswept mountaintop, impenetrable jungle, time warp, or outer space.

Besides the Jersey Devil, several ghosts are said to haunt the Pine Barrens, including Captain Kidd’s. In Leeds’ time, the barrens were home to highwaymen, fugitives, poachers, moonshiners, deserting soldiers, escaping slaves, and others from society’s outskirts, so this also makes it fertile ground for satanic spawn.

References to the creature before the 20th Century normally refer to it as the Leeds Devil, but by the spate of 1909 sightings, few knew who Leeds was, so the name Jersey Devil was assumed.  

Some of the sightings may have been of the Sandhill Crane, a large slender bird capable of standing tall and spreading its two-meter bat-like wings. Its footprints can also be said to slightly resemble cloven prints. It’s likely that a majority of the sightings, though, were of other animals, or persons dressed in black, or even of rustling tree branches, all interpreted by persons wanting to be part of the hot new craze.

An attempt was made to monetize the hysteria through the beast’s “capture” and display. This was shown to be a fraud wherein hucksters had affixed artificial wings to a kangaroo, then used a harness to control its movement in order to make it seem menacing. From the rear of the cage, a stick was used to elicit shrieks or whatever sounds captive marsupials make when being prodded for purposes of cruel entertainment.

Reports of the flying fiend happen far less frequently than they do for the Big Three of cryptozoology: Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie. But Devil sightings do feature the same unverified accounts and complete lack of bone, hair, or skin samples. There are hundreds of purported sightings of a menacing, bouncing, beast who seems only too willing and able to mutilate those he stalks, yet can never get around to finishing the job. While most tales feature anonymous witnesses, Napoleon Bonaparte’s less territorially-ambitious brother, Joseph, claimed a sighting. And a naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr., allegedly shot a cannonball at the fleeing beast, with less success than he had targeting Barbary sailors.

Even most who believe in the Jersey Devil reject the original tale of his demonic nature. But without immortality and supernatural powers, a sustained existence seems hopelessly remote. The Jersey Devil being real would necessitate a sustainable population existing for 400 years with none of its eggs being discovered, with it never being a victim of hunters or motorists, and with its remains never having been found by hikers, campers, or anglers.

There have been hundreds of reputed sightings, but the plural of anecdote is not data. Sightings are weak evidence and these hundreds do not combine to from one strong piece of evidence, such as carcass or at least a body part. There is a group called the Jersey Devil Hunters, but the only place they will ever make a capture is in a hockey arena.  

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