From the Fortean Winds perspective, when discussing the Jersey Devil, one must separate their timeline into pre and post-1909.
As the story goes: Around 1735 a woman named Deborah “Mother” Leeds was about to have her 13th child. She was a Quaker woman and extremely poor. So, with 12 mouths to feed she took her anger out on the child and the Lord. While with child she shouted, “Let this one be the devil.” When the child was born the legend says it had a horse’s head. It grew wings, horns and a tail then promptly flew up the chimmney and into the night. Apparently, it couldn’t get enough of the pork rolls in the Garden State because it never left.
You can find varying versions of this tale but most of them include the above. It would seem the modern members of the Leeds family don’t mind much and are even having a little fun with it. Joking the Jersey Devil is their cousin, and therefore the Leeds family doesn’t need to fear it. It’s good they’re having some fun with it, because the tale is widely considered a fine piece of American Folklore. Newspapers periodically reprinted the story prior to 1909 and referred to the creature as the “Leeds Devil.” The most famous sighting prior to 1909 occurred when Naval Commodore Stephen Decatur allegedly shot a huge flying creature with a cannonball. The cannonball had no effect.
Analysis: A couple of things to note at this point in the timeline. This folklore piece is where the creature supposedly had a horse’s head. Most sightings after 1909 don’t report this feature, and some which appear to us to be obvious hoaxes are quick to use a horse, goat or dragon head.
The wave of sightings in 1909, and the more interesting sightings after, did not have the same description. It’s possible whatever people began seeing in 1909, the first time they saw it was in 1909. Thus, reviving the legend. Which it did.
1909 to Today
The January 20th Edition of the Asbury Park Press ran a picture of cloven footprints with the headline: “What Mysterious Tracks are These?” The article went onto state that some of the older residents had said the tracks came from the Leeds Devil, and suddenly the Leeds Devil was seen everywhere. Newspapers competing for cash were willing to take reports from anyone. A showman dressed up a kangaroo and claimed he’d caught the monster. The 1909 sightings began with a set of tracks and a “What If?” from the newspapers. So, the subsequent amount of jounalistic hyperbole makes it difficult to pull out anything of interest from that particular year. It was around this time the devil was renamed Jersey.
The most interesting sighting of this time period was when the Jersey Devil allegedly attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights where it was fully seen by multiple witnesses. However, journalistic standards were much lower at that time, and none of these witnesses are available to interview, so we consider this event unlikely. The first news story did not even claim the witness saw the cryptid. Councilman E.P. Weeden of Trenton claimed to have heard wings flapping prior to seeing the tracks.
Analysis: There is no doubt this period in 1909 contained a great deal of hoaxes and wishful thinking. Yet, with so many sightings reported at the time spanning much of New Jersey and into Pennsylvania and Delaware, it is entirely possible some of those people were witnessing something. In fact, according to our own veracity system, we can say with low confidence (en masse) some residents likely saw something anomalous. We have numerous eyewitness accounts combined with strong skeptical arguments. Some of the claims were ludicrous and others turned out to be downright hoaxes, but some included multiple witnesses. And according to Atlantic County history “Prominent citizens or government officials were among many who had witnessed sightings of the creature. They included businessmen, postal officials, and policemen who had seen or heard the creature and saw his tracks left in the snow. This marks the beginning of the change from local folklore to the Devil’s presence in regional culture.”
Wild claims from pranksters are a part of Jersey Devil tradition, and many more hoaxes would surface, but so too did interesting sightings.
At Fortean Winds we consider the “non-horse head” sightings to be of more interest, as they are less tied to folklore and less likely to be extensions of the ruse. Several of the sightings sound very much like the mothman sightings noted by John Keel in “The Mothman Prophecies.” But the mothman is his own case file, and if we find more to share on the connection between these two rash of sightings, we’ll update this one.
For now, we have one more interesting observation: The Stephen Decatur (cannonball to the beast) incident allegedly occurred near what is now McGuire Air Force Base, and the more interesting post-1909 sightings cluster around the same area. Decatur did not describe the “Leeds Devil” with a horse’s head.
He described a giant flying pterodactyl-like creature. This incident gets mixed in with Leeds Devil in folklore. But if we ask the simple question: How many people in the Garden State and nearby saw a giant flying pterodactyl-like creature? Then add mothman (same description) and the map looks a lot more interesting.
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