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The Jersey Devil is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many variations. There are many possible origins of the Jersey Devil legend. The aptly named Pine Barrens were shunned by most early settlers as a desolate, threatening place. Being relatively isolated, the barrens were a natural refuge for those wanting to remain hidden, including religious dissenters, loyalists, fugitives and military deserters in colonial times. Such individuals formed solitary groups and were pejoratively called "pineys", some of whom became notorious bandits known as "pine robbers". Pineys were further demonized after two early twentieth century eugenics studies depicted them as congenital idiots and criminals. It is easy to imagine early tales of terrible monsters arising from a combination of sightings of genuine animals such as bears, the activities of pineys, and fear of the barrens.

Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown Jr spent several seasons living in the wilderness of the Pine Barrens. He recounts occasions when terrified hikers mistook him for the Jersey Devil, after he covered his whole body with mud to repel mosquitoes.

Not surprisingly, the Jersey Devil legend is fueled by the various testimonials of those who believed to have encountered the creature, from pre colonial times to the present day.

Many different descriptions have been offered by alleged witnesses of the creature, which are as follows:

"I looked out upon the Delaware and saw flying diagonally across what appeared to be a large crane, but which was emitting a glow like a firefly. Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thick neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind." — E.W. Minster, Bristol, PA. Sighted on January 16, 1909.


"It was three feet high long black hair over its entire body, arms and hands like a monkey, face like a dog, split hooves and a tail a foot long". — George Snyder, Moorestown, NJ. Sighted on January 20, 1909.


"In general appearance it resembled a kangaroo.. It has a long neck and from what glimpse I got of its head its features are hideous. It has wings of a fairly good size and of course in the darkness looked black. Its legs are long and somewhat slender and were held in just such a position as a swan's when it is flying...It looked to be about four feet high". — Lewis Boeger, Haddon Heights, NJ. Sighted on January 21, 1909.


"As nearly as I can describe the terror, it had the head of a horse, the wings of a bat and a tail like a rat's, only longer". — Howard Campbell, who claimed to have shot the devil near Atlantic City. Sighted on January 21, 1909.


While the descriptions vary, several aspects remain fairly constant, such as the devil's long neck, wings and hooves. The creature is often said to have a horselike head and tail. Its reputed height varies from about three feet to more than seven feet. Many sightings report the creature to have glowing red eyes that can paralyze a man, and that it utters a high, humanlike scream.

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The most popular version of the Jersey Devil legend begins in the 18th century when Deborah Smith from England immigrated to the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey to marry a Mr. Leeds, a rather vain man who wanted several heirs to continue the family name. Consequently, the new wife was continually pregnant. After bearing twelve healthy children, she was dismayed to be pregnant with her thirteenth. She cursed the unborn child, declaring a preference to bear the Devil's child rather than another Leeds. Apparently, her wish was granted as the new child had cloven hooves, claws, and a tail. The horrific newborn proceeded to eat the other Leeds children before escaping through the chimney to begin its reign of terror. This version is contradicted by the fact that Mother Leeds has descendants that, as of 1998, still lived in Atlantic County New Jersey according to a New York Times article dated April 26, 1998 (Section 14NJ, Page 8). There are several variations of the Leeds tale, such as one claiming that when Mrs Leeds became pregnant with her thirteenth child, she remarked, "May it be a devil!" The belief that a deformed child was the work of Satan or a curse was still common during the 1700s.

There is another account of the Jersey Devil's origin known to local people in South Jersey. It can be summarized as follows:

A South Jersey woman was expecting her first baby, which she naturally hoped would be perfect. But the newborn turned out to be the ugliest anyone had seen. Distraught, the mother exclaimed, "This isn't my son. This is the devil's son. May God give the thing back to him!" She threw the infant into the river, where he drowned. To this day, a rock at the riverbottom is said to be haunted by a malevolent air-sucking devil who pulled many swimmers under the rock until they drowned, after which the bodies would eventually rise to the surface.

It should be noted that this description of an air-sucking entity sounds much like a distorted account of a whirlpool, with the bodies rising to the surface due to decompositional gases.

In contrast, Native American legends depict the devil as a friendly protector of the Pines. Sightings of the devil were believed to be signs of good fortune, a view widely espoused by locals from the late 1700s until 1909.

In 1778, Commodore Stephen Decatur, a naval hero, visited the Hanover Iron Works in the Barrens to test cannonballs at a firing range, where he allegedly witnessed a strange, pale white creature winging overhead. Using cannonfire, Decatur punctured the wing membrane of the creature, which continued flying apparently unfazed to the amazement of onlookers.

In 1840, Aaron Roth was blamed for several livestock killings. 1841 saw similar attacks, accompanied by strange tracks and unearthly screams. The devil made an 1859 appearance in Haddonfield. Bridgeton witnessed a flurry of sightings during the winter of 1873.

Joseph Bonaparte (eldest brother of Emperor Napoleon) is said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown, New Jersey estate.

January 1909, however, saw the most frenetic period of devil sightings ever recorded. Thousands of people claimed to witness the Jersey Devil during the week of January 16 – 23. Newspapers nationwide followed the story and published eyewitness reports. Hysteria gripped the entire state during this terrible week.

16th (Saturday) — The creature was sighted flying over Woodbury.
17th (Sunday) — In Bristol, Pennsylvania, several people saw the creature and tracks were found in the snow the following day.
18th (Monday) — Burlington was covered in strange tracks that seemed to defy logic; some were found on rooftops, while others started and stopped abruptly with no apparent origin or destination. Similar footprints were found in several other towns.


19th (Tuesday) — Nelson Evans and his wife, of Gloucester, allegedly saw the creature outside their window at 2:30 AM .


Mr Evans gave a descriptive account as follows: "It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It didn't use the front legs at all while we were watching. My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the window and say, 'Shoo!' and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away."


Two Gloucester hunters tracked the creature's perplexing trail for twenty miles. The trail appeared to "jump" fences and squeeze under eight-inch gaps. Similar trails were reported in several other towns.


20th (Wednesday) — In Haddonfield and Collingswood, posses were formed to find the devil. They supposedly watched the creature fly toward Moorestown, where it was later seen by at least two more people.


21st (Thursday) — The creature attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights, but was chased off. Trolley cars in several other towns began to maintain armed guards, and several poultry farmers found their chickens dead. The devil was reported to collide with an electric rail in Clayton, but was not killed. A telegraph worker near Atlantic City claimed to have shot the devil, only to watch it limp into the woods. The creature apparently was not fazed as it continued the rampage through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and West Collingswood, New Jersey (where it was supposedly hosed by the local fire department). The devil seemed poised to attack nearby people, who defensively threw any available objects at it. The creature suddenly flew away -- and reemerged in Camden to injure a dog, ripping a chunk of flesh from its cheek before the dog's owner drove it away. This was the first reported devil attack on a living creature.
22nd (Friday) — Last day of sightings. Many towns were panic stricken, with many businesses and schools closed in fear. Fortunately, the creature was seen only a few times that day and did not attack.


In addition to these encounters, the creature was seen flying over several other towns. Since the week of terror in 1909, sightings have been much less frequent, but did not end by any means. In 1951 there was another panic in Gibbstown, New Jersey, after local boys claimed to have seen a screaming humanoid monster. As recently as 1991, a pizza delivery driver in Edison, New Jersey described a night encounter with a white, horselike creature. In Freehold, New Jersey, in 2002, a woman supposedly saw a huge creature with batlike wings near her home.

There are currently several websites and magazines (such as Weird NJ) which catalog sightings of the devil.


 

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