Mythical Monday: The Jersey Devil by Mae Clair

bigstock-Abandoned-haunted-house-on-a-h-23938970What would you do if you learned you were pregnant with your thirteenth child? In 1735, caring for twelve young ones was difficult enough, so perhaps some leniency may be granted Mrs. Leeds of Estellville, N.J.

Upon discovering she was pregnant yet again, the Jersey native quipped that if she was going to have another child, it might as well be a devil.

Unfortunately, no one cautioned Mrs. Leeds to be careful what she wished for.

According to legend, her thirteenth baby was born with the head of an animal, the body of a bird and cloven hooves in place of feet. Able to speak the moment it was born, the unsightly creature cursed its mother and vanished up a chimney. “Leeds Devil” sequestered itself in the pine barrens and swamps of southern New Jersey where it eventually became known as the Jersey Devil.

Most active at night and in the early morning hours, the Devil made a nuisance of itself slaughtering livestock and pets, attempting to snatch away children, and terrorizing the area with its inhuman shrieks. By the mid-1700s sightings and attacks had become so frequent a clergyman was summoned to exorcise the beast.

The banishment may have worked for a time, but by the winter of 1873 reports circulated the creature had resurfaced. Then in 1894 a trail of unidentified footprints appeared in Leeds Point, prompting rumors the beast had returned to the place of its birth.

So what exactly is the Jersey Devil? In the state of New Jersey, it’s a localized name applied to any bizarre creature or phantom. Most will agree, however, that the Jersey Devil is part avian and part mammal. It’s been said to hop as well as fly, and its breath has the unholy ability to curdle milk, kill fish, and shrivel up cornfields. All agree that its cry is unnatural and eerie, alternately described as a squawk, piercing whistle, or the hoot of an owl. One eye witness — Mrs. Amanda Stutts who was ten years old when the beast invaded her family’s farm in 1900 – said it screamed like a woman “in an awful lot of agony.”

In January 1909 more than one hundred people across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey insisted they had seen the creature.

Bristol postmaster E.W. Minster woke about 2:00 AM and heard “an eerie, almost supernatural sound” coming from the direction of the Delaware River. Mr. Minster raced to the window in time to observe what appeared to be a large crane emitting a glow “like a firefly.” He described the winged creature as having the head of a ram with curled horns, thin wings, and short legs, the rear legs longer than the front.

Jersey DevilMr. John McOwen was also awakened around 2:00 AM by the crying of his infant daughter. Worried, he hurried to her room to comfort her. When he glanced out the rear window he spied a large creature that “looked something like an eagle” standing on the banks of the Delaware Division Canal.

The next day hoofmarks were discovered in the vicinity. The sightings in 1909 were so rampant that many residents huddled in their homes, doors locked and windows shuttered, too frightened to venture outside.

Mr. E.P. Weeden, a city councilman in Trenton, bolted upright in bed when he heard someone trying to batter down his front door. By the time he rushed to his second floor window, the creature was gone, but he heard the distinctive flap of wings. Outside, tracked through the snow on his roof, something had left a distinctive set of prints. Prints in the shape of hoofs.

While debate over the validity of the Jersey Devil continues, there are those who stand by the folktales and the sightings, noting the credibility of many of the witnesses and the sheer number of reports.

I’ve visited New Jersey on several occasions, but have yet to encounter any creature resembling Mrs. Leed’s thirteenth child. There are some “cryptids” (a term used in the field of cryptozoology to identity creatures whose existence has been suggested but not proven by science) I would love to cross paths with, but the Jersey Devil isn’t one of them.

How about you? What do you think of the Jersey Devil and are there any creatures from legend you wouldn’t mind encountering…even if only from a distance?