Even though it has seldom been sighted in the past 90 years, the Jersey Devil enjoys a level of popularity that few other cryptozoological entities can rival. The people of New Jersey consider the legendary creature an unofficial state mascot, and their NHL hockey team is named in its honor.
The Jersey Devil was also featured in the third episode of The X-Files as the series’ first ever “monster of the week,” and a Sony PlayStation game has turned the savage beast into the latest “Sonic the Hedgehog” cutesy video game character.
The Jersey Devil legend dates back to well before the Revolutionary War, and the details of its origin have become understandably vague and mysterious. The story generally goes that in 1735, a woman in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey gave birth to a cursed child.
The mother’s name is often given as Mrs. Leeds, but other accounts say her name was Mrs. Shrouds, and she lived in the town of Leeds Point. One version of the story indicates that the woman had 12 children, and when she found herself pregnant with a thirteenth, she angrily cried, “May the Devil take this one!”
Other variations say that Mrs. Leeds was a witch, or that the Devil was the baby’s father, or that she was simply the despised local slut.
Whatever the reason for her child’s dire fate, it was born a hideous monster. Its freakish anatomy is most often described as the combination of a horse’s head, the wings of a bat, cloven hooves and a serpent’s tail.
The newborn beast supposedly flew off into the woods of the pine barrens (after killing its mother and family, according to some accounts), where it has remained in hiding for hundreds of years. It was originally called the Leeds Devil, and in the 19th century it came to be known as the Jersey Devil.
In 1909, nearly two centuries after the creature’s reputed birth, there came an unexplained rash of sightings that has been dubbed the Jersey Devil’s “finest hour.” In January of that year, the monster would seem to have gone berserk across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, with about 100 people in 30 towns saying they saw it over a brief span of about five days.
The first of these sightings took place on January 17 in Bristol, Pennsylvania, when Bristol postmaster E. W. Minister claimed to see a flying monster that had a piercing scream.
The next day, a policeman in Burlington, New Jersey, said he saw a flying creature with glowing eyes. From the surrounding area, reports poured in of similar sightings and strange, unidentifiable hoofprints found in the snow.
On either January 19 or 21, Nelson Evans of Gloucester City reported seeing the Jersey Devil outside his home. “It was about three feet and half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse,” Evans said. “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.” The Jersey Devil illustration shown on this page was a newspaper’s rendering based on Nelson’s description.
The entire region quickly became consumed with a mass hysteria. Area schools and businesses closed in the interests of public safety, and newspapers and zoos placed bounties on the Jersey Devil’s head.
Con-artists began to get in on the action, as in the case of Jacob Hope and Norman Jeffries, who hoaxed a capture of the monster. They charged admission for a peek at a kangaroo they had disguised with green paint, feathers and antlers.
A dramatic showdown reportedly took place on January 21 in West Collingswood, when the town’s fire department is said to have confronted the monster and sprayed it with their firehoses as it swooped menacingly over them.
The next morning, Mrs. Sorbinski of Camden said she saw the Jersey Devil attack her dog. This report marked the end of the 1909 rampage. There was one more sighting in February, and only a few scattered reports in the years since.
The Jersey Devil would most likely be nothing more than an obscure piece of colonial folklore today, if not for the unexplained sightings of 1909. No one can say what made so many people have such similar sightings if the monster was not real.
The most reasonable explanation, unlikely as it may seem, is that the phenomenon was purely psychological, and mass hysteria led people to see something that wasn’t there.
Hoofprints and other evidence could have been faked or misidentified, and no animal could possibly move fast enough to cover the vast geographical area of the 1909 sightings. Unless, of course, there’s a whole colony of Devils hiding out there in the Jersey pine barrens.