The Jersey Devil
The Jersey Devil – To understand the legend of the Jersey Devil, you must first understand his birthplace. It is a remote region extending 1700 square miles across southeastern New Jersey. It is actually a giant aquifer with dense stands of white cedar. Inside, the air is calm, still and cool – the shadows heavy. The cedar stands throughout the swamp stain the streams red with tannin. One area of stunted trees is called the Pygmy Forest. While many consider it a barren wilderness, twenty-seven varieties of orchids grow there. In the early days, travel was difficult for the cedar swamps were great obstacles. Some roads are old Indian trails. Others are old stagecoach roads. Some roads are paved, others are sandy. Roads lead to places named Hog Wallow, Double Trouble, Sooy Place and Mary Ann Furnace. These names date back to colonial times when settlers first came to New Jersey. The birthplace of the Jersey Devil is called the Pine Barrens.
One of the most famous stories tells of a place called Leeds Point. On a stormy night in 1735, a Quaker woman gave birth to a child during a thunderstorm. The room flickered with candlelight. The wind howled. Some believed her to be a sorceress. The impoverished woman, known as Mother Leeds, was believed to have many other children – as many as twelve. Some say the child was born deformed. Some say she cursed the child because of her dire straits. Other accounts say the child was born normal and took on odd characteristics later, characteristics such as an elongated body, winged shoulders, a large horse-like head, cloven feet, and a thick tail. According to legend, the child was confined until it made its escape either out of the cellar door or up the chimney. The Jersey Devil had been born.
Another story tells of a young Leeds Point girl who had fallen in love with a British soldier. The British had come to the region because the iron furnaces at Batsto were supplying the privateers. In 1778, the British engaged the Americans at the Battle of Chestnut Neck. The townsfolk opposed the match, calling her liaison an act of treason. They cursed the girl. According to legend, when she later gave birth to a child – it became known as the Leeds Devil. A variation on the tale tells of a young woman who encounters a passing gypsy begging for food. She was frightened and refused. The gypsy cursed her for her refusal. Years later in 1850, with the curse forgotten, when the girl gave birth to her first child – a male – he became a devil and fled into the woods.
Another famous version: In October of 1830, a resident of Vienna, New Jersey, a Mr. John Vliet was entertaining his children with a mask he had made. A mask of a monstrous face. It became a yearly tradition and was adopted by the local townsmen. Its popularity grew and was repeated late in October as parents and children alike put on scary faces and costumes. Tales of the Devil’s exploits abound. He has taken on a variety of forms. Because of the Devil: crops have failed, cows stopped giving milk and droughts ensued. He blew the tops off trees and boiled streams. He was blamed for the loss of all livestock. Some believed the Devil appeared every seven years. Others said he foreshadowed disaster and foretold of war.
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. Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former King of Spain, was reported to have seen the Devil. The incident took place in Bordentown, New Jersey while he was game hunting in the nearby woods. The infamous Captain Kidd is reputed to have buried treasure in Barnegat Bay. Legend has it he beheaded one of his men to guard forever his buried treasure. Accounts claim the headless pirate and the Jersey Devil became friends and were seen in the evenings walking along the Atlantic and in nearby marshlands.
In Clayton, New Jersey, the Devil was chased by a posse to the edge of a wooded area. The Devil fled into the wood. The posse, afraid to pursue him, halted and declared ” if you’re the Devil, rattle your chains.” The Devil’s taste varies. He was seen cavorting at sea with a mermaid in 1870. And he is reputed to have had a ham and egg breakfast with a Republican – Judge French. But the Devil is not known to have specific political leanings. The Devil’s sightings have covered great geographic distances. – from Bridgeton to Haddonfield in 1859; to the New York border in 1899; and from Gloucester City to Trenton in 1909. Until this time, tales of the Devil were passed by word-of-mouth. However, published police and newspaper accounts during a famous week in January of 1909 took the story of the Devil from folk belief to authentic folk legend. Thirty different sightings in a one-week period told of the Devil sailing across the Delaware River to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Newspaper articles created a panic in the region.
After the 1909 appearances, the scientific community was asked for possible explanations. Reportedly, science professors from Philadelphia and experts from the Smithsonian Institution thought the Devil to be a prehistoric creature from the Jurassic period. Had the creature survived in nearby limestone caves? Was it a pterodactyl or a peleosaurus? New York scientists thought it to be a marsupial carnivore. Was it an extinct fissiped? However, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia could not locate any record of a living or dead species resembling the Jersey Devil. The search was on. Superintendent Robert D. Carson, of the Philadelphia Zoo, offered a $10,000 reward for the Devil’s capture. The reward remains uncollected. Animal trainers at the Arch Street Museum in Philadelphia had their own idea. For publicity purposes, they created a Devil — from a kangaroo painted with green stripes adding a set of false wings. A later theory: Was the creature a sandy hill crane? The crane stands four feet high and is about fifteen pounds. It has up to a seven-foot wingspan. Its ferocity when cornered is well documented and it gyrates when flying. The Devil’s form has been suggested to be the blending of humans and the devil, as are gothic gargoyles. Devil lore began in the region about 1735 shortly after Ben Franklin’s fictitious story in the Pennsylvania Gazette about a Burlington County witchcraft trial. The early folk belief was often at odds with the religious or scientific doctrine of the period.
The farther north you go in New Jersey, the more benevolent the stories of the Devil become. In fact, the Devil had not been known to harm anyone or break any local ordinances. Servicemen from the Vietnam War era have said the Devil is an anti-war symbol. Comparisons have been made between the Devil, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman. In 1973, he gained nationwide attention after a feature film was made entitled “The Legend of Boggy Hollow”. In 1996, it was reported that Berlin-based Cosmic Comics had created a character “JD” based on the Jersey Devil who protects the environment and searches for truth. Since the early industrial days of iron ore, southern New Jersey has seen some remarkable activity. Glass and paper manufacturing has expanded. Military complexes have been developed at Maguire Air Force Base and Fort Dix. Atlantic City and the Jersey shore have become prominent resort communities. This growth and development coupled with the emergence of a well-lit highway system have caused the Devil’s appearances to be less frequent. But the legend of the Jersey Devil will not die. He has been exorcised, electrocuted, shot, incinerated, declared officially dead and declared officially foolish.
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