Illustration by Ryan Doan
Said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, this creature has been given many different variations on how it looks. All versions however claim the creature is bipedal and has huge, leathery bat wings, horns and a long, forked tail.
Some versions give it the elongated head of a goat or horse, others the head of a dragon or demon. Sometimes its arms are tiny, other times they are massive, and it is even commonly said that its body is that of a kangaroo. All variations however claim that it is violent, dangerous, and lets out a "blood-curdling scream".
Having grown quite infamous, the Jersey Devil has worked its way into pop culture, giving it's name to NJ's NHL team, and even appearing on an early episode of X-Files.
The earliest legend of the Jersey Devil trails all the way back to the 1700s:
"Mother Leeds was not living a wealthy lifestyle by any means. Her husband was a drunkard who made few efforts to provide for his wife and twelve children. Reaching the point of absolute exasperation upon learning of her thirteenth child, she raised her hands to the heavens and proclaimed “Let this one be a devil! In 1735, Mother Leeds was in labor on a stormy night. The child was born normal, but within minutes however, Mother Leeds’s unholy wish of months before began to come to fruition.
"The baby started to change, and metamorphosed right before her very eyes. Within moments it transformed from a beautiful newborn baby into a hideous creature unlike anything the world had ever seen. The wailing infant began growing at an incredible rate. It sprouted horns from the top of its head and talon-like claws tore through the tips of its fingers. Leathery bat-like wings unfurled from its back, and hair and feathers sprouted all over the child’s body. Its eyes began glowing bright red as they grew larger in the monster’s gnarled and snarling face.
"The creature savagely attacked its own mother, killing her, then turned its attention to the rest of the horrified onlookers who witnessed its tempestuous transformation. It flew at them, clawing and biting, voicing unearthly shrieks the entire time. It tore the midwives limb from limb, maiming some and killing others. The monster then knocked down the door to the next room where its own father and siblings cowered in fear and attacked them all, killing as many as it could. Those who survived to tell the tale then watched in horror as the rotten beast sprinted to the chimney and flew up it, destroying it on the way and leaving a pile of rubble in its wake. The creature then made good its escape into the darkness and desolation of the Pine Barrens, where it has lived ever since. To this day the creature, known varyingly as the Leeds Devil and the Jersey Devil, claims the Pines as its own, and terrorizes any who are unfortunate enough to encounter it."
It is believed by some that Mother Leeds was Deborah Leeds, and this is given credence by the fact that her husband, Japhet, claimed twelve children in his will, as well as the fact that they lived in the area known today as the Pine Barrens. Leeds is also the name of one of New Jersey's earliest settlers, and descendants of the bloodline still live there today.
Just as there are variations on the creature, however, there are also variations on its origin tale. One says that rather than cursing the child herself or calling on the devil during the birth, the child’s devilish nature was the result of a family curse, though it doesn’t mention which side of the family. Still another version mentions that the creature visited Mrs. Leeds every day; she would stand at her door and tell it to leave, until finally it relented and never returned.
Some stories say it was the sixth child, or the eight, tenth, twelfth or thirteenth. Some say it was born normal, others deformed. Some say the mother immediately drove it out of the house, while others say she confined it to the cellar or attic.
Another popular alteration of the legend says that a Mrs. Shrouds of Leeds Point, New Jersey, made a wish that if she ever had another child, she wanted it to be a devil. Her next child was born misshapen and deformed (though not necessarily unnatural). She kept it hidden in the house so curious neighbors wouldn’t be able to see him. Finally, one evening the child flapped its arms – which turned into wings – and escaped up the chimney, never to be seen by the family again.
In 18th and 19th centuries the Jersey Devil was spotted sporadically throughout the Pine Barrens region, frightening local residents and any of those brave enough to traverse the vast undeveloped expanses of New Jersey’s southern reaches. Unearthly wails were often reported emanating from the dark forests and swampy bogs, and the slaughter of domesticated animals would invariably be attributed to the Phantom of the Pines. Over the years the legend of the Leeds Devil grew, occasionally even overstepping the boundaries of its rural Pine Barrens haunt to terrorize local towns and cities.
Hundreds of sightings and encounters were recorded by newspapers in 1909, from January 16th through to the 23rd. Footprints in the snow that could not by identified to any particular creature romped throughout Delaware Valley, over and under fences, through fields and backyards, and even along rooftops, and bloodhounds refused to track the trail. Split second sightings of a tall beast on two legs with cloven hooves and huge wings spread like wildfire through Bristol and Camden, and in both cities police opened fire on the creature, to no avail. The towns of Bridgeton and Millville suffered an outbreak of having their livestock slaughtered, chickens in particular. Even a supposed attack on a trolley car in Haddon Heights, and a club in Camden were reported, and all of this led to the Philiadelphia Zoo offering a ten grand reward for dung left by the creature, though no one has ever been able to claim the reward.
Aside from the footprints discovered all over the towns, and the close encounters that fill folders well over an inch thick, there has never been any physical proof that this creature exists. This does not dampen people's belief in the Jersey Devil in the slightest, however. The tale of the creature has spread well past the Pine Barrens, embraced openly by all of New Jersey. Many people believe the Jersey Devil is a very real, very dangerous creature and is a threat to their safety.
Whether this creature is lurking deep in the woods, or only in the back of our minds, one thing is true - The Devil walks in New Jersey, and it seems he always will.
And as always, if any of you have tales or experiences of your own involving any of these beasties, please post said stories on the monsters' respective pages!!