The mysterious origins of the Jersey Devil
Did you know that New Jersey is the only state to have an official state demon?
Once called the Leeds Devil, the Jersey Devil has supposedly roamed the Pine Barrens for nearly 300 years. Goatlike with wings, horns, claws, and a forked tail, it moves quickly and has the habit of emitting bone-chilling screams.
Crackpots aren't the only ones who claim to have seen the creepy critter. In the early 19th century, U.S. Commodore Stephen Decatur is said to have seen it when he was “testing cannonballs in the Pine Barrens." Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) and Bordentown, N.J., resident, had his own sighting as well. According to Mental Floss, he was hunting alone in the woods when he heard a "strange hissing noise" and found himself face-to-face with an animal with a "long neck, wings, legs like a crane with horse's hooves at the end, stumpy arms with paws, and a face like a horse or a camel." It hissed once more before flying away.
Since then sightings of the monster have spread to areas all over the Garden State. (When the beast visits my hometown, Freehold, it kicks back in Turkey Swamp Park.) For many New Jerseyans, the legend of the Jersey Devil is a fact, or fiction, of life.
Where does the myth come from? A "Native American legend," whatever that means? Probably not. The Jersey Devil Wikipedia entry says the "earliest legends" date back to "Native American folklore." While we don't doubt that there could be a Lenni Lenape myth of a dragonlike creature that haunts the forests of New Jersey, we're not so sure about a Wikipedia source that uses Wikipedia as its source.
How about tales of the put-upon "Mother Leeds," birther of 12 normal children, only to be cursed with a devilish 13th? Folklore says that she was a witch who gave birth in 1735 to "a creature with hooves, a goat's head, bat wings, and a forked tail." It was supposedly fathered by the Devil himself, and "killed the midwife before flying up the chimney" and escaping "toward the pines." Five years later, "clergy exorcised the demon for 100 years and it wasn't seen again until 1890."
Some have surmised that Mother Leeds was Deborah Leeds, who, according to genealogical records, bore 12 children between 1704 and 1726. Deborah's husband was Japheth, a son of Daniel. Daniel arrived in America from England in 1677 and settled in Burlington, N.J.
The association between the Devil and the Leeds family seems to have started with Daniel, according to historian Brian Regal. In 1687, Daniel began publishing an almanac, which included the use of astrology, much to the consternation of his Quaker neighbors. Quakers at that time considered astrology to be ungodly and called Daniel "Satan's Harbinger."
In 1716, Daniel retired and handed the almanac publishing business over to his son Titan. In 1728, Titan redesigned the masthead to include the family crest: three "dragonlike" creatures with "clawed feet" and "batlike wings" — creatures that bore a striking resemblance to the Jersey Devil.
In the mid-1700s, amid high anti-British sentiment, the "Leeds family made easy marks," says Regal. They had sided with "the hated Lord Cornbury," the first royal governor of New Jersey, and were accused of "somehow being in the occult." When the Revolutionary War started, "the 'Leeds Devil' stood as a symbol of political ridicule and scorn."
By the mid-1800s, however, the Leeds Devil lost its political bent. The earliest mention seems to be 1859, in a story published in The Atlantic Monthly. "In the Pines" includes a detailed telling of the "accepted" folklore of the Leeds Devil and, we'd hazard a guess, is actually its source.
In 1910 or 1911, the 9th and Arch Museum of Philadelphia began advertising the reappearance of the "fabulous Leeds Devil." The museum manager, T.F. Hopkins, and his press agent, Norman Jeffries, claimed to have captured the creature "after a terrific struggle." For two weeks crowds poured in to see the Devil — in reality, a kangaroo with wings — before the museum finally closed for good.
When the Leeds Devil became the Jersey Devil is unclear. The earliest mention of the Jersey Devil seems to be 1910 (which coincides with the 9th and Arch Museum's exhibition), and recounts 1909 beginning its "career joyfully with what was known as the 'Jersey Devil,'" a "combination of bat, kangaroo, and pony," and that by October a dead Jersey Devil had been found in the woods.
According to Google Ngrams, while mentions of Leeds Devil remain stagnant over the years, mentions of Jersey Devil go up slightly in the 1920s, reaching a small peak in the mid '40s (it was named the official state demon in 1939), rising again in the early '80s (which is when the hockey team gained its moniker) and even more rapidly in the early '90s. (The Jersey Devil episode of The X-Files, by the way, aired in 1993.)
Like the Jersey Devil itself, the legend's origin is a hodgepodge of parts: part Native American myth, part political effigy, part Barnum-ian sham. But does it actually exist? We'll leave that to the professionals to find out.