Saturday, November 7, 2015

American "History" 101: The Legend of The Jersey Devil

Original Jersey Devil Sketch, 1909
On a dark, stormy night in 1735 screams of pain came from a cabin deep in the woods known as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  Surrounded by her family and friends, Deborah Leeds was in labor -- for the thirteenth time.  After a long and arduous labor, a crying baby boy was born.  The baby looked healthy, and normal.  Ten finger, ten toes, two arms and legs.  But as the midwife cleaned and prepared the baby for his mother, something began to happen.  Right before her eyes, the baby began to morph from a normal human child into something else.  First the hands and feet changed into hooves, then wings sprung from its back and a forked tail protruded from its backside.  And as its head morphed into that of a goat, the midwife began to scream.  The family and friends, now frightened, screamed and ran for their lives as the creature murdered the midwife, and escaped up the chimney and out into the forest.  The beast began to terrorize the surrounding villages for years to come.

This is the origin story of the legend known as the Jersey Devil.  Those of us who grew up in and around the Pine Barrens in New Jersey have certainly heard of the Jersey Devil.  We would sit around campfires or sleepovers and tell tales of the Jersey Devil, each one outdoing the previous.  But how much truth is there to the legend?

The tale is fantastic, for certain.  The story takes place in the "Pine Barrens" to Debrah Leeds and her husband, who have twelve children in 1735.  It is known that in 1736, Japhet Leeds was married to Deborah Leeds and they lives in an area just west of what is now Atlantic City.  This would be consistent with a Pine Barrens location.  In 1736, Japhet prepared a will that listed twelve children.  Unfortunately, this is where reality and fantasy seem to start to deviate.  There is no record of a thirteenth child being born, or of any abnormal birth, and there is no record of any news reports regarding a demon or beast terrorizing villages in the area during this time.  

There are many reported sightings, such as one from Commodore Stephen Decatur seeing a flying creature near the Hanover Mill Works.  There is an account from Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, in 1820 at his Bordentown estate having seen a winged creature flying past.  In 1840, a series of livestock killings in the south Jersey area were attributed to the Jersey Devil, and in 1841 there were a number of attacks reported.

It is not until 1909 that the Jersey Devil hits the local newspapers.  In 1909 there were hundreds of accounts of encounters with the Jersey Devil from all over the state.  It was reported that the creature attacked a trolley in Haddon Heights, police in Camden and Bristol fired upon a creature attacking them.  There were also many reports of strange tracks in the snow.  As the newspapers reported the sightings, sightings were reported in Maryland and Delaware, too.  There was even a bit of panic during this time, which led to schools throughout the Delaware Valley to close, and workers to stay home.  In 1925, a Jersey farmer shot and killed an unidentified animal trying to steal his chickens.  He claimed that he showed the dead animal to 100 people, and no one could identify it.  Another legendary sighting occurred in 1937 in Downingtown, Pennsylvania when an animal with red eyes terrorized local residents.  And so on went the reports over time, and there was even a video that appeared on YouTube in 2015 that supposedly captured the Jersey Devil on video.

Many people contend that the Jersey Devil itself was nothing more than a story created by angry Quakers to combat the unpopular almanac writer, Daniel Leeds.  Daniel published an almanac, but also published a number of anti-quaker pamphlets between 1690-1700.  It is thought that the story of the devil baby was nothing more than an attempt to discredit the Leeds name.  After Daniel died, his son Titan took over the Leeds Almanac and began to challenge the popular Poor Richard's Almanac.  Titan was known to take potshots at Benjamin Franklin, the publisher of Poor Richard's.  While Franklin took it in good humor, it is possible that the legend is an offshoot of Benjamin Franklin's tongue-in-cheek story that Daniel's son, Titan, had come back from the dead as a winged-ghost.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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