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Haunted NJ: The Jersey Devil

You undoubtedly know the name, even if you don’t know the legend. The Jersey Devil has become one of the icons of the Garden State, and there are regular sightings of the malformed demon throughout the area. While experts and skeptics will argue whether or not the creature exists, it’s fun— and just a little terrifying — to uncover the truth behind the monster.

Whether you believe that’s really a shot of the Jersey Devil — or a piñata that’s been launched in the air for a Halloween prank — one fact remains true: There’s a lot more to the monster of the Pine Barrens than just ice hockey and grainy photographs.

The Devil’s Mother

While every neighborhood in the state might have their own version of how the Jersey Devil came to be, the most accepted tale dates back to 1735, when a mother of twelve had had enough.

“The story begins with the Leeds family,” said Angus Gillespie, Professor of American Studies at Rutgers University. “The people in that area said it was a strange family, an unusual family. Some even said Jane Leeds was a witch. We know it was an unusual family, because of the large number of children.”

With no reality show to star in, what’s the mother of 12 supposed to do when she learns she’s pregnant again? Curse the child, of course. Gillespie explains: “When she learned that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, in a moment of weakness, as she was saying her bedtime prayer, she said, ‘Let this one not be a child. Let this one be a devil.’ That was a mistake.”Mothers-to-be, take note: Cursing your child rarely ends well.

“On that terrible February night back in 1735 when the child was born, it started out as a perfectly healthy, normal little baby boy with blonde hair and blue eyes,” said Gillespie. “But in less than twenty minutes the creature grew to the size of two full-grown men, and in place of the baby blue eyes were eyes alright — but they were glowing like two burning coals.

There was no longer a sweet baby face, it was a horrible head of horse. It had the head of a horse, the torso of a man, the wings of a bat and a long, serpentine tail, along with the feet of a goat.”

If Looks Could Kill

The description of the monster varies, with some saying it looks like a winged kangaroo, and others claiming the creature is more dragon-esque. Debunkers and those without a sense of fun will say people are actually describing sandhill cranes, owls, or any other member of New Jersey’s diverse wildlife family.

Haunted NJ: The Jersey Devil
Picture this, but bigger. Or maybe smaller, depending on the version of the story you’ve heard. (Photo courtesy Dan Bergstein)

The size of the Jersey Devil also changes from story to story. In some versions of the tale, it’s no taller than two feet — and in others, it’s  as big as twenty. Whatever the beast looked like, it was terrible.

Gillespie prefers the larger, more traditional description. “The creature was massive,” he said. “It had a barrel chest, massive biceps and awful arms all covered in fur. And at the end of each hairy arm was a hairy paw. And at the end of each paw were long bony fingers. And at the end of each finger was a razor-sharp finger nail.”

Immediately after his birth and sudden growth spurt, the Jersey Devil took matters into his own hand. “With one swipe of the hand he slit the throat of the midwife and attendant who collapsed in a pool of blood. The creature escaped up and out the chimney, and he has terrified the people of South Jersey for the last 250 years,” said Gillespie.

The Devil’s Playground

So what has the Jersey Devil been up to for the past few centuries? Quite a bit. His biggest claim to fame, thus far, happened during 1909 when he visited thirty different towns and was seen by more than a thousand people during the third week of January.

According to The Jersey Devil by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller, Jr., it was during this time that the Jersey Devil went from being a third-tier myth to a bona fide legend. Newspapers printed stories of the Jersey Devil attacking a trolley car in Haddon Heights and of police officers shooting the creature in Camden. And with the week-long rampage came even more popularity.

The stories spiraled out of control. In some legends, the Jersey Devil appears before every major war. In other legends, he’s friends with mermaids, pirates and ghosts. He was even given a variety of new nicknames including: Kingowing, Woozlebug, Flying Hoof and Cowbird. (All of which now sound like the names for new social media apps.)

While most of the stories center on the massive Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where the New Jersey dwells, the flying kangaroo has been spotted up towards New York and even in Pennsylvania.

Awww…But It’s So Cute!

The Jersey Devil has since become a familiar, and oddly friendly, face throughout New Jersey.

While Gillespie is quick to point out that hunting the Jersey Devil is “harmless fun,” he also thinks the monster and its stories deserve more respect.

“One of the things I have a problem with, as a folklorist, is that in recent years, ever since the Jersey Devil was adopted by the hockey team, there’s been a tendency to trivialize the Jersey Devil, to turn it into a cartoon character. In Smithville, you can find souvenir shops selling mugs and T-shirts with the logo of the Jersey Devil. But according to the original legend, circulated among the original families, this is not a joke. The Jersey Devil is an awesome and fearsome creature known to slit the throats of babies in their cribs. This is a creature not to be trifled with.”

And if you only know the Jersey Devil by way of the NHL hockey team, you’ve got it all wrong.

“There’s a number of problems with the hockey team,” said Gillespie. “They call themselves the New Jersey Devils. From a traditional standpoint, that’s all wrong. It’s not the New Jersey Devil, it’s the Jersey Devil. Or more specifically it was known as the Leeds Devil. So to say the New Jersey Devil is simply misguided. And since it’s a team, with more than one member, they have to say the New Jersey Devils, plural. Which is all off.”

Take Pride in Your State Demon

The internet has only fueled interest in the monster. “I see more intrigue with the devil than debunking,” said Gillespie. “There’s also a factor of state pride. In the late 1930s, the state legislature adopted the Jersey Devil as the official state demon. As far as I know, we’re the only state with an official state demon. And in the New Jersey Assembly in Trenton, over the dais, there’s a wood carving that features the Jersey Devil.”

The Legend Grows, The Secrets Remain

If you’re wondering why there is little definitive proof of the devil and so many varying accounts, it’s because the residents of South Jersey aren’t eager to offer up the details.
“Among the old families of South Jersey, you do find people who sincerely believe in the Jersey Devil,” said Gillespie.

“But they’re very reluctant to come forward with the story for fear of ridicule. It’s a very tough nut to crack. A lot of this dates back to the rash of sightings in 1909 when reporters from Philadelphia came out to investigate and they wrote some patronizing stories.The Pinies [residents of the Pine Barrens] weren’t stupid, they read newspapers too, and they figured, ‘Well, if people are going to mock us for our beliefs, we’re just not going to talk to outsiders.'”

If the true stories still exist, it’ll take more than a casual conversation to find them.
“The stories are told within the home and within the family, but not readily shared with outsiders,” said Gillespie.

You Can’t Go Home Again

The story of the Leeds family have sent many professional and amateur paranormal hunters searching for the Devil’s birthplace. But according to Gillespie, you won’t have much luck tracking down the original house.

“By the time I came along to do my field work, the Leeds house had collapsed. There have been other houses that some claim is the birthplace of the Jersey Devil. None of them are particularly convincing, as the ones that are still standing, from the point of view of architectural historians, date from the mid-nineteenth century. And we’re talking about a creature that was born in 1735.”

Tips and Tactics

And what should you do if you spot the Jersey Devil? “Walk away,” said Gillespie. “Treat it similar to a bear. You don”t want to provoke him or look him in the eye. You want to retreat as rapidly as you can.”

Want more tales of spooky, eerie happenings around New Jersey? Then check out the rest of our Haunted NJ series:
The Seabrook-Wilson House (aka, The Spy House)
The Overbrook Asylum
Clinton Road

Hero (Top) Composite Feature Image: © Dusan Kostic, Andrey Arkusha, robsonphoto / Dollar Photo Club