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Jersey Devil: The History of an American Cryptid

Meet a mysterious monster as American as apple pie.

Jersey Devil
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  • Photo Credit: Syfy

The story of the Jersey Devil (also known as the Leeds Devil) has everything: a founding father! Alleged occultism! A feud between almanac makers! The devil has become a staple of New Jersey folklore, to the extent that in 1939, the Works Project Association even unofficially dubbed the Jersey Devil the "official State demon" in The WPA Guide to New Jersey.  

But has a flying half-kangaroo, half-horse with bat-like wings really terrorized the Pine Barrens of New Jersey for hundreds of years? That depends on whom you ask. 

A mis-leeding tale

Jersey Devil
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  • The Jersey Devil as it was depicted in "Philadelphia Bulletin" in 1909.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Their are numerous iterations of the Jersey Devil origin story, but in general it goes as follows: 'Mother Leeds' was a woman living in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in the 18th century. When she learned she was pregnant with her 13th child (damn, Mama Leeds!), she exclaimed in regards to her unborn baby, 'let this one be a devil.' 

But Mother Leeds should have been careful what she wished for. Legend claims that when her 13th child was born at last, it initially appeared to be an average human baby—but suddenly morphed into a hideous winged beast that slaughtered its mother before flying up and out of the chimney, to forever terrorize the surrounding land. 

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Although there are different iterations of that story —some claiming the devil never appeared in human form, others claiming it spared its mother, still others saying the 13th child slaughtered his mother and the midwife, too— the gist remains the same: Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a devil. 

The story behind the story might be even stranger. 

Almanac vs. Almanac

Jersey Devil Ben Franklin
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  • Benjamin Franklin

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1677, a Quaker named Daniel Leeds came to America and settled in Burlington. Ten years later, Leeds worked with one of the first printers in precolonial America to publish an almanac. 

The emphasis placed on astronomy in Leeds' almanac was viewed askance by his Quaker brethren; Leeds' attention to the stars was seen as occultism. Faced with criticism, Leeds only doubled down on the perceived mysticism in his work. In 1688 he published The Temple of Wisdom, a book heavily influenced by German mysticism. 

He went on to publish other more explicitly anti-Quaker tracts, and came to work as council for Lord Cornbury, the British governor of New York and New Jersey. Most Quakers were opposed to British rule, which meant that members of the Quaker community saw Leeds' alliance with Lord Cornbury as yet another slap in the face from the traitorous almanac maker. In 1700, a tract entitled Satan’s Harbinger Encoun­tered … Being Something by Way of Answer to Daniel Leeds explicitly accused Leeds of working for the devil. 

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When Daniel Leeds retired from alamanc-ing in 1716, his son Titan inherited his father's mantle, and began feuding with none other than 100 dollar founding father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's debut edition of Poor Richard's Almanack was published in 1732. For the 1733 edition, he poked fun at the Leeds almanac empire by jokingly predicting the day Titan Leeds would die. 

Leeds responded by calling Franklin "a fool and a liar," to which Franklin replied by claiming he had “receiv’d much abuse from the ghost of Titan Leeds," since only a dead man could possibly have a response so stupid. Franklin did not let up, continuing in this vein even after Titan truly did die in 1738. Of his rival's death, Franklin wrote “Honest Titan, deceased, was raised [from the dead] and made to abuse his old friend [Franklin].” Too soon, Benjamin!

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Mother Leeds is believed to have been a real woman named Deborah Leeds, the wife of Japhet Leeds, Titan's brother. In 1736, Japhet claimed twelve children in his will. But the Leeds family's connection to the Jersey Devil legend likely had far more to do with politics than with an actual demon.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry points out that the Jersey Devil legend is believed to have originated around the time Titan Franklin did in fact die. Before his death, Titan had also redesigned the almanac masthead to include the family crest, which featured wyverns—legendary, dragon-like creatures that bear more than a passing resemblance to descriptions of the Jersey Devil. 

It's likely that the story of the Jersey Devil began as yet another way to discredit and embarrass a loyalist family. Already accused of being Satan-worshippers and ghosts, a demonic half-kangaroo may have been, in the eyes of their enemies, a logical evolution for the Leeds family.

Jersey Devil
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  • Japhet Leeds' house, circa 1937

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of a Legend

Regardless of what ultimately inspired the legend, the Jersey Devil mythos eventually gained a life of its own.

Throughout the 18th and the 19th century, there were sporadic reports of sightings of a strange beast whose unearthly cries haunted the Barrens. One alleged sighting came from a very famous source — Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

The former King of Spain, Joseph went into exile in America after 1813. He built himself a mansion in Bordentown, where he lived a life of relative luxury, entertaining many nobles despite his rural surroundings. 

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One day, the disgraced king was hunting alone on his spacious estate when he claimed to run into one of New Jersey’s stranger residents. According to Bonaparte, he followed some unusual tracks and found himself facing down a fearsome hissing winged creature with a head like a horse’s. After a standown, Bonaparte said the strange animal eventually fled to the skies — never to bother the disgraced Spanish King again. 

Nearly a century later, concentrated reports of sightings occurred in South Jersey in January 1909, when numerous alleged sightings of a frenzied beast caused hysteria. Mysterious tracks appeared across the Delaware Valley, even in relatively urban areas like Philadelphia. The winged creature reportedly swooped down and interrupted the meeting of a social club; another woman reported she came upon it trying to eat her dog. Livestock were slaughtered by a mysterious force, schools were shut down, and mills closed when workers refused to leave their homes out of fear of what lurked in the woods.  

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However, articles from 1909 reporting the mayhem may be somewhat misinterpreted today. Bill Sprouse, author of The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil (and a descendant of Daniel Leeds) told Thrillist that that nuances of these reports may be lost on modern readers: "There's this fundamental misunderstanding. A lot of the media coverage treated it as a joke from the beginning, but it's not a joke that necessarily everyone gets. [The stories] have this breathless, kind of panicked tone at times and then, other times, they're obviously very funny. The local context is everyone knows it and nobody, relatively, takes it particularly seriously."

The Legend Continues

Jersey Devil
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  • A drawing of the Jersey Devil, as it was depicted on "The X-Files."

    Photo Credit: Fox

Regardless of who or what exactly terrorized the Delaware Valley in 1909, sightings of the Jersey Devil are still reported today. As recently as 2015, a man in Galloway claimed to see a llama-like creature "spread out its leathery wings" and take flight above a golf course. 

In total, National Geographic claims that over 2,000 people have reported seeing the Jersey Devil over the last 275 years. Whether or not these sightings are in fact of a demon or not, it's clear that the mystery that has sprung up around the Leeds family and the Pine Barrens has become a weird staple of Americana. 

Mama Leeds' thirteenth son has done well for himself. He's the namesake of New Jersey's National Hockey League team, in addition to appearing in television shows like The X-Files and Supernatural, one Bruce Springsteen song, and at least five movies. As The Boss himself sings from the point of view of Jersey's homegrown hellion, "Sway down Mama, sway down low/ They gonna know me wherever I go."

(via Thrillist; Center for Skeptical Inquiry; and Wikipedia)

This article was originally published on December 12th, 2017.

Featured still from "Carny" via SyFy

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