Jersey Devils

My trips to the DMV always seem to involve the paranormal. Admittedly, this is sometimes partially my own fault. Against my wife’s advice, I took The Lure of the Dark Side – a book I was reviewing – with its Satanic cover, when I went to renew my driver’s license a few weeks ago. Back when we first moved to New Jersey, and I had to sit for an excessive part of the day in that waiting room, I was reading a book on the Jersey Devil. I first heard of this exotic New World beastie when I was a ghost-story fixated teenager reading some Scholastic October special. Since I lived a state over, in the western end of Pennsylvania, I figured I didn’t have too much to worry about.

The Jersey Devil is an anomaly that involves two distinct aspects. One side of the story is pure folklore; Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a devil in south Jersey and the monstrous thing has been haunting the state ever since. The other side involves the sightings of an allegedly physical cryptid by reputable individuals, especially since the early twentieth century. An unlikely combination of horse-head, wings (often bat-like), and hooves make this one odd-looking creature, based on eyewitness accounts. I have to thank my friend Susan for pointing out the suggestion that this could be a hammerhead fruit bat, although how even a small population of the African rain-forest dwellers could survive in New Jersey without producing a single road-kill specimen would itself be beyond belief. The shape and size of the bats accounts for quite a bit, but the hooves just don’t fit. That, and the Jersey Devil seems to prefer chickens, ducks, and small dogs to the eponymous fruit of the hammerhead bat.

Whatever, if-ever, the real Jersey Devil might be, the story has all the makings of a Halloweenish blend of religion and monsters. There are several versions of the story, but the one most commonly told is that Mrs. Leeds, in labor with her thirteenth child, declared that this one had better be a devil. She got her wish. The child emerged, sprouted wings and flew up the chimney to terrorize south Jersey and Philadelphia over the next several decades. The beast gives the state’s hockey league an instant identity and even led to the breakdown of a priest in the sixth season of Seinfeld. The first season of the X-Files featured a Jersey Devil episode (although it turned out to be a very humanish kind of Bigfoot), and Bruce Springsteen recorded “A Night with the Jersey Devil” for his home-state fans back in October of 2008. Only the gullible take stories of cross-species (cross-metaphysical beings?) seriously, but the story, like the Jersey Devil itself, seems to be immortal.

4 thoughts on “Jersey Devils

  1. Susan

    Thanks for the column, Steve. The JD is my favorite beastie (being a native of South Jersey). I love the fact that that well into the 20th century it was creating panics such that whole factories and schools were shut down, because people would not leave their houses. And I like the hoofprints left on peoples rooves (ala Santa’s reindeer); I imagine folks climbing up on ladders to check for them.

    I also like it’s improbable appearance. Although its face appears similar to the hammer head bat, I don’t think that is a plausible explanation, either. I’ve heard theories that range from bat to bigfoot to pteradactyl. A few years ago a strange animal corpse washed up in the area and I remember the speculation that it might be a JD. Alas, again no proof!

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  2. Susan

    I do think the 1925 “werewolf” siting mentioned in your werewolf column is a classic JD siting; the JD was often described as an upright, hopping, dog-like creature. And JD sightings were frequent in the 1920’s.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Quite possibly so, Susan. The newspaper article, which proved very difficult to track down, begins by suggesting that this might have been a “Jersey Devil.” No wings were ever reported, however, making roof-top trips unlikely. My brother in Trenton sometimes sees “pteradactyl birds” along the Delware — these are natural birds that have a kind of prehistoric look. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to catch sight of one when I visit him. I think we could do with a few more monster-related business closings once in a while.

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  3. Susan

    Alas, I have never spotted the JD myself. Nor have I found hoofprints on my roof (neither at Christmas nor any other time of the year), although I confess to never having climbed up on my roof to check. I think that roof inspection must have been a weird colonial-era pasttimes that has given way to other forms of entertainment. Nevertheless, whenever I am an the Pine Barrens, a little part of me hopes to spot the JD.

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