Devils and Mooncussers

New Jersey is an easy state to caricature. Some of the most remarkable aspects, however, are those that seldom find their way into the popular media. An unseasonably warm spell led my family to a sudden awareness of cabin fever that sent us seeking diversion over the weekend. We ended up at Tuckerton Seaport. To get to the museum from our location meant a long drive through the pine barrens. This unique ecosystem is impressive for its size (over a million acres) as well as for its unique plant-life and relative lack of population. And, of course, the Jersey Devil.

A relatively harmless Jersey Devil

Even serious museums such as the Seaport can be expected to play up the heritage a bit. In a corner of the wildlife diorama is tucked a little sculpture of the Jersey Devil. The diabolical aspect comes only from the folklore of its birth as an accursed child. Far more dangerous were the human elements in the maritime history. Mooncussers were those who set out false lights for ships, hoping to lure them into the shore where the vessels would run aground, leading to easy plundering. The lighthouse has long been a religious symbol, a metaphor ready-made for illumination, safety, and solidity. This very reputation led the way for mooncussers to steal the signs of security to enhance personal gain.

The devil of personal gain unfortunately haunts more than the remote pine barrens of New Jersey. Those who use religion to attain that gain are the modern mooncussers who draw the unwary too near to the rocks and shoals. And mooncussers encourage others to participate in their sham, as long as there are gullible captains who are uncertain of the shore. The early church liked to compare itself to a ship. This image inspired many a nave ceiling to be designed as the hull of an upturned boat. Unfortunately, the hull often appears to have been capsized and the mooncussers appear in the role of diabolical captains set on wrecking the very vessel they command. Who needs a devil when human greed is far more than adequate to lead even the upright to opt for easy gain at others’ expense?

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