Friends with the Devil

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey strike the first-time visitor as eerily odd, even today.  Stunted trees grow from sandy soil, crowded close together and growing hard up to the edge of the road.  You can see the sky above, but dwarf trees of uniform height block your lateral views over any distance.  It feels claustrophobic.  Add to this tales of inhospitable residents and an actual profusion of tree-climbing lizards, and you’ve got the grounds for wondering what else might lurk in the deciduous woods.  Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito aren’t so easily frightened.  Their fascinating book, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster is a bit of a chimera on its own.  The subtitle gives a pretty good idea of what you’ll find in the book.  For someone who had lived in Jersey for a dozen years, and who loves monsters, it was a must-read.

Not to provide too many spoilers, Regal and Esposito spend some time in colonial New Jersey sketching the little that can be known of the rather prominent Daniel Leeds.  Anyone from Jersey knows that its eponymous state demon is also known as the Leeds Devil.  This particular family had good connections despite being Quakers—a capital crime in some parts of the British Empire.  Daniel, however, had a falling out from the Friends and made his name by publishing an almanac.  This almanac and the proximity of Philadelphia to the Barrens brings Benjamin Franklin into the story.  Franklin competed with the Leeds almanac, and Poor Richard eventually won out in this war of the words.  Demonized by their former Friends and gently satirized by Franklin, the Leeds family was eventually all but forgotten.  Then stories began to emerge of a dragon-like monster in southern Jersey.

To get the details you’ll need to read the book.  Particularly interesting for this blog is the way religion and monsters interplay.  There’s a good bit of history of monsters in the story, including Quakers and early attempts among scientists to understand birth defects.  The very word “monster” is, in its “word cloud,” related to ideas such as revelation and portents.  Early scientists resorted to divine anger when they couldn’t explain what nature had wrought.  And of course folklore is a very potent lubricant.  There are some gaps in the story here, but this is an enchanting exploration of whence monsters might come.  The Jersey Devil has international fame now, and its birth may have begun with insults flashed back and forth among religious believers that eventually were taken literally.  The devil’s in these details.  Or at least in the spooky topography of the Barrens.

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?