Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil is one of those localized names that residents and written histories have applied to any cryptids seen in the state of New Jersey. The legendary creature, in fact, is an unofficial state mascot, and the state’s National Hockey League team is named in its honor. The Jersey Devil, a feral human first thought to be a Bigfoot, was also featured in the third episode of The X-Files as its first “monster of the week,” and a Sony PlayStation game has turned the savage beast into a video game character.

The Jersey Devil legend dates back to at least 1735, when a Leeds Point woman in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey allegedly gave birth to a cursed child. It was born, so the story goes, a hideous monster, combining a horse’s head, the wings of a bat, cloven hooves, and a serpent’s tail. This being, which flew off to haunt the Barrens ever after, was first called the Leeds Devil, and in the nineteenth century it came to be known as the Jersey Devil.

In 1909, nearly two centuries after the creature’s reputed birth, a rash of bizarre reports erupted. The episode has been dubbed the Jersey Devil’s “finest hour.” In the course of five January days, more than one hundred persons across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey swore they had seen the beast. All over the region, accounts of such a creature or creatures were heard, as well as the discoveries of bizarre, unidentifiable hoof-prints in the snow. Schools and businesses closed, and Jacob Hope and Norman Jeffries hoaxed a capture of the monster. They charged a small fee for a look at a kangaroo they had disguised with green paint, feathers, and antlers.

A climax to the events took place on January 21 in West Collingswood, when the town’s fire department supposedly confronted the monster and sprayed it with fire-hoses as it swooped menacingly over-head. The next morning, a Camden woman said the Jersey Devil attacked her pet dog. Another sighting occurred in February, marking the end of the 1909 incident.

Years later, Loren Coleman and Ivan T. Sanderson offered a likely explanation for the scare: apparently an elaborate real estate hoax. Scared residents would be more likely to sell the property at lower prices to developers. Sanderson even found the fake feet used to make the foot-prints in the snow. Hoof-prints and other evidence were faked or misidentified. The stories of sightings seem to have been a combination of planted stories, hoaxes, and imaginations fueled by fear.

The Jersey Devil would surely be no more than an obscure piece of colonial folklore today, if not for the sensational “sightings” of 1909. More modern sightings, if taken seriously, tell us that a diverse number of creatures have been lumped under the Jersey Devil rubric. In one recent report of a sighting December 1993, a witness named John Irwin, a summer park ranger in the Wharton State Forest of New Jersey and a respected figure in the community, was patrolling at night when he noticed a large, dark figure emerging from the woods. It stood like a human, over six feet tall, and had black fur that looked wet and matted. The Forest Service report of the incident went on to state, “John sat in his car only a few feet away from the monster. His initial shock soon turned to fear when the creature turned its deer-like head and stared through the windshield. But instead of gazing into the bright yellow glow of a deer’s eyes, John found himself the subject of a deep glare from two piercing red eyes.” Some New Jersey researchers compared what Irwin saw to the Australian Bunyip in overall looks.

Mystery cryptids of many kinds, from little otter-shaped animals to hairy bipeds, from strange birds to unknown panthers, seen in New Jersey are always called Jersey Devils, though surely none really is.



The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark

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