The Jersey Devil – American Folklore? Or Unknown Species?First Published: February 19, 2018 Last updated: July 28th, 2018 Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
The legends of the Jersey Devil stretch back hundreds of years, and like many such legends are a mixture of half-truths, twisted perspective, and blurry recollections. Sightings of this apparently mythical creature continue today, however, leading some to suspect there may be more to the accounts than just mere stories.
While the origins, and indeed the vast majority of descriptions of the Jersey Devil have their roots in the practicing of dark arts, the summoning of demonic entities, and claims of The Devil himself, it is entirely possible, if such a creature does exist, it is one that has, as unlikely as it might be, avoided detection and study from the modern world. Indeed, perhaps it is even some kind of humanoid who once called the open plains of New Jersey home.
Many features of the Jersey Devil sightings also come up in the equally bizarre Spring Heeled Jack sightings of the mid-nineteenth century to the early-1900s, in England, predominantly in London. Such things as leaping or flying ability or strange claw-like feet. Even more bizarre are details of flames or a strange glow in accounts of each of these strange creatures. Might there be a connection, or are the sightings simply a testament to overactive imaginations?
Before we look at the origins of one of America’s strangest and most enduring legends, check out the video below. It looks at the basics of the Jersey Devil legends.
Jane Leeds And The Origins Of The Jersey Devil
One of the first accounts on record, and the one most associated with the legends of the Jersey Devil goes back to the Pine Barrens area of south New Jersey in 1735. There, a lady by the name of Jane Leeds announced she was pregnant with no less than her thirteenth child. To all who would listen she would say “the Devil can take this one!”
According to the legend, this thirteenth child had the shape of a human, but the look of a reptile. Details state the child was born with claws, a tail, and horns. It would grow exceptionally quickly with some accounts stating up to twenty feet in height. It would leave the Leeds’ household through the chimney and vanish. The legends and stories of the Jersey Devil – at the time often called The Leeds Devil – began to thrive soon after.
However, it is likely that the use of the Leeds name is due to the writings and ideas of one of the pilgrims to the new world of America. Daniel Leeds, who records show arrived in Burlington, New Jersey in 1677. Like many of the new immigrants, Leeds was a member of the Society of Friends – more commonly known as the Quakers. Born in Leeds, Yorkshire in England in 1651, the twenty-four-year-old was a devout follower of his religion.
He was also a man with interests in pagan rituals and beliefs, who himself had “visions” from an early age. It was these interests and Leeds’ own background which would ultimately lead the Quaker community to turn on him. In doing so, particularly as their community would submit to the industrialization of the coming decades of the once open countryside, they had sewn the seed of the legends that would follow.
Politicly Armed Folklore
Daniel Leeds was well educated in such ancient arts as astrology and methods of what we would call today, alternative healing. At the time, the Quaker population increasingly regarded these teachings of Leeds’ as being black magic and even Satanic. Leaflets were regularly distributed around Quaker settlements and into the wider populations. Perhaps Leeds’ loyalty to the British also put him at odds with the locals.
Furthermore, the Leeds’ family crest was of three “dragon-like” creatures, which only further aroused suspicions and, in the minds of the settlers, strengthened the links between Daniel Leeds and what future generations would call the Jersey Devil.
An apparent exorcism in 1740 claimed to banish the creature from the area for one-hundred years. The legends, however, would continue throughout the centuries and into modern times.
Upon the discovery of bog iron in the New Jersey region, the population rapidly grew as industries gave birth to communities, towns, and eventually cities. There would also be an increase in sightings.
In 1800, Commodore Stephen Decatur – a naval hero of his time – would visit the Hanover Iron Works to test the cannonballs the plant produced. While doing so one particular day he would report a “strange winged creature” flying over the firing range. Another sighting came from the brother of Napoleon, Joseph Bonaparte in the early 1820s, who claimed to see the Jersey Devil while hunting game in the region.
The stories and claimed sightings spread through the populations around New Jersey. Claims that farmer’s sheep had been “snatched from their pens” or that the beast would prey on children out after dark would lead to many people hanging lanterns on their doorsteps in hopes of keeping the Jersey Devil at bay.
The 1909 James Sackville Sighting
While walking his usual patrol beat around New Jersey one evening in January 1909, James Sackville, a young police officer, claimed to see the Jersey Devil come out of an alleyway and into the street in front of him. He would withdraw and fire his revolver towards the creature, but according to his report, it would “spread its wings” and disappear into the night sky.
Although the Sackville sighting wasn’t common knowledge among the local population, a flood of sightings soon came in.
Shortly after Sackville’s sighting, a report would come from the postmaster of Bristol, a town in Pennsylvania on the border with New Jersey, E.W. Minster. According to Minster, an “eerie, almost supernatural” sound awoke him at shortly after 2 am. It appeared to be coming from the banks of the Delaware River. Upon looking out of his window he could see a strange creature, like a “large crane” flying over the icy water. It seemed to have a strange glow to it and made the sound again, confirming to Minster it was the sound that had awoken him. Shortly after, it would vanish.
On 19th January, Nelson Evans and his wife would report a large creature on their roof. The description was bizarre, to say the least, with features of a horse, a dog, and a crane, as well as huge wings.
Several days later, in the middle of the day, Mrs. White claimed to see the creature “huddled in the corner of the yard” while she retrieved clothes from the washing line. Her screams brought her husband to the door, who claimed he could see “spurting flames” coming from the creature. It would leap over the fence of the garden and disappear.
Shortly after, came another sighting. One witnessed by hundreds.
The Case Of Mary Sorbinski
Mary Sorbinski was inside her house when she could suddenly hear the desperate cries of her dog. As she rushed outside, her eyes fixed upon a bizarre creature attacking her beloved pet. She managed to chase it away with a broom, but not before the dog suffered a nasty bite to its side. Mary would call the police notifying them of the attack.
Patrol officers arrived at the property shortly later, by which time a large crowd of around one-hundred people had gathered. All around them were sounds of screeching and howls. Above them, shadows of something flying through the clouds were seen.
The officers would attempt to shoot the creature, but all of their bullets appeared to miss their target. Shortly after, the noise ceased, and the creature was gone.
Although much more sporadic the sightings continued throughout the 1900s. In 1927, while changing a flat tire on his taxi cab, a driver would witness a winged-creature leap onto the roof of his vehicle and pound it violently. He climbed into his car and drove away as fast as he could.
In August 1930 at the Leeds Point and Mays Landing, multiple berry-pickers witnessed a strange creature flying over and through the fields. In 1951 a report would come from a group of children of seeing the Jersey Devil in Gibbstown. Several more sightings came in later the same evening in the same area.
In 1993, forest ranger, John Irwin claimed to be driving alongside the Mullica River. Out of nowhere, a six-foot winged creature stood in the road in front of him. After remaining still for several moments, what Irwin is certain was the Jersey Devil turned away from him. It ran into the forest at the side of the road.
Sighting Along Route 9, Galloway, New Jersey, 2015
In October 2015 Dave Black would claim to have witnessed the Jersey Devil making its way across a New Jersey golf course. Furthermore, Black managed to snap a picture of the elusive beast.
He would speak of his encounter to NJ.com, claiming to be driving past the golf course along Route 9 in Galloway when something strange captured his attention. Black turned to what he at first thought was a llama.
He kept the strange creature in his sight for a few moments. It was then that it “spread out leathery wings and flew off over the golf course!”
Black would make it clear that he was not seeking any kind of monetary compensation for the picture. He was looking to see if anyone could explain the sightings in “a more rational way!” When pressed on the issue Black would insist the picture was not a hoax.
The “wings” of the creature are clearly visible, as are what appear to be horns on its head. Some explanations of it being a piñata suspended on strings, however, appear to fall short. No strings are visible, and furthermore, there would appear to be nowhere to attach them to.
He offered he had considered the picture might show a small land mammal, possibly captured by a large owl. Black, however, has his own thoughts. He would state, “I think I saw a large, flying mammal, about the size of a deer!”
It does appear, as bizarre as the picture looks, that Black’s photograph is genuine. Whether it is one day proven to be a hoax or not, only time will tell. The Jersey Devil, if only in people’s minds, is apparently alive and well.
Check out the short video below. It features NJ.com in search of the Jersey Devil.
Legend? Factual Accounts? Or A Mixture Of Both?
So, what should we make of the legends of the Jersey Devil? As we have seen, like all legends, they are a mixture of both fact and hearsay. Recorded information and the differing retelling of accounts.
There are several interesting points of the legends to consider though. Perhaps not least, the similarities to the previously mentioned Spring Heeled Jack sightings of 1800s London.
Although they do not match the many descriptions from sightings over the years, it is also interesting that descriptions of the Jersey Devil at birth were of a reptilian. While this description is likely describing the likeness of “The Devil”, given the number of sightings of reptilians, it is still something worth noting.
Also, the connection to old Pagan rituals and esoteric knowledge is interesting. Such thought outside the “accepted norms” of the Quaker society was frowned upon. This is much the same in any social set-up. Those who operate beyond these boundaries are seen as “crazy”, “eccentric”, and at worst, “evil!” Was the Jersey Devil a way to keep the population in line?
Or is it possible that the Jersey Devil – whatever it might be – has been native to this area long before the pilgrims and settlers came ashore from Europe? Perhaps this strange creature that befuddled and terrorized the local population was connected to Daniel Leeds for no other reason than to label him and his ideas “evil”, and in so doing, providing an “explanation” for the worried masses, as well as issuing a warning to others who might choose to indulge in such evil practices as Daniel Leeds.
Whatever the real truths under the stories, the sightings continue. The video below looks at some of the most interesting sightings of the Jersey Devil.