Paranormal Phenomenon Omnibus

The Jersey Devil

Essay by Matt Allair

The 1735 Origins / The 1909 Sightings / Press Frenzy

The tale of the Jersey Devil is a classic example of an urban legend, a modern popular American myth. It is also an interesting example of how folklore can evolve. What happened in 1909 triggered events that were probably the result of misconceptions -- the sound of an unidentified animal, or sightings of animals not common to the area. Regardless of the truth, rumors exaggerated the telling of some tales until people believed them. Much in the way how someone in a circle will play 'pass it on', telling someone one piece of information and verbally circulating it until it comes back to them very differently. The X-Files episode, The Jersey Devil, uses the legend as a starting off point for a story about feral humans.

The Jersey Devil's origin is disputed; the most popular version lists its origin at Leeds Point, New Jersey in 1735. It has been said that it came into the world when a Mrs. Leeds, learning she was pregnant for the thirteenth time, declared that her offspring might just as well be a devil, which it turned out to be. A grotesque creature possessing bat's wings, a horse's head, cloven hoofs, and a tail, it flew off into the isolated pine barrens of South Jersey and has remained there. Evidence consisted of mysterious livestock deaths, enigmatic footprints, eerie cries in the night, and the occasional sighting. It was first known as the Leeds Devil, yet by the nineteenth century it was known as the Jersey Devil.

The 1735 Origins / The 1909 Sightings / Press Frenzy

The Jersey Devil is often told more like a tall tale or folk joke; there has been no credible documentation of any sightings, yet the legend reached its "finest hour" in 1909 when 100 persons in 30 different towns saw the Devil as it rampaged through eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Allegedly, the first sighting took place at 2 A.M. Sunday, January 17, 1909 in Bristol, Pennsylvania when postmaster E.W. Minister saw a glowing monster flying over the Delaware River. Mr. Minister claimed it had a ramlike head with curled horns and long, thin wings. It had short legs with the rear legs being longer, and it uttered cries which sounded something like a combined squawk and whistle. Two other men also observed the creature; one man was a police officer who fired at it.

On the eighteenth, there was another sighting by a policeman at Burlington, New Jersey, who claimed to spot a flying creature with glowing eyes. Soon, residents of neighboring towns were spotting mysterious tracks in the snow. By 6 o'clock the following morning it was spotted again as it prowled in an alley. This time the witness, Mrs. Michael Ryan, described it as having long, birdlike legs, a horse's head, as well as wings. Two days later at 4 P.M. in Philadelphia, Mrs. Davis A. White spotted it in her backyard, describing it as having alligator skin and breathing fire from its mouth. Her screams awoke her husband, who chased it to Sixteenth Street before a trolley car nearly struck it. Later that evening, at Salem, a police officer spotted a "Devil Bird" that was 11 feet long, with one foot like a horse, the other foot like a mule, with a horn on it's head and an ostrich's tail.

The next evening, sightings started to become more exaggerated. A Moorestown fisherman allegedly spotted it and described it as three feet high, monkey - like, with a dog's face and split devil's hoofs. A Burlington motorman described seeing something that looked like a winged kangaroo. At 2 A.M. on the twenty first in Gloucester City, Nelson Evans heard something on the roof of his backyard shed. Mr. Evans described it as being three-and-a-half feet with the head of a collie dog and a horse's face. It had a long neck, two-feet-long wings, back legs like a crane's with horse's hoofs, its front legs had paws, Mr. Evans chased the creature away.

Several hours later, Daniel Flynn of Leiperville, Pennsylvania sighted the Devil along Chester Pike and described it as six feet high with alligator skin. The next morning Mary Sorbinsky of Camden, New Jersey ran out to her screaming dog as a huge creature rose from the ground and took flight -- just after allegedly taking a chunk out of her pet.

At that point, due to the mounting community hysteria, businesses and schools closed down. The sightings reached a climax by January twenty-first when firemen sprayed water on the Devil as it perched upon a roof in West Collingswood. Enraged, the Devil swooped down on them before flying away. There were no other sightings until February twenty-fourth when Leslie Garrison, a Salem County farmer spotted the Devil flying over his property. Mr. Garrison described it as a six-foot-long bird with human feet.

The 1735 Origins / The 1909 Sightings / Press Frenzy

During the course of the scare, newspapers and zoos offered rewards for its capture. From that point on sightings would become sporadic. There was a sighting of a "flying Lion" by two ten-year-old boys, as well as other sightings in 1930 and 1932. Decades later, it cannot be determined what happened during the events of 1909; the scare was not simply an invention of a sensational press. In 1974 Jeremiah J. Sullivan wrote in New York Folklore Quarterly that many older South Jerseyites still remember the Devil scare of 1909. Sullivan characterized the incidents as "one of the few unexplored incidents of mass hysteria connected with folklore in American history." Due to the fact that many eyewitness accounts vary so greatly, their testimony isn't credible enough to determine if there's any truthful basis to the Devil's existence. Nevertheless, the town people of 1909 did believe they witnessed something extraordinary.

Source: "Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Phenomena" by Jerome Clark, © 1993 Visible Ink Press

Page Editor: XScribe

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