Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Legend of the Jersey Devil

Today, my guest, Jeff Markowitz, takes us on a tour of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and introduces us to one of the Pine Barrens’ most famous citizens.

Folks are always surprised when I tell them about the Pine Barrens. After all, it’s not what people think of when they think of New Jersey. You might be surprised to find more than one million acres of pine forests and cranberry bogs less than one hundred miles from Manhattan, less than fifty miles from Philadelphia.

Towns have grown up in and amongst the forest, and some are now thriving cities, but, even today, there is vast acreage in the Pine Barrens that remains virgin pine forest. Deep in the forest, amongst the pitch pines and the cranberry bogs, the fragrant berries and the abandoned cemeteries, strange things abound.

None stranger than the Jersey Devil.

The Jersey Devil is one of the enduring legends that have come out of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, dating back to the early 1700s. There are several accounts of the birth of the Jersey Devil, but the most common story dates back to 1735, to Mother Leeds, pregnant with her thirteenth child, saddled with a drunken, ne’er-do-well husband, and burdened with far too many responsibilities. Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child to the devil. And then she gave birth to a horrible creature, with a horse-like head and hooves, bat-wings, a forked tail and an ear-piercing shriek.

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Sightings of the Jersey Devil have been reported ever since, terrorizing south Jersey (although, curiously, rarely causing any actual damage). The most extensive sightings date back to 1909, to the week of January 16-23. During that week, in 1909, the Jersey Devil was seen in more than thirty different towns, by hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. The terror was so widespread that schools and factories were closed and posses were formed in an attempt to capture the elusive Jersey Devil.

The sightings began late at night, January 16 in Woodbury, NJ and early on the morning of January 17 in Bristol, PA. The sightings in Bristol included eye-witness accounts by a police officer (later to become the Bristol Chief of Police) as well as the town’s postmaster, who described the creature as follows:

“Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thick neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind. Again, it uttered its mournful and awful call – a combination of a squawk and a whistle, the beginning very high and piercing and ending very low and horse.” (from The Jersey Devil, by McCloy and Miller, published by Middle Atlantic Press).

Over the subsequent twenty-four hours, reports of the Jersey Devil, or Jersey Devil tracks were reported in Burlington City, Gloucester City, Columbus, Hedding, Kinkora and Rancocas. On Tuesday, January 19, the Jersey Devil made a well-documented appearance in Gloucester City, that resulted in the following description by Nelson Evans:

“It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse’s hooves.” (from The Jersey Devil)

In the ensuing days, the Jersey Devil was spotted in Haddonfield, in Moorestown and in numerous other towns in south Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Public meetings were held to address citizens’ concerns.

On Thursday, January 21, the Jersey Devil’s rampage intensified, with an attack on a trolley car in Camden. Before the day’s end, there were sightings in Trenton and Ewing, in Roebling, Pitman, Bridgeton and Millville, in West Collingswood, Mt. Holly and Atlantic City, as well as Philadelphia, PA. Trolley cars in Trenton and New Brunswick armed the drivers in an effort to protect the trolleys from attack.

The panic was palpable. By Friday, January 22, people had locked themselves in their homes in towns all across the Delaware Valley. Businesses closed. Schools closed. Sighting continued on Friday in Camden and Woodbury. The final reported sighting of the week occurred Friday night in Salem.

And then the Devil was gone.

There have been occasional reports of the Jersey Devil since that harrowing week, but nothing comes close to the magnitude of the events that transpired one hundred years ago in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

But you never know when the Jersey Devil may strike. So, if you’re in the area, you might want to make your way to Bass River State Forest at 7:00 pm on October 30 for the Jersey Devil Prowl. (Ages 7 and up. Jersey Devil prowling, after all, is dangerous work).

Jeff Markowitz is the author of the Cassie O’Malley Mysteries, an amateur sleuth series set deep in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. His latest novel, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder has just been released by Five Star. To find out more, please visit http://jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jeff and Terry,

Being a Jersey girl myself, I am very into the legend of the Jersey Devil and love visiting the Pine Barrens. I even wrote a children's picture book, published by Afton Publishing, titled A Devil in the Pines, about the Jersey Devil and the Pine Barrens. Like you, Jeff, I've done considerable research on the subject because I find it unique and fascinating.

Terry Odell said...

I recall you mentioned the legend when you were my guest, Jacqueline. Thanks for stopping by. Local legends can add richness to a story.

Elena said...

Thank you, that was fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Jersey Devil.

Jeff Markowitz said...

My first book - Who is Killing Doah's Deer - is as much a story about the myths and legends of the Pine Barrens as it is a murder mystery.

Sheila Deeth said...

Cool tale. Fascinating. The cranberry bogs look fascinating too.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm a Texas woman, but long, long, ago in a galaxy far, far away, I lived in South Jersey. As far south as Jersey goes - Cape May. It was quite an experience, and I'll never forget it. I even heard tales of the Jersey Devil.

Ava Quinn said...

I grew up outside of Philly, and every summer my best friend and I would go to the Jersey Shore.

In the dark on Friday nights, while her mother drove us to their shore house for the weekend, she would tell us stories about the Jersey Devil as we passed through the Pine Barrens. For the rest of the trip, eyes peeled and noses pressed to opposite windows, we'd keep watch so the Devil couldn't sneak up on us.

That mother was a genius.

Terry Odell said...

Ava - what a great story.

Sheila, Carol - thanks for stopping by.

heidenkind said...


We don't have devils where I live. Instead, we have la llorona.

Jeff Markowitz said...

Terry - Thanks for hosting my visit.

And thanks to everyone for your comments.