top of page

The Legend of the Jersey Devil

Here is a spooky story for Halloween.

The New Jersey Pine Barrens is home to miles of thick, seemingly impenetrable pine tree forests and sandy roads, but it is also home to New Jersey’s most infamous resident, the Jersey Devil. Designated in 1938 as the country’s only state demon, the Jersey Devil is described as a kangaroo-like creature anywhere from 6 to 10 feet in length with the face of a horse, the head of a dog, leathery bat-like wings, horns, red glowing eyes and a forked tail. It is said to have one of the most saddening and terrifying screams that had ever been heard, sounding like s combination of a tortured human being and a vengeful predator. For more than 250 years this mysterious creature is said to prowl through the marshes of Southern New Jersey and emerge periodically to rampage through local towns and cities.

The legend dates back to the early 1700’s and claim that this monster can be traced back to one family, the Leeds. It started with Deborah Smith who emigrated from England in the 1700s to marry a Mr. Leeds. The Leeds family lived in the area of the Pine Barrens (Leeds Point, Galloway Township, Atlantic County). After having 12 children Mother Leeds was exhausted and ready to stop giving birth. However, to her dismay, she had become pregnant again with her 13th child. Angry at her misfortune, she cursed the unborn child, saying that it would be the devil. Other versions say that she waited and invoked the devil during a very difficult and painful labor.

Either way, on the night that Mother Leeds went into labor, family and friends were gathered around to welcome the new child. A midwife assisted her as she gave birth while everyone else waited in an adjoining room. Upon its arrival, everyone entered the room to see the infant. At first, it appeared to be normal and of good health. Then, things began to change. The infant began growing at an alarming rate. The face turned into that of an ugly goat (or horse according to some legends), the hands became claws, its feet became hooves and it sprouted a pair of wings until it resembled a strange cross between a wyvern (a legendary two-legged dragon with wings and a barbed tail) and a farm animal. The creature then killed the midwife and many of the friends (or all as some versions go) that had gathered in the room, leaving only its parents untouched. It then flew up the chimney and into the woods where it still resides to this day.

Other versions of it story are that the child/devil was the result of a family curse, or that Mother Leeds was a witch and the child's father the devil himself, or that Mrs. Leeds, who was a Quaker, had refused to be converted from the Quaker faith so the clergyman who had been trying to convert her was so angry that he told her that her next child would be an offspring of Satan. Some say that after the child was born a monster, Mrs. Leeds cared for it until her death, at which time it flew off into the woods.

Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. (1779 - 1820)

One of the first sightings of the creature, then known as "the Leeds Devil" (it would not be named the "Jersey Devil" until the 1900's), was reported by Commodore Stephen Decatur, the Naval hero most famous for his daring 1804 raid on the harbor of Tripoli. During a visit to the Hanover Iron Works, located located in the Pine Barrens, the Commodore was testing cannon balls on their firing range. While there, he saw a strange creature that had a whiteish hue flying above the field. Heroically, he used the cannon to shoot a hole through the creature’s right wing. To his surprise and dismay, the monster continued to fly overhead, seemingly unaffected by the attack. The exact date of this occurrence is unknown. Some accounts say it occurred in 1778 (which would have been impossible since Decatur was not born until 1779). It has been confirmed that Decatur did, indeed, visit the Hanover Iron Works range to test cannonballs, but it was later discovered that Dr. James Killian was included in his group of onlookers. Killian was a cryptid (an animal said to exist, but never proven to exist) hunter who gained his claim to fame for his study of all things paranormal. There are legends that suggest that Dr. Killian and Commodore Decatur were actually in the Pine Barrens to hunt the creature, possibly ordered by President James Monroe.

A year later, Joseph Bonaparte, the former king of Spain and Napoleon Bonaparte's older brother, allegedly encountered the creature. He owned land in Bordentown, New Jersey, and part of the Pine Barrens. It is claimed that Joseph was hunting the monster when he happened upon it and was startled to discover its existence. Others say that he was simply out hunting on his property when he saw the creature.

After the 1840’s passed, the creature was not seen or heard from until the 1870’s when it was supposedly seen by several people during the winter months. Sightings included one in 1870 by a Long Beach fisherman who said he saw the Jersey Devil serenading a mermaid.

It was not until January 1909 when it was spotted by thousands of New Jersey residents from the 16th to the 23rd. The strange events caused widespread panic, fear and excitement. Numerous reports of sightings were published in newspapers across the country and precautions were taken that suggest local authorities really did believe their citizens were in danger.

It all started on Saturday, 16 January 1909 when it was seen flying over Woodbury, Gloucester County, NJ. Although there was some panic, it was initially presumed to be an isolated event like all of the previous tales. The next day, however, there were more sightings in Bristol, PA. E.W. Minster, the postmaster of Bristol, stated that he awoke around 2:00 in the morning and heard an “eerie, almost supernatural” sound coming from the direction of the Delaware River. He looked out the window and saw what looked to be a “large crane” that was flying diagonally and emitting a curious glow. The creature had a long neck that was thrust forward in flight, thin wings, long back legs and shorter ones in the front. The creature let out a combination of a squawk and a whistle and then disappeared into the darkness. This time there were strange tracks that matched the description of the creature.

On Monday, 18 January, more tracks were found further north in Burlington, NJ. The tracks in the town seemed to defy what was biologically possible. With so many sightings occurring, people began to wonder if the creature was more than just folklore.

It soon became apparent that the creature was just getting started. The next day at 2:30 in the morning, Nelson Evans and his wife saw it outside their window. They claimed in their description that the beast was nearly 3 ½ feet in height and had a strange head that started off looking like a dog but had a face similar to that of a horse. It’s neck was abnormally long and its wings were at least two feet in length. It was also said to have walked on its back hooves and simply held its two paws up while walking. The couple was able to shoo the creature away, but the event deeply frightened them. Later, two hunters came and followed the tracks left by the creature for 20 miles. They claimed it was able to jump over fences and squeeze under small gaps about 8 inches in size. This pattern matched what had previously been reported in other towns.

The next day, people in Haddonfield and Collingswood decided to form posses to hunt the Devil. A few of the posses were able to spot the creature flying towards Moorestown, but they were not able to catch it.

On Thursday, the 21st, it attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights. It was eventually chased off, but the widespread panic that was caused was more than evident in the population now. Several poultry farmers in the area reported that something, likely the creature, had killed all of their chickens. There were others who claimed to have seen the creature crash into electrical lines and continue flying as if nothing had happened. Later in the day, a telegraph worker just outside of Atlantic City shot the creature. Unfortunately, it was able to escape into the woods, although the worker said it appeared to be limping.

It was spotted in Philadelphia and Collingswood, NJ. People attempted to protect themselves by hurling objects at the creature, none of which harmed it. Later in the day, a Mrs. Mary Sorbinski in south Camden, NJ spotted the creature trying to eat her dog. She chased it away with a broom, but not before it had bit the dog. She carried her wounded pet inside and immediately called the police. By the time they arrived, a crowd of more than 100 people had gathered at the house. Piercing screams suddenly erupted from nearby, causing the police officers to empty their revolvers at the shadow that loomed against the night sky, but the Devil escaped once again. This attack would be one of the most important to be reported in the 1909 sightings because it was the first time the Devil was directly connected to an attack on a live animal and would be the event that would the most panic in the area.

As a result, armed guards were put on trolleys to ensure the safety of the passengers. More posses and hunting groups were created in the hopes that someone would be able to capture or kill the beast and end the attacks for good. Most people decided to stay in their homes until the attacks had stopped or the Devil had been captured or killed. Many businesses and schools were closed out of fear of the creature. Additionally, loggers and lumberjacks who worked in the Pine Barrens refused to return to work until they were assured that the creature had been dealt with. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Devil, but there were no takers.

Friday, 22 January was the last day of sightings, but by then the people in the Pine Barrens had finally been convinced of the existence of the Devil. Even now, there are still reported sightings of the creature, though nothing has surpassed the panic that was created in the winter of 1909.

Daniel Leeds (1651 - 1720)

Now, back to the origin of the creature. As previously mentioned, the creature was initially known as "The Leeds Devil" or "The Devil of Leeds." What is widely considered to be the true story of the Jersey Devil began in 1677 with a man named Daniel Leeds. Leeds was born in Stansted Mountfitchet, Uttlesford, Essex, England in 1651. He followed his father to America in 1676, arriving on the ship "Shield," which arrived in December.

In 1687, he began publishing The American Almanack, which contained astrology, angering many who lived in the community. His almanac was accused by the Quaker Meeting of using inappropriate language, as well as symbols and names that they considered too pagan and that he was working for the devil. At their next gathering, Leeds made a public apology, but still an order was sent out to collect and destroy all copies. This made Leeds resentful, and he broke with the group and continued publishing his almanac.

In 1688, he published a book called The Temple of Wisdom, which put together various writings from other authors in order to form his own personal theory on the origins of the universe. The Temple of Wisdom touched on various subjects, including angels, astrology, and devils. Much of his writing drew upon the work of Jacob Boehme, a German mystic who focused much of his writing on the nature of sin and redemption.

There would be more and more problems that arose from this point on. Leeds continued to publish what was considered to be anti-Quaker material and, as a result, continued to draw anger and disgust from the community. Additionally, when the colonists came to oppose the British rule in America, Daniel Leeds took the opposing side. In 1702, Lord Cornbury became the first royal governor of New Jersey. Leeds counseled him and openly supported British rule.

Daniel Leeds continued to print anti-Quaker pamphlets throughout his life, prompting George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, to respond with his own pamphlets. One of these, Satan's Harbinger Encountered...Being Something by Way of Answer to Daniel Leeds published in 1700, accused Leeds of working for the devil.

Daniel Leeds retired from almanac-making in 1716 and gave the company to his son, Titan Leeds. Titan continued to publish the almanacs, mysticism and all. He also redesigned the front page to include the family crest, which featured wyverns.

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin published his first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac. As competitors in a lucrative market, the upstart Franklin decided to go after his established rival to boost sales. In the 1733 edition, using astrological techniques, Franklin predicted that Titan Leeds would die on 17 October of that year. As expected, Titan Leeds was greatly angered by Franklin’s outlandish claim and did his best to take a stab at the new publisher’s credibility by calling him a "fool and a liar." Franklin responded quickly, claiming that Titan must be speaking to him as a ghost because only a dead man would have such a foolish response. This rivalry continued until Titan died in 1738.

After Titan’s death, Franklin continued to write about "the Ghost of Titan Leeds" and went on to say that despite Titan’s passing he had been resurrected for the sole purpose of abusing Franklin. Although highly insensitive, there was little sympathy on the part of the community because of the Leeds family’s loyalty to the British.

As it happened, Titan had a brother named Japhet Leeds who was married to a woman named Deborah. Historical records show that as of 1736, Japhet had 12 children in his will. Because this was the time period that was known to have been at the height of the rivalry between Benjamin Franklin and Titan Leeds, many people theorize that the Devil story could have been invented by Franklin as a way of discrediting the Leeds family name.

There are several elements of the story that would lend credibility of this theory. The first is the time period. The rivalry between Titan and Franklin officially began in 1733. The story of the creation of the Devil took place in 1735, during the tensions between the two families.

The Leeds family was known to be part of the Loyalist party, so the version of "Mother Leeds" being cursed because she fell in love with a British soldier could have easily been an intentional stab towards the family.

Perhaps the most suggestive piece of evidence comes from the Leeds’ almanac itself. After Titan took over the publishing of the almanac, he added his family crest to the cover. The crest featured the wyvern, which bares a striking resemblance to the descriptions of the Devil. Therefore, it entirely possible that Franklin used the newly designed cover to poke more fun at the "traitorous Leeds family."

So, there you have it, the legend of the Jersey Devil. Whether you believe in it or not, the fact remains that people are still seeing strange things in the Pine Barrens and surrounding areas. Supernatural or otherwise, there is something in the woods.



bottom of page