The Jersey Devil is a well-known mythical creature that is said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, although Devil sightings have been reported throughout most of southern New Jersey and even the border cities of Pennsylvania. The first thing witnesses will mention is that the creature has glowing red eyes, curved horns, and wicked fangs, like a dog or wolf. It is also described as having the head of a horse, wings like a bat, the legs of a bird, cloven hooves, and a dragon-like bearing. Occasionally it is said to have the body of a kangaroo. The size of the beast is disputed. A few claim that the beast has a wingspan of only four feet, but many, especially in the most recent sightings, state that the creature is tall, hairy, and powerful enough to wreck vehicles. In these sightings the distraught victims often claim that it was as big as a man or larger.
There are many origin stories, the variations between each one minimal. Everyone seems to agree that the name Leeds is somehow connected to the Devil. Some say it is the surname of the woman who gave birth to it, others say Leeds Point is where the creature originated and the woman was called Mrs. Shrouds. All seem to agree, however, that the woman was dreadfully poor and a mother of twelve other children when she discovered that she was pregnant with a thirteenth child. “No more children!” She cried. “Let this one be taken by the devil!” As the blasphemous words left her mouth, the Devil cocked an ear.
It was on a stormy night that the Jersey Devil was born. Surrounded by friends, the woman gave birth to her thirteenth child. He was a healthy babe, shrieking at the top of his lungs as he was brought into the world. Yet as the midwife held him he began to change form. Pudgy baby fists were replaced by wings; his body contorted, twisting and changing before the very eyes of the onlookers. The frightened midwife dropped him like a hot coal, screaming in terror and fleeing the scene.
A monster stood before them now, still crying a dreadful cry and fluttering about the room, dealing savage blows to any who stood in its way. Before anything could be done, however, it exited the home through the chimney and disappeared into the night. The very next morning an exorcism was performed throughout the entire area, exiling the Devil for a hundred years. Indeed, it was over a hundred years before people even remembered the beast’s existence.
Documented sightings of the Devil are few and far between throughout much of the nineteenth century. The few stories that have survived the march of time have been passed down from ear to ear and been transformed from factual reports to the stuff of legend and fairy tale. It is known that the Jersey Devil took flight once again in the mid 1800’s, when the effects of the exorcism had supposedly dissipated. Many respectable figures of the time claimed to have seen the beast, including Joseph Bonaparte, brother to Napoleon Bonaparte and former king of Spain. He stated that he had encountered the creature whilst out hunting near Bordertown, New Jersey, but he spoke little of the event.
It wasn’t long after Joseph Bonaparte’s sighting that the beast began to make its presence felt by the locals… in a more aggressive fashion. Throughout the remainder of the 1800’s actual sightings were almost nonexistent. That said, the beast made sure that it was not forgotten by preying upon livestock, pets, and even children if they strayed too far from home in the evenings. People lived in fear, holing up in their houses after dark with lanterns burning brightly at their doorsteps. It was the general belief at the time that such light would ward off evil and keep them from harm.
The final sighting of the creature during this time period was during the nighttime rounds of a police officer by the name of James Sackville. It was a quiet night, and the man was traveling down a dark alley when something big passed overhead. The Devil landed in the street in front of him, letting out a bloodcurdling scream. The officer opened fire, but the bullets seemed to pass right through the monster. It gave a final screech, wings fluttering madly before it vanished entirely. It was not seen again for over a decade.
In 1909 there was an incredible string of sightings, many in well-populated areas and all in the month of January. It began with the postmaster of Bristol, Pennsylvania being awoken by what he described as an “eerie, almost supernatural” sound at 2:00am. Looking out his window, he saw a “large crane” flying overhead, though the shorter front legs and bizarre glow that accompanied the creature made him doubtful that it was a mere bird.
This was followed by a period of near-hysteria. Many people reported hearing heavy footsteps overhead while inside their homes, which could often be confirmed the next morning when they would come out and find cloven hoof-prints all along the rooftops and throughout yards. Attempts to track this mysterious creature often dissolved into bafflement. At points it leaped over fences with ease, at others it crawled underneath, its path aimless and disorienting. There were even points were the tracks just halted entirely, presumably when the creature took flight. Dogs would not follow it at all, whining and withdrawing as far as they could from places it left a scent. The brave souls taking part in the hunt soon dropped the idea, either discouraged or shaken by their discoveries.
While there was an instance where a man emerged from his home to find his wife unconscious in the yard, the Devil standing over her and “spurting flames”, there were no reports of humans being killed during this period. Even so, the populations of southern New Jersey and Philadelphia were so petrified that mills, schools, and many other businesses had to close because of low attendance rates. Nobody wanted to leave their homes while the thing still roamed free. Even so there was still an instance where a young boy awoke to the Jersey Devil staring at him from outside his window, blood oozing from its lips and eyes glowing a fiery red.
This era of paranoia and fear reached a crescendo one night in late January. A woman by the name of Mary Sorbinski was at home in Camden, NJ when she heard the pained cries of her dog from outside. Grabbing a broom, she rushed out to see the Jersey Devil clinging to the frightened animal, fangs driven deep into the dog’s flesh. The brave woman brandished her broom aggressively at the creature, shouting and whacking it with the broomstick until it finally released her pet and fled. She quickly scooped up the wounded animal and went inside to call the police.
By the time the police arrived, over a hundred people had gathered outside of the Mrs. Sorbinski’s house. They were drawn in by the shrieks of the Devil as it retreated and wanted to know what was going on. Before police could disperse the crowd, more screams split the night. Right in front of the eyes of a huge crowd, the Jersey Devil broke cover. The policemen emptied their guns at the beast, but as before the Devil merely vanished without a trace.
This is perhaps the biggest event related to the Devil lore, or, at the very least, the event with the most witnesses at one time. Despite this the creature’s existence is still heavily disputed, especially since there have been dead bodies discovered that greatly resemble the descriptions of the monster. Each time such rumors begin to float around, however, the Devil is always quick to dispel them by showing itself once more, alive and more terrifying than before.
At this time in 1909 the creature was said to stand at about three and a half feet tall. By 1993, one of the most recent documented sightings, the Jersey Devil was reported to be over six feet. John Irwin was a forest ranger patrolling along the Mullica River. He was forced to stop when he saw a large figure rise up in the road before him: the Jersey Devil. He described it as having thick black fur and horns, though unlike previous stories he stated that it did not have a tail. The beast merely stared at him silently for a few long moments before bounding off into the forest, leaving him free to drive on.
There is a lot of speculation surrounding this tale in particular, as well as other similar unrecorded stories in the years previous. Was that the Jersey Devil? Was it some other monster spawned by the deep, untamed forests of New Jersey? It is the varying descriptions of the creature that lead many to believe that the Devil is not real, but prompts others to speculate that there may be more than one creature. After all, if all the legends are to be believed, the beast is well over 200 years old and fluctuates in size.
As recently as 2015 there was a supposed sighting of the creature, documented by the local news. It is fairly obvious to see that in the video and images provided by the two “victims” that the Devil was merely a poorly-constructed prop designed to stir up controversy. The attempt was so poor that hardly anybody thought it worth mentioning, and the story faded away quickly from public interest.
What is truly haunting, however, are the stories circulating the internet from the residents of New Jersey. Sadly, the official reports of the Devil have dwindled to almost nothing. As times have changed the acceptance of such wild tales has become less commonplace. Calling the police for the “Jersey Devil” would be met with ready scorn and possibly a recommendation that the caller stop drinking. But the Jersey Devil is far from gone. To find more recent stories one need only ask around among the right crowds. Campers, hunters, and outdoors men of all kinds have caught glimpses or heard the Devil’s screams. Even the odd traveler taking the scenic route through the Pine Barrens has been accosted by the Devil, much as John Irwin was in 1993.
One man claims to have seen the Devil along the highway in broad daylight. The car in front of him swerved to avoid it and what he saw was a ten foot monstrosity, bone thin with no tail and small ears. It ran across the road and disappeared quickly into the woods. Another, similar sighting occurred on Greentree Road in 1972. A college senior was on his way to Glassboro when he caught movement from out the corner of his eye in the rear view mirror. When he looked back he saw a massive, lumbering creature with glowing red eyes. He described the creature as “heavy” and “slow”, which does not fit the Jersey Devil’s appearance or behavior in older lore. He insisted that it was the monster, however, and stands by his claim today.
There are too many stories to count about camping trips or outdoor excursions gone awry around the Pine Barrens and surrounding parks and wildlife preserves. Several claimed to be stalked as they hiked along forest paths, and many more have recounted stories of fiendish, almost womanly screams emanating from the nighttime forest as they huddled around their campfires. These are all accounts from living people, not legends passed from ear to ear over centuries. Perhaps the beast has grown more cunning with age and is keeping to the most secluded areas it can find to conceal it. Perhaps it is merely a wild animal that fears humans just as much as humans fear it. Perhaps it is truly a devil and is merely biding its time before it strikes again.
If anything, one common trend of the Devil is to emerge from hiding just when the world thinks they have left behind tales of devils and demons. When the fear and tension of humanity is at its peak, when we turn to each other with suspicious eyes and hackles raised, the creature emerges to prey upon those feelings and remind us all what is truly to be feared.
The unknown. The Devil.