Halloween Monday: the Jersey Devil

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^Top image: Jersey Devil. Credit: Public Domain

Halloween trick-or-treaters in the forested Pine Barrens region of New Jersey should be watchful tonight. A beast known as the Jersey Devil is said to roam the area. This monster is commonly described as a creature somewhat resembling a small horse or goat with clawed hooves, batlike wings, fangs, red glowing eyes, and a forked tail. The Jersey Devil is a uniquely American monster that shares its origins with the United States.

The earliest mention of the Jersey Devil in print was in an 1859 article about the Pine Barrens published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1909, a small-town newspaper in southern New Jersey reported sightings of strange hooflike tracks in the snow. This report led to a surge of sensationally reported sightings and encounters with the creature in nearby towns, and interest in the legend grew. Unlike vampires,werewolves, and other popular monsters of Halloween lore, eyewitness sightings of the Jersey Devil reported in local newspapers remain fairly common, even today.

In the early 1900’s, one museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, even claimed to have captured a live Jersey Devil and placed it on display. The museum actually displayed an unfortunate kangaroo painted with green stripes and affixed with fake wings. Indeed, while many legends of monsters may be based on a kernel of historical fact, historians have documented proof that tales of the Jersey Devil originated with a hoax. Surprisingly, the Jersey Devil hoax may have originated from a feud involving the American patriot Benjamin Franklin!

The American colonist Daniel Leeds (1652-1720) settled in Burlington, West Jersey, in the 1670’s. He published the first almanac in New Jersey in 1687. But the quirky thoughts and ideas Leeds published made him suspicious in the eyes of the local Quaker community, and his books were burned. Leeds became an opponent of the Quaker community, which responded by publicly associating him with devilish forces. His son, Titan, continued the family business of publishing. Sometime after 1733, rival publisher Benjamin Franklin jokingly published in his Poor Richard’s Almanac that Titan had died and become a ghost that haunted the local woods. This was not true, but over the years, supernatural suspicions and gossipy accusations about the Leeds family merged with local Native American tales of evil forest spirits, and the legend of the Jersey Devil was born. The legend continues to this day, and in 1982, the local National Hockey League team (the New Jersey Devils) was named after this imaginary monster.

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