The Chilling Legend Of The Jersey Devil, The Horse-Headed Beast Said To Haunt The Pine Barrens

Published July 3, 2022
Updated November 7, 2023

For centuries, people across southern New Jersey and Delaware have supposedly encountered a horse-headed flying demon known as the Jersey Devil.

Legend has it that in the dense woods of the New Jersey Pine Barrens lurks a mythological beast known as the Jersey Devil.

With the head of a horse, the wings of a bat, and talons befitting a dragon, the Jersey Devil has terrorized the imaginations of New Jersey residents for nearly 300 years. It is commonly believed that the demonic being was the cursed progeny of a bewitched Quaker woman and escaped to the bogs where it could be heard wailing and slaughtering local prey.

Jersey Devil

Getty ImagesAn illustration of the Jersey Devil.

Like any folktale, the true story of the Jersey Devil is steeped in mystery and speculation. But the legend is vivid enough that in 1909, it inspired real fear.

Many contend that the Jersey Devil wreaks havoc on the New Jersey wetlands to this day.

The Jersey Devil Has Many Origins

Before it was known as the Jersey Devil, the creature was more commonly called the Leeds Devil. The origin of this name has a few different backstories.

One legend maintains that in 1735, a destitute New Jersey woman referred to as Mother Leeds became pregnant with her 13th child. Leeds’ husband was reportedly a drunkard who was unable to properly provide for his large family. Desperate, Mother Leeds cried out, “Let this child be the devil!”

On a stormy night months later, Mother Leeds gave birth to a normal-looking baby boy. But then, before the midwives and Mother Leeds’ 12 other children, the infant transformed into a winged beast with a long tail and talons. Mother Leeds is said to have tried to confine the beast to her home, but it grew quickly and viciously — and one day killed her before escaping into the woods.

An Animal Planet special on the Jersey Devil.

In another version of the Jersey Devil’s origin story, Mother Leeds was allegedly a witch who claimed that the father of her child was the Devil himself. Yet another tale claims that a young Leeds Point, New Jersey girl fell in love with a British soldier. When the Americans and British went to war, local townsfolk cursed the girl for her affair with the soldier. Consequently, when she gave birth to the soldier’s child, it was a demonic beast that became known as the Leeds Devil.

A third variation on the tale tells of a young woman who refused to give food to a begging gypsy. The gypsy cursed her and years later, the woman gave birth to a demon who fled into the Pine Barrens.

Then there’s this gossipy political variation from the colonial era. Though not as fantastical as previous versions, it does involve founding father Ben Franklin and his rival, Titan Leeds. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was in competition with Leed’s own almanac. In a bid to infuriate his rival, Franklin published satirical “astrological techniques” that predicted Leeds would die in October of that year. He also started referring to Titan as a ghost.

Illustration Of The Jersey Devil

Flickr/krspaintsBy some accounts, the Jersey Devil has a kangaroo-like body, a goat’s head, or a horse’s head.

As Franklin continued to depict Titan as a ghost and the Leed’s family crest was dragons, it is possible that the legend of the Jersey Devil was in part conflated with Franklin’s antics.

The Beastly Miscreant Terrorizes Locals

Though there are various accounts of the Jersey Devil’s origins, the physical description of the creature has remained pretty consistent through time, lending credence to its existence.

According to the majority of accounts surrounding the Jersey Devil, it is a flying creature with bat-like wings. It has a head that is either similar to a horse or maybe a goat, with small arms with claws for hands, shaped somewhat like a dragon. It is also reportedly adorned with horns and a long tail.

The creature is also said to sound off a blood-curdling scream. By some accounts, he is six feet tall, but according to others, he is only three to four feet.

Newspaper Sketch

Wikimedia CommonsA sketch of the Jersey Devil in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1909.

According to local lore, the Jersey Devil feasts on local children, pets, and farm animals. Some have said that he is responsible for crop failures, milkless cows, and droughts. Some say sighting the Jersey Devil signals forthcoming disaster or war, or that it reappears every seven years on its own accord.

The miscreant could be brushed off as a story and little more except that various people — from everyday citizens to government officials — have been convinced that they saw it in the flesh.

Chilling Sightings Of The Jersey Devil Inspire A Handsome Bounty

The creature has allegedly been seen all over the state of New Jersey as well as in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

In 1820, Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, even claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil while hunting in Bordentown. In 1840, several livestock killings were attributed to the Jersey Devil.

In 1909, a slew of bizarre sightings, including inexplicable footprints, were reported in newspapers around New Jersey. A headline from the Asbury Park Press of that year read, “What mysterious tracks are these?”

Jersey Devil Headline

Asbury Park PressA January 1909 headline featured in the Asbury Park Press.

Reports of shadows falling across windows and men finding decomposed carcasses of unidentified creatures in the woods soon followed. People who worked in the Pine Barrens were refused to leave their homes and travel to their jobs. For a week in January of that year, the creature, which was described as “kangaroo-like” with wings, was seen terrorizing travelers on Camden trolleys.

At this point, the Jersey Devil became the official name and it wasn’t considered a ghost story anymore, but a newsworthy threat.

More recent incidents include a farmer in Greenwich, New Jersey, who shot an unidentified animal that matched the description of the Jersey Devil in 1925. Even later, in 1951, a group of boys in Gibbston, New Jersey claimed to see a monster like the Jersey Devil while out in the woods.

In 1960, merchants near Camden offered a reward of $10,000 for anyone able to capture the Jersey Devil. If caught, they would even build the creature its own private zoo.

So far, no one has been able to claim the prize.

After learning about the history of the Jersey Devil, check out the legend of mothman, the creature that terrorized a West Virginia town in the 1960s. Then, read the scary truth behind the phantom social worker legend.

Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
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Silverman, Leah. "The Chilling Legend Of The Jersey Devil, The Horse-Headed Beast Said To Haunt The Pine Barrens.", July 3, 2022, Accessed May 21, 2024.