The Jersey Devil has many origins and versions, but it has been haunting the state of New Jersey for a long time.
Is it a monster? Is it a ghost? Is it the ghost Ben Franklin‘s rival? The real story of the Jersey Devil, from its origin to what exactly is it, has taken on many variations. The tale of this legendary creature is of America’s oldest urban legends, so it’s not surprising that there have been many ideations of it.
There are a lot of weird things that come out of New Jersey, but the Jersey Devil is arguably the weirdest and more enduring. Which is saying a lot.
According to legend, the Jersey Devil has haunted the forests of New Jersey, partiuarly the Pine Barrens, for over 300 years.
For reference, in case of future spottings, the physical description of the creature throughout time has remained pretty consistent. The Jersey Devil is a flying creature, its wings being bat-like. It has a head that is either similar to a horse or maybe a goat, small arms with claws for hands, shaped somewhat like a dragon. And of course it wouldn’t be considered a devil without horns and a tail.
Oh, and if the creature isn’t in eye site, the sound of a blood-curdling scream is a helpful identifier.
Before the Jersey Devil became the standard accepted name in the 20th century, the creature was more commonly called the Leeds Devil. The origin of this name has a few different backstories.
A version circulating around 1735 involves a New Jersey woman referred to as Mother Leeds, who had 12 children. She became pregnant for the 13th time and out of frustration, cursed the child. After the baby was born as a regular baby, it soon transformed into the winged creature. It then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney.
Another version deems Mother Leeds a Witch and names the devil as the father. In which case, the Leeds Devil could simply be the result of poor genes.
These early versions contain the factoid that the creature went on to kill local children.
Then there’s the 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. It is theorized that an ongoing dispute between Franklin and Leeds escalated into a version of the Leeds/Jersey Devil tale. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was in competition with Leed’s own almanac.
This led to Franklin using “astrological techniques” to satirically publish in his Almanac that Leeds would die in October of that year. He also started referring to Titan as a ghost.
Franklin’s continuing depiction of Titan as a ghost and the Leed’s family crest of dragons may have contributed to this theory of the Jersey Devil legend.
When the early 1800s came around, the legend of the winged creature only grew.
Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, said he saw it while hunting in Bordentown in 1820. In 1840 several livestock killings were attributed to the Jersey Devil.
A slew of sightings were reported in newspapers around New Jersey, mostly in 1909. Beginning in Janurary of 1909, encounters all over the state were reported.
A headline of an article from the Asbury Park Press read, “What mysterious tracks are these?” Reports of shadows falling across windows and men finding decomposed carcasses of unidentified creatures in the woods soon followed. 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, N.J. 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, N.J. 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 if someone were able to capture of 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.