Jersey Devil Sightings and the Story Behind the Legend
The Devil in the Pine Barrens
The Jersey Devil is among the lesser-known cryptids said to inhabit North America, but its story is perhaps the most bone-chilling. It makes its home in the dense woodlands of the Southern New Jersey Pine Barrens, a foreboding forest where few are brave enough to venture too deeply.
Through the years it has killed livestock, other animals and, by some accounts, even people. It has menaced humans to the point of madness, driven workmen from the woods and stupefied law enforcement officials. Yet despite thousands of sightings spanning back almost three centuries, the Devil has never been captured.
Long before European settlers encountered the Devil, the local Native American tribes referred to the Pine Barrens as “the place of the dragon.” Accounts vary, but many witnesses say it walks upright on two legs with cloven hooves, has a head like a horse, nasty claws, a forked tail, and leathery, bat-like wings. Could this creature be what the Native Americans were describing as a dragon?
The Jersey Devil is most often spotted in the Pine Barrens, but witnesses claim to have seen it as far away as Pennsylvania, and even along the New Jersey coast. In some cases, although the Devil is not actually sighted, there are reports of horrible screams in the night, then the discovery of strange tracks alongside dead livestock or pets the next morning. It has the ability to fly, and, even though there are some accounts of it harming humans, in most cases it flees when confronted.
What is the Jersey Devil? Why is it here, where did it come from and what danger does it pose to people? These are questions that have gone unanswered for nearly three hundred years. As the population of New Jersey continues to grow, and the Pine Barrens, like all wild places, experience more pressure from development and exploitation of resources, encounters with the Jersey Devil will no doubt increase.
The Jersey Devil Story and Legend
My first experience with the Jersey Devil story came as a teenager when I attended a college in eastern Pennsylvania. One night my roommate and I got around to talking about the Jersey Devil, a creature I had never even heard of. The story relayed to me was this:
A long time ago, deep in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, there lived a woman who had many, many kids. When she found out she was pregnant again she cursed the child in her womb, as she did not want the burden of any more children. When the child was born it turned out to be a demon, and flew up the chimney and into the woods where it has lived ever since, now known as the Jersey Devil.
My roommate went on to claim that the creature was well-documented by law enforcement and in the media, giving specific examples of Devil encounters through the years.
Even back then I was fascinated by the paranormal, so I began to seek out every Jersey kid I could find to learn more about the story. Most of them backed up my roommate’s tale, and added their own stories of what they had heard about the creature. It was all very interesting, but it seemed hard to believe there would be so many sightings of such a strange, unknown being. This thing was giving Bigfoot a run for his money.
Back then there was no internet to confirm anything I was being told, but nowadays I know what my college buddies had said was pretty spot-on. The Jersey Devil has been seen by thousands of people, and, yes, many accounts have come from police officers and other respected officials. And these are just the people willing to come forward.
The 1909 Sightings
The most concentrated outbreak of sightings occurred in 1909 when as many as fifty separate sightings or encounters were reported over a one-week period. These included:
- At least three separate accounts by policeman, one of whom fired on the creature from close range.
- A detailed story from a couple who watched the Devil for ten minutes through their bedroom window.
- A group sighting by passengers of a trolley car.
- A sighting by a Trenton, NJ, councilman.
- The account of employees of the telegraph company, who shot the creature’s wing, only to have it escape.
- The tale of firemen who blasted it off a rooftop with a hose, and were then charged before it flew off.
- Many incidents of strange tracks made by an animal that seemed to defy logic in its movements.
In the years since 1909 reported sightings of the Jersey Devil have continued on a consistent basis. It’s clear that people are seeing something strange in southern New Jersey. Is there any logical way to account for these sightings?
The Jersey Devil
Is the Jersey Devil a Real Animal?
Some cryptozoologists contend that the Jersey Devil is in fact a rare but undiscovered animal. This is a perspective that a lot of people have trouble with, especially when they consider a populated state like New Jersey. How could a new species go undetected for so long with so many people around?
However, in contrast to the urban northern end of the state, the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey are largely wilderness. A quick look at a map reveals a great swath of forest where a small population of creatures could conceivably exist undetected. In fact, many cryptozoologists reason that Bigfoot could conceivably thrive in populated eastern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If Bigfoot could remain hidden, why not something even more elusive?
Some cryptozoologists draw comparisons between the Jersey Devil and other known cryptids. For example, there are reports of strange Phantom Kangaroos in North America dating back a hundred years or more. The Jersey Devil is sometimes reported as resembling a kangaroo. Could these two creatures be one in the same?
El Chupacabra is another creature that shares some similarities with the Jersey Devil, particularly the reports of livestock attacks in the night. But El Chupacabra has only become well-known in recent times, and does not seem to have the same modus operandi as the Jersey Devil.
This is all speculation of course, but if the Jersey Devil is a real creature there must be more than one. The Pine Barrens seem to contain more than enough space for a small and rare population of unknown animal to exist. But what kind of animal?
We have to assume that the mingled-up, part-mammalian, part-avian and part-reptilian descriptions of the Devil are born of fear and confusion. If the creature is real, it must logically fall into one classification of animal or another. It may be a large and undiscovered species of bat. Or, perhaps it is a strange and elusive nocturnal bird of some kind. Some even suggest it could be a species of relic dinosaur. It is anyone’s guess, and the speculation could be endless.
Is the Devil a Supernatural Being?
Perhaps the real story behind the Devil can’t be explained by the natural at all. It turns out the tale I was told years ago might have a grain of truth to it, and allegedly involved a woman named Leeds who lived back in the 18th century, and did indeed have 12 children. By some accounts she was a witch, and some say her husband was the Devil himself, but of course these points can't be proven. Whatever the case, the story says she gave birth to her 13th child in the year 1735 after having cursed it in the womb. It transformed into the Jersey Devil upon entering this world, attacked everyone in the room and escaped into the forest.
Like all legend, it’s hard to know where facts end and myth begins with this story. There are some versions of the tale that call the woman Mrs. Shrouds, and there are those who point out that Shrouds was the maiden name of Mother Leeds. Somewhere, lost back over almost 300 years of history, is the truth. Still, many say the actual physical birthplace of the Jersey Devil lies somewhere in the woods, outside of Leeds Point, New Jersey.
Of course there are other versions of the Jersey Devil incarnation story. All seem to involve a curse and a birth, and then out the monster comes. So many different stories tend to degrade the legend altogether.
There is also the possibility that the Jersey Devil legend is just a myth, or a fantastic, supernatural tale made up to explain an animal that early settlers couldn’t comprehend as a natural creature. Historically, we humans have had the tendency to make up folk tales to explain things we do not understand. But 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.
What Is the Jersey Devil Really?
It’s the cryptid so cool that a hockey team is named after it, but over nearly 300 years of history nobody has yet gotten to the bottom of the Jersey Devil mystery.
Is the Jersey Devil an unknown animal, strange and frightening but made of flesh and blood nonetheless? Perhaps one day biologists will discover the creature, make it known to the public, and centuries of superstition and horror stories will suddenly seem quite silly.
Or, perhaps the Devil is more of the supernatural than the corporeal world, a demon born of a witch’s curse and unleashed into the Pinelands of New Jersey to torment humanity until the end of time.
Until the Devil is cornered and captured we'll never know for sure. And, if past behaviors continue the way they have for three centuries, it doesn't seem likely that the Jersey Devil will be giving up its secrets anytime soon.
Though I’ve kept my eyes peeled every time I’ve traveled to Atlantic City, I’ve never had the fortune to personally witness the Jersey Devil. But there has certainly been enough eyewitness testimony through the years that my account is hardly needed. There is something out there in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, something bizarre and terrifying, and those who have seen it know it is the Devil.