While the Jersey Devil is one of the more popular American Monsters, there are varying stories about the beast’s origin. Originally referred to as the Leed’s Devil, the Jersey Devil was said by some to be the offspring of a woman by the last name of Leeds, who had a devil-child out of wedlock. Other accounts contribute the “Leed’s” name to the location where the tracks of the monster were first spotted. The following article from 1899 details the former theory, which is more in tune with the popular folklore surrounding the devilish creature.
The Story of the Jersey Devil
Back in the middle of colonial days, says the New York Herald, there lived in Burlington, on the Delaware, the pioneer Quaker settlement of the county, a woman known as “Mother Leeds,” accused of amateur witchcraft, and witchcraft was at its height thereabouts at that time. In 1735 Mother Leeds gave birth to a male child, whose father was later said to have been none other than the prince of darkness..
The child was normal at birth, but before the termination of the tempestuous night of its arrival horrified several old crones gathered about the bedside of Mother Leeds by assuming an elongated, serpent-like body, cloven hoofs, the head of a horse, the wings of a bat and the forked tail of a dragon. The coloring of the horrible creature turned to a dusky brown, and after pummeling its mother and her terrified companions it flew up the chimney, uttering loud, raucous cries.
Circling about from village to village during this eventful night, the fiend devoured several babies, assaulted women and made for the forest. For some years afterward belated travelers, while crossing the pines, heard and saw it. The pine folks, whose experiences were even more terrible, attributed to it supernatural powers such as possessed by the black witches of English folklore.
It turned the milk sour, lamed horses in their stalls, dried up the cows, make sear the Indian corn growing in the fields. Accompanied, as it usually was, by the howling of dogs and the hooting of owls, there could be no surer forerunner of disaster. Where the pines line the seashore it flitted from one desolate, grass grown dune to another, watchful upon those wild nights when merchant ships, driving their prows into the sand, burst asunder and distributed their freight of costly goods and human souls upon the relentless waves.
Upon such occasions Leeds’ devil was seen in the companionship of a beautiful, golden haired woman in white, or yet of some fierce eyed, cutlass bearing, disembodied spirit of a pirate who two centuries ago had been wrecked upon the shore of Cape May county as, plying from the Spanish main, his galleon had gone to destruction. Again this same son of Satan shared his haunts with a headless seaman whom the Barnegat people say Captain Kidd decapitated and whose stiffened trunk that very pirate king left standing as a sentinel of his buried ill gotten gold.
At other times Leeds’ devil, like a bird of prey, hovered over a silent, star bespangled pond in some silent recess of the cedar swamps, blasting with its foul breath the lives of hundreds of fishes, found floating next day upon the surface, tainted and unfit for food. Again the dreaded fiend half ran, half flew through the shadowy vistas of the pines, while before it to their coverts hurried panther and deer, rabbits, squirrels and wild song birds.
The habitat of Leeds’ devil included the entire pine forest which extends from Freehold, in Monmouth county, through Burlington, Ocean and Atlantic to the upper part of Cape May county, preferring the lonely roads through the cedar swamp region, but frequently it made nocturnal onslaughts upon the fronteir villages, playing havoc with the stock and farm crops as it went. One tradition has it that it was particularly active during the Revolutionary period, but one more distinct is that it was banished for a century and did not reappear until about 60 years ago.
[A lengthier version of this article on the Jersey Devil exists, found in the St. Paul Globe, July 16, 1899]
According to this latter account, is was advised by some old colonial wiseacre, learned in antidotes for witchcraft, that if some pious man could be found with virtue sufficient he might exercise an enchantment and banish the evil one for 100 years. Such a man was found, and his enchantment was believed effective by many who heard of subsequent reappearances with skepticism. But the date set for the elapse of the century became forgotten when an epidemic of the evil returned, and family records and traditions searched and recalled proved that the enchanter had prophesied correctly. This was about 1840.
Who believed in Leed’s devil has as yet remained unstudied, save by Francis B. Lee, a lawyer and dialectician from Trenton, whom I have met here and to whom I am indebted for much of my material. Mr. Lee is covering this territory for the dialect commission, and is finding many words and expressions which, while in limited use among the settlers of two centuries ago, are now obsolete elsewhere in America.
[At this point, the article focuses on Mr. Lee’s dialectic work with the “Piners”, and their economy and classes. The article concludes:]
Leed’s Devil is as firmly believed in by many of the better class of Piners as by the “Pine Rats.” Now that this demon is again abroad these superstitious, unsophisticated folk at night prefer their peaceful homes to the many and uncertain forest paths with their vibrating shadows and weird whisperings. Indeed some dire fate awaits the nation, otherwise Leed’s Devil would not have come again to dry the cows, sour the milk, wither the crops, lame the horses and devour the babies.
The Jersey Devil is said to appear to warn the locals of coming disasters. Until 1899, the previous reports happened before the onset of the Civil War.