The Jersey Shore - The Boardwalk Catalog
The Best of the Jersey Shore...

This article appeared as the cover story in the Philadelphia Citypaper, October 30,1997

The Devil Went Down To Jersey

He's been terrorizing the Pine Barrens for centuries now, so why can't the Jersey Devil get any respect? And why do so many upstanding citizens swear they've seen him?

By Frank Lewis

The sun had long since set, and darkness-real darkness, barely diluted by incandescent light-had settled over Tabernacle, one of the many quiet rural towns carved out of southern New Jersey's expansive Pine Barrens.

Jim Woolston and his friend Kyle, teenagers at the time, ambled down a lonely road, going nowhere in particular. "We hear this sound, like a boom," recalls Woolston, now a 25-year-old mover from Easthampton. "We kept walking, we didn't think nothing of it. Then we heard it again."

And that's when they saw it, 8 feet tall if it was a foot, towering over the parked flatbed truck it stood near. It was covered with white fur, and "had beady red eyes onto it," Woolston recalls. It was humanoid-two arms, two legs, one head-but resembled nothing they'd ever seen.

The sight was terrifying. The sound was worse.

"It was kinda like a baby's cry-a real high-pitched cry, like waaaah!" says Woolston; there is no humor in his voice. "Kinda like a baby pig's squeal.

"We were gone," he adds-he and Kyle sprinted to Woolston's house. The creature, thankfully, made no move to follow. "It was just standing there, like 'I'm gonna scare the shit out of you tonight.' And it did."

Have some sympathy for the Jersey Devil.

The Pine Barrens' centuries-old beastie has been shot, electrocuted and exorcised, and still is routinely dismissed as fantasy, even sometimes by those willing to entertain notions of monsters.

Consider: He was spooking white settlers and eviscerating their livestock when Big Foot was still playing to indigenous crowds as "Sasquatch." And that thing in Loch Ness would have to crawl out of the water and swallow a few tourists to create the kind of panic JD inspired across the entire Delaware Valley one cold and snowy week in 1909. Yet both of these characters are known around the world, and have been the target of intensive and expensive semi-scientific expeditions, while the Jersey Devil remains largely unknown outside his home state.

Even El Chupacabra, the winged lizard man who terrorizes folks and sucks the blood of cows in Latin America, Mexico and the American Southwest, has made Unsolved Mysteries and a recent episode of The X-Files. (The Jersey Devil inspired an early X-Files show, but the story more closely resembled Deliverance than any documented version of the JD tale. Primitive people stalking the Pines? Puh-leeze.)

Maybe the story's just too unbelievable. Every version of the legend-and there are at least a dozen-can try the patience of the most open-minded listener. Perhaps it's the remarkable disparity in witness' accounts; JD's been described as bird-like, horse-like, reptilian and various combinations thereof, as small as 18 inches and as long as 20 feet.

Possibly it's the total lack of evidence. Lots of animals have been mutilated, sure, but in all these years, no one has managed to photograph a convincing footprint, let alone the elusive little bastard himself.

Maybe it's just that he's from Jersey, probably the least respected, most goofed-on state in the nation. Whatever the case, Mother Leeds, wherever she is, need not fret about her ill-fated-and, as far as anyone knows, unnamed-13th child. To most he may be nothing more than a mascot for a hockey team, or an amusing, if childish, folktale. But more than a few Jersey residents-people with jobs and families and reputations-will tell you, straight-faced and on the record, that it was no legend that stared at them menacingly with smoldering eyes through the glare of their headlights, or sent their hearts racing with otherworldly screams.

There lived, in the year 1735, in the township of Burlington, a woman. Her name was Leeds, and she was shrewdly suspected of a little amateur witchcraft ... One stormy, gusty night, when the wind was howling in turret and tree, Mother Leeds gave birth to a son whose father could have been no other than the Prince of Darkness. No sooner did he see the light than he assumed the form of a fiend, with a horse's head, wings of a bat, and a serpent's tail. The first thought of the newborn Caliban was to fall foul of his mother, whom he scratched and bepommeled soundly, and then flew through the window out into the village, where he played the mischief generally. Little children he devoured, maidens he abused, young men he mauled and battered; and it was many days before a holy man succeeded in repeating the enchantment of Prospero. At length, however, Leeds' Devil was laid [exorcised]-but only for one hundred years.

"During an entire century, the memory of that awful monster was preserved, and, as 1835 drew nigh, the denizens of Burlington and the Pines looked tremblingly for his rising. Strange to say, no one but Hannah Butlerhas had a personal interview with the fiend; though, since 1835, he has frequently been heard howling and screaming in the forest at night ..."
-from "In the Pines," Atlantic Monthly, 1859

This account, the earliest found by Dr. Herbert Halpert for his 1947 dissertation, Folktales and Legends from the New Jersey Pines: A Collection and a Study, contains most of the elements of the best-known version of how the Jersey Devil came to be.

There are many, however, and important details concerning year, place and manner of birth differ widely. Most devotees favor the Mother Leeds account (although some hold that the woman's name was Shourds or Shrouds). She is generally believed to have lived in Leeds Point, NJ, but others place the birth in Estelville, Burlington City or Pleasantville.

At any rate, Mother Leeds/Shourds/Shrouds had 12 children. In 1735 she learned that she was pregnant again, and was less than pleased. "Let this one be a devil!" she cried, according to legend. She got her wish.

"The candle-lit room was pervaded by a mood of uneasiness," according to the definitive text on the legend,The Jersey Devil, by James McCloy and Ray Miller Jr., "for Mother Leeds was the subject of rumors that, despite her Quaker beliefs, she had indulged in sorcery. The women smiled, perhaps a little in relief, as a handsome boy child was delivered and placed in his mother's arms.

"Suddenly, as they watched in frozen horror, the child began to be transformed. Human features disappeared. The body elongated tremendously, forming into a long, serpentine shape. Hooves replaced the feet. Its pink, chubby baby face coarsened into a long, bony structure of a horse's head. Bat wings sprung from its shoulder blades. Finally, it arose from the bed, larger and more powerful than a fully grown man. The women stood transfixed in shock and terror."

The creature devoured its mother and the midwives, according to yet another variation, before fleeing into the woods.

Others have held that the child was born normal, and stayed that way for some time before taking on a more demonic form. In one of the more perversely amusing takes, Mother Leeds gave birth to twins; some say one was human and one unspeakably deformed, while others recall that both infants were little devils, so to speak.

"This woman, when she was carrying the kids, said she hoped they'd be born devils," according to a Pine Barrens resident interviewed by Dr. Halpert in the 1940s. "She was in bed and they like to tore her all to pieces when they was nursin'. They'd scratch her and tear her all up.

"[The parents] smothered one to death between the beds, and the other one got away. He flew out the winder. Crew of 'em got together in the swamp right back o' the house-they were going to shoot the other-and when he came along, b'God they daren't do it, they was scairt.

"I ain't never seen him-and [laughing] I don't want to see him, either. I never took no stock in that damn story. I know nothin' but what I heard."

Others heard the child was the product of an affair between Mrs. Leeds and a Catholic priest. In another twist involving a clergyman, he tells Mrs. Leeds she'll bear a devil after she and her husband chase the preacher off their property. "They were both pretty ornery, these people," said another of Halpert's sources.

A few lesser-known variations sound more plausible. In these, Mrs. Leeds gives birth to a deformed child, which neighbors attributed either to inbreeding, promiscuity, her dabbling in the occult, or combinations of the three. "The locals hated Leeds because she was kind of a slut," writes Tony DiGerolamo, creator of a Jersey Devil comic book and Web site. "They branded her a witch and shunned her, which is why they concluded the birth of her deformed son was connected to Satan and witchcraft."

There really was a Mother Leeds in the Pine Barrens in the early 1700s, says Judy Olsen, Pines native and library director at Burlington County College, and she could very well have had 13 kids.

"There's some speculation that the child was handicapped in some way," Olsen says, "and could have been big and slow." Locals might have seen him or heard him stomping about the woods, and dreamed up outrageous tales-fueled by fear, disdain for the family, or perhaps both-that grew more outlandish and sinister with each retelling.

Olsen, who grew up in a family of gifted storytellers, finds the Jersey Devil legend "highly contrived" and not at all indicative of the Pinelands' rich folklore.

"It just wasn't a part of what we grew up with," she explains. "We all knew about Mother Leeds' 13th child, but it didn't become a menacing figure that prowls the countryside and all that kind of stuff."

"The closer I was getting, I saw that it was moving into the road," recalls Cathie Bruno. "It looked like it just wanted to cross the road."

Bruno and her aunt were on their way home from Atlantic City, driving north on the Parkway at about 3:15 a.m. on Dec. 12, 1995, when they saw what they believe was the Jersey Devil.

"Finally I had to come to a complete stop, because there was this ... thing in the road," says Bruno, a 48-year-old property manager for Lucent Technologies. "And I was looking at it, and I could not imagine what it was. I was checking it out from head to toe, figuring there has to be some explanation as to what this thing was."

The nearly 6-foot-tall beast stood no more than 3 feet away from her front bumper; she couldn't see its feet, that's how close they were. Its fine coat was all one color, a light brown or beige, like a camel, but it had the forward-leaning shape, short front legs and long, thick tail of a kangaroo. Short, rounded horns sprouted from its head, small wings from its back. To this day, she can't fully describe the face; the expression was almost human.

"It looked right at me," she says. "He just looked like a sad little thing. I felt sorry for it, whatever it was. "I knew it wasn't human, I knew it wasn't an animal, and I'm thinking, with the nuclear power plant down there, maybe it's some kind of animal that got messed up. I didn't know what it was.

"It limped into the next lane. But I was stunned, and after that I don't know what happened to it-I don't know if it flew away, ran into the woods, I don't know what it did."

The next morning, she told her husband what she and her aunt had seen, while her daughter listened from another room. "She's yelling from her bedroom, 'Did it have wings?' And I said yeah. 'Did it look like Joe Camel?' And I said yeah, it could have looked like that. And she comes running down the hallway and she makes a face [sticking out her top teeth and scrunching up her nose], and she said, 'Did it look like this?' And I said yeah! And she said, 'Ma, that was the Jersey Devil!'"

Bruno told a co-worker about her experience, and the woman brought in McCloy and Miller's book. In it, Bruno found a photo of a painting depicting a light-colored, horned creature rising from a typical Pines swamp, a fair likeness of what she saw in the Parkway.

"So of course everybody teases me-did I see any boogie men, did I bring it any McDonald's?" Bruno says, laughing. "And I wonder how many people believe me. But I'll believe anything from now on, after what I saw."

The Jersey Devil has had his share of (presumably) credible witnesses. Commodore Stephen Decatur was said to have fired a cannonball right through the beast-with little apparent effect-while testing munitions from a Pine Barrens ironworks in the early 19th century. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother and onetime King of Spain, claimed to have seen it while hunting near his Bordentown estate, where he lived from 1816 to 1839.

But even these pale in comparison to the events of Jan. 16-23, 1909. In one exciting week, the Jersey Devil secured his place in Delaware Valley history.

"Saturday night [Jan. 16], Thack Cozzens of Woodbury was leaving the Woodbury Hotel," wrote McCloy and Miller in The Jersey Devil. "As Cozzens recalled, 'I heard a hissing and something white flew across the street. I saw two spots of phosphorous-the eyes of the beast. There was a white cloud, like escaping steam from an engine. It moved as fast as an auto.'"

Over the next several hours, several Bristol, PA, residents would be terrified by a similar beast. And the next morning, residents of Woodbury, Bristol and Burlington would report unidentifiable hoofprints in their yards. Area newspapers got hold of the story, and a genuine panic ensued.

"In Jacksonville, a hunt for the Jersey Devil was organized," McCloy and Miller wrote. "Curiously, dogs refused to follow the trail, turning away in fear, and the men fruitlessly followed the marks for four miles, when the trail suddenly disappeared. Farmers set out hundreds of steel traps, nervously hoping to snare their elusive, eerie quarry. They were not successful, although there are unsubstantiated reports that several Devil hunters were captured in this manner."

The sightings and the newspaper coverage continued, each feeding off the other. The common folk weren't the only ones caught up in the hysteria. Among the scores of witnesses were a Pemberton preacher, a Trenton city councilman, and numerous police officers; the mayor of Burlington issued orders to shoot the creature on sight after one of his men saw "a jabberwock." A Camden county freeholder was one of hundreds to find strange, split-hoof tracks in the snow. In a rare group sighting, West Collingswood firefighters turned a hose on the beast.

Schools, factories and offices closed, theaters canceled performances and church attendance skyrocketed. Posses combed the woods, and armed guards rode on trains and trolleys. For a full week, the entire region lived in mortal terror of the Jersey Devil.

A flock of cranes and a textbook case of mass hysteria-it's as good an explanation for the 1909 episode as any. "I truly believe that one person saw something, and then it just fed off itself," says Jeff Brunner, director of development for the Humane Society of New Jersey and longtime Jersey Devil buff. "As soon as the paper printed it, and as soon as some reputable people thought they saw it, [the story] just escalated to the point of stupidity, quite frankly? It was a mess. They truly believed there was an animal, a being out there that would kill them." Jersey Devil tales, he adds, fail even the basic tests of cryptozoology, a fringe science devoted to proving the existence of creatures generally regarded as mythical or extinct. There are no photographs, no bones, no hard evidence whatsoever, and worst of all, no explanation of its origins that doesn't require belief in the supernatural.

"It probably is, if anything, a sandhill crane," says Brunner. "They're about 4 feet high, which is the same height the Jersey Devil is [by most accounts]; it has about an 80-inch wingspan; it avoids man, and will fight if it's confronted. It also has a very loud scream, like the Jersey Devil is supposed to have."

Brunner concedes that his theory doesn't explain all aspects of the story, but chalks these up to imagination and fear. The sandhill crane doesn't mutilate animals, for example, as the Jersey Devil often has been accused of doing-but who's to say these attacks weren't the work of wild animals. The crane also does not have the head of a horse, the face of a dog or cloven hooves, but it's typically seen at night, "and always during a time of mass hysteria," he explains.

And it's important to note, he adds, that the legend has served an important purpose: it's been a source of local pride.

"Having this legend set [the Pines] apart from the rest of the state," Brunner says. "The Pine Lands is a very large area of New Jersey, but it's a very isolated area. [The legend] transcends rationality, but it still tied together people in the Pine Lands under something common, because without it, they didn't really have anything. They're separated from the rest of the state, they're not as financially [well off] as the northern part of the state, they're not as educated as the northern part of the state, but despite it all, they still have the Jersey Devil, and that's something special."

Other factors probably have helped to perpetuate the legend as well, says Angus Gillespie, associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University. The fear of running into JD was useful to many, such as parents who wanted their children home before dark, and outlaws anxious to keep nosy outsiders away from the Pines. (And Halpert, in his study of Pine Barrens folklore, reported that "there was great interest in the Pines in stories with supernatural elements. Such stories were told in matter-of-fact fashion as if they were everyday experiences.") Still, Gillespie admits he's not willing to write off the stories as old wives' tales.

"There have been game wardens, ministers, judges, attorneys, fire fighters-people with position in their community-who have made sightings of the Jersey Devil and stuck with their stories," he says. "So that's troublesome-we have all these eyewitness accounts that are not easily dismissed."

So is there really something weird in the Pines?

"I think we have to allow for that possibility," Gillespie concedes. "We all know how to prove it exists [with a photograph or physical evidence], but how do you prove that it does not exist? What are you going to do, empty out the Pine Barrens? Philosophically, you're up against an impossible position when you're trying to prove that something does not exist.

"And so what we're left with is kind of an open question. Yeah, it's doubtful, but that doesn't mean it's notpossible. And therein lies the charm of the legend."

Had Betty Ann Pinkerton been driving a little faster that night in 1979, she might have settled the Jersey Devil debate once and for all.

Pinkerton, 21 at the time, was driving alone along a dirt road bordering a cranberry bog in Tabernacle. "All of a sudden," she recalls, "this thing runs out from the right-hand side to go across the road. I thought it was a deer. And when I slammed on my brakes, I, like, bumped it and it stopped, and it stood there and it looked at me. I was terrified, I closed my eyes."

When she opened them again it was still there, standing now on its hind legs. She estimates its height at 4 feet. "It was something like a miniature horse or deer-you know, the shape of the body. But the eyes and the face were really weird. The eyes were like yellowish-orange, and they just glowed. It had pointed ears like a deer, but with more of a point to 'em. But it didn't have a long nose like a deer. It was just a weird-looking face." Finally, the creature dropped to all fours and sprinted out of sight.

"I think it was the Jersey Devil," she says. "To be honest with you? I think it was. From that time on, I made sure somebody was in the car with me when I rode down that road. I was paranoid. I never went out down that road by myself again."

And only recently she learned that her mother, Rose, had seen something similar about 30 years before. Then 15, Rose had gone off in search of her horse, which had broken out of her family's yard in Eriel, NJ. The sun had nearly set, and in the gray darkness of dusk, she approached what she thought was her horse. At a distance of maybe 20 feet, she realized her mistake.

"It had legs like a horse," she says. "But as far as the head part, it was weird, I can't even describe it. [The head] wasn't even shaped like a horse." Then she noticed the tail-"a long, skinny thing," like a rat's. She stopped dead in her tracks.

"It made a groaning sound, something like that," she adds. "Like, 'Come near me and you'll be sorry.'" She turned and ran all the way home.

"I would never want to experience that again."

The silence is thick and almost palpable, like humidity. The full moon lends a brilliant silver tinge to the cloudless sky, creating the perfect backdrop for the twisted and gnarled branches of the bony trees. In the glow of the crackling campfire, to the accompaniment of cicadas, Russell Juelg entrances the youngest members of tonight's group with the escapades of Mother Leeds' immortal little boy.

"Now, I have heard that if the Jersey Devil does seem like he's coming after you," he tells them, "you can shout, 'Shoo, shoo!' and he'll go away. For some reason he doesn't like to be 'shooed' at. And then there are some people who have gone after him with sticks, chased him across the yard. Sometimes he'll breathe a little bit of fire in self-defense, but usually he'll take to the air and leave.

"So if we do see him, I want to emphasize there's no need to start picking up sticks or whipping out knives or guns-nobody brought guns or anything, right? No swords or anything? What we'll do is we'll just observe him, and if he comes after us we'll just say 'Shoo, shoo!' and stamp our feet, that kind of thing."

The managing director of the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford, Juelg conducts monthly "Jersey Devil Hunts"-two or three hours of stories, hotdogs, folk music and hiking under the full moon. He finds the Jersey Devil legend an effective way to lure people out to the Pine Barrens.

"You usually get a smile out of people when you talk about it," he says later, "but I have run into some people who very, very seriously believe there is some kind of strange presence out there." Native Americans, he notes, gave some sections of the Pines a wide berth.

"My personal opinion? I'm kind of a mystic, so I'm inclined to say there are spiritual entities out there that we don't understand. I think we all know there are things that are beyond explanation, and this could very well be one of them.

"But as far as a sighting? No, I'm still looking for him."

Return to the Boardwalk