In this article:
- The Jersey Devil is a cryptid of mysterious origin from the often-overlooked state of New Jersey.
- This beast was apparently cursed by its own mother so that it was born with the head of a goat, the tail of a snake, the wings of a bat, and the legs of a horse. It now lives in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and terrorizes locals.
- Stories about the Jersey Devil have spread like wildfire for centuries. But, oddly enough, the story may have started as a smear campaign that Benjamin Franklin ran against one of his competitors.
As a native of New Jersey, the so-called “Armpit of America”, the legend of the Jersey Devil is near and dear to my heart. In fact, the first time I heard it was from a teacher early in elementary school.
That’s right: All of us children would gather in a circle in the classroom around Halloween time and be delightfully terrified as our teacher regaled us with the legend of the Jersey Devil.
Even those who aren’t from New Jersey, probably recognize the name of this beast. The New Jersey Devils NHL team took on the name for the team in 1982. This mysterious monster also inspired the name of the Jersey Devil Coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey, and was even referenced in an edition of the Gravity Falls: Lost Legends graphic novel series.
Yes, the legend of the Jersey Devil has gotten around, but its origins are in one of the strangest and most mysterious parts of New Jersey: the Pine Barrens.
This region of the state has birthed many legends from the ghost of Captain Kidd to the infamous black dog spirit that roams the forests. However, no New Jersey legend is more well-known than the Jersey Devil.
And there’s one part of the story that many New Jersey natives don’t even know: Benjamin Franklin helped to create it.
The Pine Barrens
While New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. with over 1,200 people per square mile, 22% of the state’s land area is covered by swamps and sandy roads. This area, located north of Atlantic City, is known as the Pine Barrens.
The 1,700-square-mile area known as the Pine Barrens is actually an aquifer that’s covered with dense forests of white cedar. The air inside the forest is still.
The cedar trees throughout the forests release tannic acid into the streams, giving them a strange red tint that might look like blood to an unwitting passerby. Throughout the region, there are places with strange names dating back to colonial times, names like Double Trouble, Mary Ann Furnace, Pygmy Forest, and Hog Wallow.
What I’m getting at is that this place is creepy, especially at night.
So, it’s no wonder that most of the local folklore from New Jersey centers around this part of the state. This is where the legend of the Jersey Devil was born. Oddly, though, the story’s origins can be traced back to one rather well-known figure from American history.
Benjamin Franklin and the Jersey Devil
Yes, Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous figures in the history of the United States, had a hand in the formation of the Jersey Devil myth. Franklin had a yearly publication called Poor Richard’s Almanack that was in competition with another almanac, called the Titan’s New Almanack, published by a man named Titan Leeds.
Titan Leeds was already in bad standing with the local Quaker clergy for his use of astrology and “heathen” Greco-Roman planet names in his almanac. Benjamin Franklin took this opportunity to put his competitor out of business by playing up Leeds’s connection to pagan religions.
The smear campaign was successful and, soon, the Leeds family gained a poor reputation in the community and were even rumored to be Satanists by some. It was these rumors that led to the creation of the Jersey Devil myth.
The Jersey Devil Is Born
At some point, the Leeds family made their way to Leeds Point in what is now Atlantic County, New Jersey. Japhet Leeds, a descendant of Titan Leeds, lived in a cabin in the woods with his wife Deborah.
The couple had 12 children and birthing and raising all 12 of these children took quite a toll on Deborah Leeds, especially because the family was poor and her husband was a drunk.
As the story goes, Mother Leeds, as she was known by the local community, became pregnant with her 13th child. Exhausted and unhappy about having to care for another child, when she learned of her pregnancy, she proclaimed, “Let this one be a devil!”
Several months later, Mother Leeds went into labor. She had completely forgotten about the curse that she had put on her unborn child. The local midwives gathered in her home and the birth went successfully.
Mother Leeds’s 13th child came out looking entirely normal.
However, after a matter of minutes, the child started to change. Its head changed into the head of a goat, it grew a snake-like tail, its legs became hooved and inverted, and it sprouted giant wings like that of a bat.
The midwives tried to capture the creature and kill it before it escaped, but it flew up the chimney and out of the house. Since that day, the Jersey Devil has made its home in the Pine Barrens, terrorizing unsuspecting travelers.
Sightings of the Jersey Devil
While the legend may sound a bit fantastic, there have been many reported sightings of the Jersey Devil right up until modern times.
Reported sightings of the Jersey Devil started around the early 1800s. French statesman Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil (or some creature resembling it) around 1820.
Later, a group of livestock deaths was blamed on the Jersey Devil in 1840.
Throughout 1909, mass hysteria arose concerning the Jersey Devil. There were claims that the Devil attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights and a nightclub in Camden. According to news reports, the police fired shots at the creature in both instances, but they had no effect.
Widespread panic fell on New Jersey and Pennsylvania and many schools and businesses closed down temporarily.
In 1925, in Greenwich Township, New Jersey, a farmer claimed to have shot a strange animal that was attacking his livestock and then took a photograph of it. When he showed the photograph to 100 of his neighbors, not a single one of them could identify it.
In 1960, after a string of reported Jersey Devil sightings, a group of merchants from Camden, New Jersey, offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the beast. They even offered to build a private zoo that they would keep it in.
As recently as 2015, a man named David Black claimed that he was able to photograph the Jersey Devil as he was driving home from work. While many people in the community laughed at Black’s claim that he saw the Jersey Devil, he seemed very earnest in warning New Jerseyans to lock their doors and mind their children.
If real, the Jersey Devil would now be nearly 300 years old.
Is it possible that there’s a winged half-human hybrid demon flying around the Pine Barrens of New Jersey? Who knows? But, if you find yourself driving through the Garden State, keep your wits about you.