Probably the cryptid most associated with a particular place, the Jersey Devil has been part of New Jersey folklore since the colonial era. The tale of Mrs. Leeds proclaiming her wish that her 13th child be a devil is one that is extremely common to New Jersey natives. Who knew that once the child was born after an otherwise healthy pregnancy, it would begin to grow bat-like wings, hooves, a horse-like head, and a forked tail.
As legend has it, the now devil child flew away from Mother Leeds that night in 1735. There have only beensemi-regularly sightings in and around New Jersey’s sprawling Pine Barrens since its escape. But there is one particular time when the Jersey Devil left its home and went on a bit of a holiday.
That was January 1909, specifically January 16th through January 23rd. Those eight days are probably the most active days ever seen in the history of Jersey Devil sightings. During this time the creature was seen in at least four states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Some say that this was all a case of mass hysteria, but I think anyone who says hundreds of people, across four states, all experienced mass hysteria within one week is, to be frank, full the devil. Sure, maybe there were some hoaxsters (yes, that’s a word) who were more than excited about selling a story to the newspapers, but you can’t chalk-all-of-it-up-to panic. There are actually multiple credible witnesses, including police and government officials.
Three (yes, three) Camden County, New Jersey police officers saw the creature. After responding to a scene where a woman’s dog was reportedly bitten by the monster, two of the officers, Thomas Cunningham, and William Crouch, actually unloaded their revolvers at the beast. The beast, unfazed, flew away into the night. A crowd of over 100 people claimed to have witnessed the event.
The next night, the third officer, Louis Strehr, witnessed an animal with the head and body of a kangaroo and “bat wings” drinking from his horses’ trough. Trenton, New Jersey councilman E.P. Weeden saw the devil from his window after being awoken in the night by a banging on his door. He thought at first it was a resident coming to him for assistance, but he claims to have heard its wings flap and saw the hoof prints on his first-floor roof. And then it appeared in Pennsylvania.
This was one of the few sightings the creature made outside of New Jersey state. It specifically targeted Bristol, PA, located 23 miles northeast of Philadelphia. It was here, officer James Sackville (who would go on to become Bristol police chief) described seeing a winged beast with strange features. These characteristics included that it “hopped like a bird” and that it had a terrible scream (others refer to it as a bark). He also unloaded his revolver on the creature with no success as it flew away. Shortly after that, also in Bristol, postmaster E.W. Minster provided an account that he saw the beast flying over the Delaware River. He described the devil as having the head of a ram, curled horns, long thin wings, and short front legs with long rear legs. He also heard the same “terrible scream” that officer Sackville heard.
Philadelphia itself felt the brunt of the events of 1909. Mrs. J. H. White saw the devil in her backyard and fainted at its sight. Reasonably only being saved after her husband came and scared it off. A motorist reported almost running over a “fire-breathing” animal on Washington Avenue, while a Mr. WIlliam Becker threw stones at it on Limekiln Pike. A crowd of people, including a Martin Burns, saw the devil between Fairmount Avenue and Beach Street in Fishtown.
These sightings caused a bit of a panic as many saw the sighting as a threat to the residents of both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At least one school district, Mount Ephraim, NJ, actually closed school on Friday, January 26th due to lack of students. Most families opted to keep their children home in fear of their lives. A performance at a Camden, NJ theater was canceled for similar reasons. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the mysterious animal. The famous sketch of the Jersey Devil that is most commonly referenced today was actually printed during this event in The Philadelphia Bulletin.
And then it was all over. The elders in the community blamed it all on the legend of the Leeds Devil, or as it became more commonly known, the Jersey Devil. Sightings continue to this day, and I personally know people who claim they have seen it during trips to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. It sure seems like something attacked and terrorized the Pennsylvania Delaware Valley that week in the winter of 1909.
Was it the Jersey Devil?
Well, yeah, of course, it was!