Monsters and Ghosts A to Z : The Jersey Devil
The legend, or rather legends, of the Jersey Devil have haunted the once dark damp swamps of Southeastern New Jersey for over 300 years. However, do they bear any reality? Are they just the musings of angry or overly gregarious publishers of the past? Or, are they something entirely more mundane and perhaps a bit tragic?
While there is no way to be completely certain what several hundred people have reported encountering there are many who have speculated on just that question.
The “actual” story of the Jersey Devil depends on the person you ask. There are almost as many variations of the story as there are variations of sightings of the creature.
One of the most popular versions tells of a woman known only as “Mother Leeds”. According to the legend, Mother Leeds was pregnant with her 13th child and unhappy with her situation. As she carried the child in her womb she cursed him, stating that he would be born a devil.
When the infant was born it came from the womb horribly deformed. It leaped at the nursemaid, biting her and making her scream in terror. From there the child caused havoc throughout the rest of the house and disappeared through the chimney into the Pine Barrens that the family lived amongst.
Another version of the same story tells that the baby was cursed by the devil himself as Mother Leeds was seen as a witch.
In another, the entire family had been cursed and the child was the result of this curse.
Yet another tells that Mother Leeds, a devout member of the Shaker community was cursed by a minister when she refused to convert to their religion.
In a kinder version of the story, Mother Leeds has the deformed child but cares for him until her death. It is not until after she dies that the creature is said to have started terrorizing the area. Although, there are versions of this tale that tells of Mother Leeds as a monstrous woman herself, keeping the poor deformed child in her basement. In this variation, the boy escapes after his mother’s death but is poorly received due to his unearthly appearance.
Leed’s Point, which is said to be home to the Jersey Devil has been home to many of the Leeds lineage since the 1600’s when Daniel Leeds came over from England. As one of the founding members of the town and active member of the Shaker religion, he was a well liked man for much of his life.
However, in the late 1600’s and the beginning of the 1700’s he began writing a publication known as the Leed’s Almanac. This publication was not well received by many of the Shaker community who believed it akin to witchcraft. These individuals felt that working with the stars in this manner was more akin to Occultism than to their understanding of Christianity. Following much unrest and debate, the publications were burnt.
Daniel was infuriated by this. As a young child, he had visions that led him to his Christian faith. He believed that these divine visions coupled with astrology were a way of communing with God and being a more devout Christian than the Quaker faith had provided him.
For several years into the early 1700’s publications such as The Temple of Wisdom ( Daniel Leeds) and The Case Put and Decided ( George Fox, founder of the Quakers) went back and forth between Leeds and the leaders of the Society of Friends religion. Things became more and more heated and word of the disagreement began to reach further and further throughout the colonies. It would culminate before Leeds death with a publicaton by the name of Satan’s harbinger encountered, his false news of a trumpet detected, his crooked ways in the wilderness [sic] laid open to the view of the imperial and judicious. Being something by way of answer to Daniel Leeds his book entitled News of a trumpet sounding in the wilderness &c. .. by Caleb Pusey ( written and published in Philidealphia) that outright claimed that Leeds was not only dealing in the occult but outright working with the Devil.
Following the death of Daniel his son Titan Leeds would redesign the family crest, as some believe in response to the accusations, to include Wyverns. The beasts appeared to have bat like wings, the head of a monster, and clawed feet.
The torment went on for Titan as well, who supported his father’s position in the ordeal. In fact, word had spread so far that in the early 1700’s Benjamin Franklin would pick the story up in his Poor Richard’s Almanac. Although he was far more tongue in cheek than the Society of Friends had been on the matter Titan took his words as a direct insult. Leeds and Franklin went back and forth in their almanacs slinging published word at one another through 1733 when Franklin made a prediction of Leeds death based on Cosmology.Frankin had predicted that Titan Leeds would die later that year. In fact, Titan would live on through to 1738. Following Leeds death Franklin accused his ghost of tormenting him. Many sightings of the creature now known as the Jersey Devil were reported that year, beginning the folklore that surrounded Leeds Point and the family living there.
There is no doubt that the Jersey Devil, or Leeds Devil as it was called by some in its earlier existence all the way up through the 1930’s and 40’s, has become a very well-known figure in New Jersey folklore.
In fact, it was so ingrained into the culture of the area that the Philadelphia zoo put out a $10,000 reward for anyone that could capture it and bring the beast to them in 1909. While there have been things as interesting as kangaroos with wings glued to them brought forth by people claiming to have captured the creature, the reward money was never collected. During that time many believed it to be a leftover prehistoric creature that was living in caves near the swampland of Leeds Point in the Pine Barrens. There is no doubt that much of the area was unexplored during this time period, and those areas that were known were rough trade routes keeping many from venturing there.
During the time of Daniel Leeds, in the colonial past of New Jersey, it is important to remember that witchcraft was a very real part of everyday life and a very real fear for many of the Quakers and other religions that had come to North America. For these individuals, blaming something that they didn’t like or understand on witchcraft and occultism was just a normal part of life. It would have been more than just arbitrary name calling for these men to have believed that the occult or the devil was involved in a once devout member of the faith to turn to cosmology as a way of better understanding God.
In addition, throughout much of history birth defects were sadly seen as a curse or the work of the devil. It is entirely possible that a deformed child was born into the Leeds lineage through natural causes who was seen by these outsiders as the work of evil.
Through some searching, I was unable to find any evidence of a woman in the Leeds line who had 13 children, nor one who would line up with the time of 1735 when the devil is believed to have originated. However, Daniel’s third wife Dorothy Young Leeds had eight children. One of these, it turns out is Titan Leeds who was born in August of 1699. According to historical records, however, it appears that each of these children went on to marry and have lives beyond childhood. Is it possible that there was another child? It appears unlikely as Dorothy died in 1699 seemingly just after the birth of Titan. In addition, Daniel went on to marry Jane Revell Abbot-Smout who would first appear in his will in 1720.
From this, I can think of three possibilities that could have brought rise to the legend of the Jersey Devil.
One, would be that the death of Dorothy following the birth of Titan coinciding with the arguments between Leeds and the Quaker religion could have been blamed on occultism or evil workings of some kind, and a legend born through this.
A second possibility is that there could be a child that was unaccounted for in the historical record. Perhaps it died in birth or was so deformed that it lived only briefly. However, this is not as likely as a walk through any old cemetery will show many graves of “infant” lives that were taken too soon. In addition, position in lineage was still a very important matter in those days so even those who lived briefly would most likely have been accounted for.
Finally, and perhaps the possibility that makes the most sense is that the creature was born from the publications of the Quaker faith and those of Benjamin Franklin. That it was nothing more than superstition brought about by malicious words traded between rivals.
Could Leeds have actually had dealings with the devil that bore the creature? I personally can’t buy into this theory. However, during the time of the Quakers it would be easier to believe than not. So it is entirely possible that rumors, superstition, and misunderstanding were at work in the creation of the Jersey Devil.