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Monday, June 17, 2024

W.C. Library Webinar: How the Jersey Devil Became So Popular – Explanation of Dinosaurs, Indigenous Myths and Ben Franklin

One interpretation of the Jersey Devil’s Appearance, possibly from an issue of The Atlantic Monthly from May of 1859. Picture taken by A. Svendsen from webinar presentation, 10/2023.

When was the last time you heard about the Jersey Devil? Given that it’s now spooky season, I’ll share the short tale as my mother told it to me, just to refresh your memory.

Mama Leeds had 12 children and didn’t want any more. Allegedly, she got pregnant with her 13th child and said, ‘I don’t want any more children, this one can go to the devil!’

The night of the birth of her 13th child, it was stormy. labor was terrible and she screamed, “GET THIS DEVIL OUT OF ME!” And at that, the creature came out of her, sprung wings and flew out the window.

The Jersey Devil has been described in different ways, but is commonly said to be nine feet tall, with horns, structured, bat-like wings, a tail and cloven hooves instead of feet.

In some versions, he is a spindly, bony creature while in others, he is muscular and massive. But he is always described as being downright terrifying, even if the pictures don’t always do him justice.

The story truly feels like fiction, doesn’t it? How can a woman really give birth to a devil such as this, one that doesn’t look remotely human? And yet, there’s a whisper in the back of your mind that wonders…

Another interpretation of the Jersey Devil’s appearance. Photo from the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1909; taken by A. Svendsen from webinar presentation, 10/2023.

The Jersey Devil is one of many well-known cryptids (creatures that are said to exist, but finding concrete proof of their existence seems impossible); it shares its title with the likes of Bigfoot, Mothman and the Loch Ness Monster, to name a few.

What you might not know is that, before it was birthed into the world by Mama Leeds, the Leeds family was already famous for their…dealings with the supernatural.

Mickey DiCamillo explains that when Daniel Leeds, an astrologist, came to Burlington, New Jersey in the late 1600s, he was “bursting to share his scientific knowledge” with the people there.

Unfortunately for him, the Quakers he encountered believed him to be a heretic and titled him “Satan’s Harbinger.” They then banned his “magic” books—aka, the almanacs that he published, since they believed astrology, scientific philosophies and magic to be the same thing.

Instead of leaving it be, he does something different. As DiCamillo put it, “Leeds fights back.”

Despite the fact that they were the dominant religious group in West Jersey at the time, DiCamillo writes that Leeds “establish[ed] a yearly almanac [and] aggressively attacked the Quakers in future publications [,] setting himself up as an enemy.”

The Quakers doubled down, claiming that Leeds was no longer just Satan’s Harbinger, but Satan himself.

Titan Leeds, Daniel’s son, inherits the legacy and continues writing almanacs. Unfortunately for the Leeds, their believed connection to the supernatural persisted, thanks to a certain someone who called himself Poor Richard in his published almanacs.

A copy of Titan Leeds’ almanac. Picture taken by A. Svendsen from webinar presentation, 10/2023.
A copy of Poor Richard’s almanac. Picture taken by A. Svendsen from webinar presentation, 10/2023.

Ben Franklin wanted to be the leading almanac producer—a spot that was currently taken by the Leeds. So, he played on the Leeds’ history with the supernatural a bit, knowing it would increase his almanacs’ popularity and decrease the popularity of the Leeds’ almanac. You may be wondering: How did he do it?

DiCamillo explains that “Franklin ‘predicts’ that [Titan] Leeds would die in 1733.”

Seems harmless enough, right? But Franklin doesn’t stop there. Leeds did not die in 1733, but that was all part of Franklin’s plan; he continued the bit, saying that Leeds did die in 1733 and that it was his ghost that was writing the almanacs from then on.

Titan Leeds was not as amused as Ben Franklin was with this whole smear campaign, but Franklin continued with it even after Leeds did actually die in 1738.

So that explains why it was so easy for people to believe that the Jersey Devil is biologically related to the Leeds family. And since Daniel Leeds had moved the family to the Pine Barrens in the late 17th century, naturally their legacy came with them.

But how did so many people—even, and perhaps especially, those who didn’t live in New Jersey—truly believe in this devil

First, as long as they are presented with some kind of evidence, most people are willing to believe anything. In some cases, the only evidence that people need is an eyewitness, or the story of an eyewitness.

Before the Jersey Devil was born, the Lenape people told stories of witches in the woods, and another famous story, “The Witch of the Pines,” certainly made it easier to believe that the devil lived in already-haunted woods.

When people began claiming to have seen the Jersey Devil, others began believing it was real. When more credible stories arose—like the train conductor’s story—people started to really believe in it, since the story actually seemed pretty plausible.

The train conductor’s story goes like this: As they were passing through the Pine Barrens, the train slammed into a huge creature that the conductor had never seen before, but he described it as being devil-like. Despite how it was hit by a literal train, the creature got up and flew away, leading him to believe he had just hit the Jersey Devil.

What really made people believe in the Jersey Devil, though, was when many churchgoers started reporting their sightings of the creature—this resulted in the story of the Jersey Devil becoming known on a national level. This then led to more sightings and a period of mass hysteria in 1909.

The 9th and Arch Street Dime Museum cashed in on the mass hysteria of 1909. They borrowed a live kangaroo from an animal trainer in Buffalo—they chose a kangaroo since, at that time, most people in the United States had never seen one before—and attached wings and claws to the poor creature.

They had people coming droves to catch a glimpse of the Jersey Devil, but as sightings continued even after its “capture,” the museum was exposed and the kangaroo was returned.

At that point, it was easy to believe in the Jersey Devil anyway. Thomas Jefferson had already proven to the world that the creatures in America were monstrous when, after French naturalists told him that the climate was so bad that nothing healthy could grow there, he called in a favor with some friends.

The favor? Send him the biggest moose they could so he could show the French proof of how big the creatures in America could get. (It is important to note that they did not send him a live moose. They killed one first and disassembled it, and it was put back together—minus the hair that had fallen off during transport—in France). Thus, the idea that America was full of monstrous creatures was born.

Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America by Lee Alan Dugatkin. Picture taken by A. Svendsen from webinar presentation, 10/2023.

More specific to believing in supernatural-esque creatures in New Jersey: In 1838, Haddy the Hadrosaurus was discovered in Haddonfield

Not only was Haddy’s discovery revolutionary for being both the first fully erect dinosaur skeleton in 1868, but it was also the first significant grouping of dinosaur remains found in North America.

Since a dinosaur once roamed the terrain of New Jersey, why can’t a devil?

DiCamillo ended his webinar by reminding us that New Jersey has had a reputation for being a dark and unfavorable place to live, and that those who live here—especially those from South Jersey—have been described as being “unsophisticated, backward and quarrelsome.”

Because of these unpleasant rumors, it makes sense that the tale of a devil in the forest would spread so easily, and be so easily believed.

DiCamillo said, “New Jersey’s own inhabitants push this myth from within. So, the devil is a way to fight back against outsiders. Lost wanderers encounter the devil—these interlopers are warned to stay out.”

Next time someone from out of state tries to tell you the New Jersey isn’t a great place to live, remember the story of the Jersey Devil and send them a warning…or don’t.

Oh, and if you’d like to read more about the history of the Jersey Devil, DiCamillo suggests “The Secret History of the Jersey Devil” by Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito.

Annalyse Svendsen
Annalyse Svendsen, Contributing Writer

Annalyse recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her B.A. in Humanities. She also minored in Creative Writing and studied French and American Sign Language in an effort to learn how to communicate with more people. Annalyse only recently moved to Hardwick but grew up in Stillwater and attended Stillwater Elementary School and Kittatinny Regional High School. While in high school, she was an active member of both the Book Club—where she served as president—and the Marching Band—where she served as the band’s librarian. At FDU, she served as the secretary of the Ping Pong Club, as well as the vice president of Rose & Thorn. Annalyse has always been passionate about learning. She has a passion for writing and plans to pursue a master’s degree in either Library Sciences or Creative Writing.