Folks in other parts of the country are surprised when I tell them about the Pine Barrens. After all, it’s not what people think of when they think of New Jersey. You might be surprised to find more than one million acres of pine forests and cranberry bogs less than one hundred miles from Manhattan, less than fifty miles from Philadelphia.
Towns have grown up in and amongst the forest, and some are now thriving cities, but, even today, there is vast acreage in the Pine Barrens that remains virgin pine forest. Deep in the forest, amongst the pitch pines and the cranberry bogs, the fragrant berries and the abandoned cemeteries, strange things abound.
None stranger than the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil is one of the enduring legends that have come out of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, dating back to the early 1700s. There are several accounts of the birth of the Jersey Devil, but the most common story dates back to 1735, to Mother Leeds, pregnant with her thirteenth child, saddled with a drunken, ne’er-do-well husband, and burdened with far too many responsibilities. Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child to the devil. And then she gave birth to a horrible creature, with a horse-like head and hooves, bat-wings, a forked tail and an ear-piercing shriek.
Sightings of the Jersey Devil have been reported ever since, terrorizing south Jersey (although, curiously, rarely causing any actual damage). The most extensive sightings date back to 1909, to the week of January 16-23. During that week, in 1909, the Jersey Devil was seen in more than thirty different towns, by hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. The terror was so widespread that schools and factories were closed and posses were formed in an attempt to capture the elusive Jersey Devil.
The sightings began late at night, January 16 in Woodbury, NJ and early on the morning of January 17 in Bristol, PA. The sightings in Bristol included eye-witness accounts by a police officer (later to become the Bristol Chief of Police) as well as the town’s postmaster, who described the creature as follows:
“Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thick neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind. Again, it uttered its mournful and awful call – a combination of a squawk and a whistle, the beginning very high and piercing and ending very low and horse.” (from The Jersey Devil, by McCloy and Miller, published by Middle Atlantic Press).
Over the subsequent twenty-four hours, reports of the Jersey Devil, or Jersey Devil tracks were reported in Burlington City, Gloucester City, Columbus, Hedding, Kinkora and Rancocas. On Tuesday, January 19, the Jersey Devil made a well-documented appearance in Gloucester City, that resulted in the following description by Nelson Evans:
“It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse’s hooves.” (from The Jersey Devil)
In the ensuing days, the Jersey Devil was spotted in Haddonfield, in Moorestown and in numerous other towns in south Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Public meetings were held to address citizens’ concerns.
On Thursday, January 21, the Jersey Devil’s rampage intensified, with an attack on a trolley car in Camden. Before the day’s end, there were sightings in Trenton and Ewing, in Roebling, Pitman, Bridgeton and Millville, in West Collingswood, Mt. Holly and Atlantic City, as well as Philadelphia, PA. Trolley cars in Trenton and New Brunswick armed the drivers in an effort to protect the trolleys from attack.
The panic was palpable. By Friday, January 22, people had locked themselves in their homes in towns all across the Delaware Valley. Businesses closed. Schools closed. Sighting continued on Friday in Camden and Woodbury. The final reported sighting of the week occurred Friday night in Salem.
And then the Devil was gone.
There have been occasional reports of the Jersey Devil since that harrowing week, but nothing comes close to the magnitude of the events that transpired 108 years ago, this week, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.
The Jersey Devil is a suspect in my first Cassie O’Malley Mystery, Who is Killing Doah’s Deer? originally published in 2004 and still available today in paperback and kindle editions.