The first thing you need to know is that my grandmother is a Catholic. She is a short, round, god-fearing Eastern European woman with raven-dark hair and a generously creased face. Her love for the Holy Father is rivaled only by that which she holds for her many strapping sons, her ever-expanding roster of grandchildren, and the Philadelphia Eagles. My grandmother has never told a lie in her life; to do so would be a sin, and the amount of crucifixes and rosary beads she’s doggedly gifted me over the years has made clear her views on such matters.
She married a pious Irishman and raised their brood to say their prayers each night, dutifully attend Mass every Sunday, and collectively turn a blind eye to my grandpa’s gambling habit. She is not an overly superstitious person, although my father did once tell me that his Romanian grandma, her mother, was a witch. The forest does not intimidate her. She married a woodsman and birthed three more, and can still field dress a deer faster than I can spell out my name.
All of this is all important, because when I tell you that my grandma swears that one night out in the woods, she saw the Jersey Devil, I want you to believe her.
I believe her because I grew up in Chatsworth, the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and I know that in those woods, things are not always what they seem. For those who are unfamiliar with the area—as most people born outside its borders tend to be—the Pine Barrens are an ecological marvel, a 1.1 million acre woodland ecosystem that stretches across seven counties, sits atop a massive aquifer of the purest water in the United States, and plays host to a number of endangered and otherwise unexpected species, from carnivorous plants to bobcats to tree frogs. Wrapped in the protective embrace of the Pinelands National Reserve and overseen by the watchful eye of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the Pines have rightly been recognized as an irreplaceable treasure, a unique environment worth protecting. It’s also a really fucking weird place to grow up.
We call the soil “sugar sand”—it’s white, sandy, acidic, and wholly inhospitable to just about anything you’d want to cultivate. (That’s how the Barrens got their name). The water—”cedar water”— is the color of strong black tea, dyed by the roots of the cedars that loom above our treacherous swamps. The trees are mostly pitch pine, a peculiar breed whose scaly bark has evolved over the millennia to not only survive the area’s frequent forest fires, but to thrive on them. It’s still mostly rural, with winding backroads and the ruins of tiny ghost towns scattered alongside them. You can get lost real easily.
The state also has a history of sequestering various types of institutions out there and tip-toeing away. (You’ll see why later). Prisons, juvenile detention camps, mental health facilities, and residential programs for developmentally disabled people—many are still operating, deep in the woods. Others sit out there, slipping into decay, waiting. Some of them have cemeteries tucked away out back; my dad has stumbled across at least one secret graveyard out there, and says he’s too spooked to return.
On occasion, institutionalized people would make their escape. At other times, the escapees were animals, and all manner of creatures would appear where they shouldn’t have been; a cougar terrorized our little town for weeks when I was in elementary school, and you still hear rumors of emus running loose in the woods, thanks to a neighbor’s failed business experiment. You can see every star in the sky at night, and fall asleep to the ghostly cries of whippoorwills in the summer and dead silence in the winter. It is a beautiful place, one like nowhere else in the world. And on top of all that, the Pine Barrens is home to its own local demon.
I’m telling you all of this to help explain why the Jersey Devil has kept such a hold on us for so long, and how it is that the story of such a preposterously strange creature has continued to flourish a mere afternoon’s drive away from the ever-vigilant, ever-skeptical urban centers of Philadelphia and New York City. Woods people, from New Englanders to Appalachians to my dad in his backyard, all know that even if you don’t happen to see anything out there, it doesn’t mean that something isn’t looking back.
The Pines must have felt even more strange hundreds of years ago, when its original Lenni-Lenape residents still stewarded the land. By the early 1800s, those rightful inhabitants had largely been driven out or murdered in episodes of genocidal violence, and European settlers had begun to put down roots and multiply.
Long before they started to build sensible ranch-style homes and plant blueberry fields and erect the cell phone towers that now dot the tree canopy like blinking sentinels, a wave of colonizers rolled into the Pines around 1825 and quickly built up industries in agriculture, lumber, and bog iron. For a time, business boomed, but it didn’t last. Eventually, the industries failed, the business people moved away, the mills and foundries were left to rot. The forest crept back in to reclaim what it was owed, and the people who stayed arranged themselves to meet its contours.
These hardy survivalists lived off the bitter fruits of the forest, harvesting wild game and selling pine cones, holly, and sphagnum moss to big city florists. They were working poor, self-sufficient, and preferred to keep to themselves. Outsiders didn’t understand them or their way of life, and more malicious types viewed them as either sideshow-style human oddities or a problem to be solved.
In 1912, they were thrust into under an unflattering spotlight when eugenicist Henry Herbert Goddard published a study called The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness that painted Pine Barrens residents as a race of morally, physically, and mentally depraved criminals, a disgusting social myth. His assistant and fellow eugenicist Elizabeth Kite would help spread this notion further with a vicious 1913 report that described the people of the Pines thusly: “The real Piney has no inclination to labor, submitting to every privation in order to avoid it. Lazy, lustful and cunning, he is a degenerate creature who has learned to provide for himself the bare necessities of life without entering into life’s stimulating struggle.”
By 1914, state-funded mental health institutions had begun popping up throughout the Pines, buoyed by the assumption that their services were needed by the Piney population. But as William H. Lewis notes in his book, New Jersey’s Lost Piney Culture, the Batsto Citizens Gazette wrote then that, “The sparsely populated Pinelands probably provided but a fraction of the inmates, but because of their isolation it had been easier to angle them out for research.” The thought of quack scientists singling out vulnerable people for “research” in a place as isolated as the Pines makes the blood run cold, and may explain some of those hidden cemeteries.
As a result of all this bedeviling publicity, folks began to call them—us—”Pineys,” and the nickname stuck, in that stubborn way that derogatory ones often do. Over the decades, it’s actually evolved into a badge of honor. More than one hundred years after New Jersey Governor James T. Fielder visited my home county and recommended that the state “segregate and sterilize these people,” which he described as “a race of imbeciles, criminals and defectives,” you can now buy “Piney Power” stickers to slap on your truck, or visit the Piney Power website for local history facts.
Those old-school Pineys had their ways, and they also had their legends. Only one of those has really stuck around, but it’s a doozy: that the Pine Barrens are haunted by a demon with “the body of a kangaroo, the head of a dog, the face of a horse, the wings of a bat, the feet of a pig, and a forked tail,” as described in James McCloy and Ray Miller Jr.’s 1976 classic The Jersey Devil.
As far as cryptids go, the Jersey Devil is fairly tame, as long as you don’t mind a bit of screeching and mysterious footprints. It’s been said to appear before major calamities as a warning, and during the Vietnam era, was even ascribed some anti-war leanings. Its identity is more prankster than predator, and though the devil has been blamed for killing livestock from time to time, I think he was framed. He’s also become another symbol of Piney pride, one that we guard jealously. The deep forests of the Pine Barrens are a strange and isolated place, where predominantly poor and working-class residents have endured centuries of mockery and dismissal from outsiders. Of course we love our homegrown monster. He’s a Piney, too.
Though the creature himself is said to have originated in Leeds Point in 1735 (where he was allegedly born to an exasperated Mother Leeds and, cursed, flew out the window into the night) this particular legend has traveled quite a bit. One of the most fascinating interpretations of the Jersey Devil’s story has come from author Bill Sprouse, who wrote about his quest to trace his own family ancestry back to that fateful moment at Leeds Point, and from there to the devil himself. His 2013 book, The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil or, BeBop’s Miscellany, is both an essential compendium of Jersey Devil lore and a very real genealogical journey to find out just how nearly fiction may veer into fact. Sprouse traces the story back to a different Mother Leeds—a woman named Deborah who was related to Daniel Leeds, a controversial figure that Sprouse describes as “the most notorious Quaker apostate in West Jersey history.”
The story of Daniel Leeds is fascinating on its own merits, especially if you dig catty 18th-century religious drama. He was an outspoken working man who found himself butting heads with his well-heeled Quaker brethren for criticizing Quaker leaders in a series of incendiary writings. He had no problem calling them out for their misdeeds and hypocrisies, and in return, they volleyed back at him via pamphlet (the 18th century version of subtweeting) and began referring to him as “Satan,” “devil,” or Judge of Hell,” none of which seemed to bother him overmuch. As Sprouse discovered, in 1700, fellow Quaker Caleb Pusey wrote a 73-page pamphlet castigating Leeds that he titled Satan’s Harbinger. Leeds refused to be silenced, and eventually left the church.
This reputation, coupled with his name, location, and rough time period, does point to Daniel Leeds as a convincing potential alternate source for the Jersey Devil story. But one aspect of his life that resonates especially strongly with me has little to do with Leeds at all. Sprouse’s grandmother insisted that Leeds’ daughter-in-law, Deborah, who’d married his son Japhet, was the true source of the demon. Much of that goes back to her neighbors’ alleged reaction when she gave birth. They’d called her child “a monster.” There is a long and ugly history around the way society has viewed and treated such “monsters,” as disabled people were once called. The word teratology, which describes the study of physical abnormalities, even comes from the Greek word for “monster.”
Then as now, the idea of a poor woman calling on her god to deliver her from the burden of a thirteenth child makes a lot of sense. If that child then arrived in an unexpected condition, one can only imagine her reaction. Maybe her unwanted baby was a monster with a horse’s face and bat wings who screeched at her before flying off into the night. Or maybe it was a monster like me, who was also born in the dark of a Pinelands night to hardworking parents and has claws of her own.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to ask him yet, because I’ve never danced with the devil myself. The woods behind my grandmother’s house hold plenty of secrets, but I know the Jersey Devil didn’t set up camp there for long. He may not be as well-known as his cryptid cousins Bigfoot, the chupacabra, or the Loch Ness Monster, but he still punches above his weight compared to second-tier creepy-crawlies, and has left his claw marks on pop culture as well as on the historical record.
Since the legend’s birth, the Jersey Devil has made a habit of taking his show on the road, as exemplified by the rash of sightings and even brief panics that have gripped a variety of Pine Barrens towns beginning in the 18th century. He was especially busy during the late 1800s, when he was blamed for many a dead chicken, with sightings reported from Haddonfield to Leeds Point. (In 1894, he went down the shore, swooping by Long Beach Island and Brigantine Beach).
In 1909, he crossed state lines and caused an absolute frenzy between January 19th and 23rd, when thousands of people saw his cloven footprints throughout the Delaware Valley. News reports at the time alternately referred to the beast as a “jabberwocky,” “kangaroo horse,” “flying death,” or, delightfully, a “woozlebug.” Several men swore they heard him whistling or saw his eyes glowing in the dark; others actually saw the devil in the flesh, taking note of its long neck and hooves. Nelson Evans recounted, “My wife and I were scared, I tell you,” as they peeped at the creature from their bedroom window, “but I managed to open the window and say ‘Shoo!’ and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away.” He sounds kind of cute, right?
More sightings continued to crop up every few years (there was a real humdinger of a scare in 1951) and I’m glad that they still do. The Jersey Devil remains the Pinelands’ very own homegrown working-class hero, and he deserves to have some fun; though still spry at 287, he’s certainly not getting any younger. And as development projects continue to gnaw away at the edges of the Pines and planned natural gas pipelines threaten the ecosystem’s very existence, it’s comforting to know that someone is still out there keeping an eye on things. You can’t keep a good Devil down. ♦
Kim Kelly is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia. She is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, and was born and raised in the South Jersey Pine Barrens. Of course she believes in ghosts.