For eight days in 1909, residents of New Jersey were terrorized by one of the strangest creatures in all of legend. Called the Jersey Devil, it stood a little shorter than a man, with the body of a serpent and the head of a horse. It had cloven hooves on its feet, its two arms were small and rarely used, and it had a devil's forked tail. Most notably, it flew on great leathery batlike wings, and had a horrifying screech. The newspapers were filled with dozens and dozens of accounts: the Jersey Devil killed chickens and dogs, flapped and screeched and chased residents, and left cloven footprints in the snow all throughout the region. Police officers, fire departments, and public officials were named in the reports. Given its comprehensive newspaper coverage, the Jersey Devil's 1909 scourge is perhaps the best documented of all cryptids.
Although 1909 was the Jersey Devil's heyday and by far its most active period, other scattered reports have trickled in ever since, and for more than a century and a half before. The history of the Jersey Devil's beginnings is widely available on the Internet and in print, and is often, in fact, disappointingly copy-and-pasted from one article to another. There are references to the earliest and best sources, but little effort seems to have been made to go back and actually dig them up. If we want to learn what the true cause of these reports was, we need to go back to the original sources, and avoid the recycled retellings published today. Here's what we know for a fact, from historical records.
Leeds Point is a small triangular protuberance into the swampy shallows of Great Bay just north of Atlantic City. The surrounding area is called the Pine Barrens, one million acres of dense pine trees where a disoriented traveler could quickly become lost. It was surveyed by, and subsequently granted to, a Mr. Daniel Leeds, an Englishman who had immigrated in 1678. He was best known as the publisher of The American Almanack, which he printed until his retirement in 1716, when it was taken over by his sons. Benjamin Franklin actually referred to Leeds by name in 1735 in his own Poor Richard's Almanack, and called him "the first author south of New York."
The popular tale you're likely to read holds that Leeds' wife, a Quaker named Deborah Smith, gave birth to her thirteenth son in 1735 in Estelville, some 30 km west of Leeds Point. Some say either Mother Leeds or a clergyman cursed the infant; some say it was born horribly deformed; some say it was born normally but quickly transformed into a monster who killed Mother Leeds and then escaped. In all likelihood, whatever the actual birth was, it seems that the poor Mother Leeds and her infant both died in childbirth.
But in looking at the historical sources, we soon find that this story is not possible. First, Daniel Leeds died in 1720, fifteen years before the fabled birth; second, Daniel Leeds was married to Ann Stacy; and when she died in childbirth, he married Dorothy Young, to whom he remained married until his death. There is no Deborah Smith the Quaker in his history.
Prof. Fred R. MacFadden, Jr. of Coppin State University in Baltimore (formerly Coppin State College) did substantial research on Leeds and also into the Jersey Devil's earliest mentions in print, and some of this was published in William McMahon's 1973 book South Jersey Towns: History and Legend. It turns out that the date of 1735 comes from the earliest print reference to a "devil" that he could find, and its location was given only as Burlington, which was the name of whole county or region at the time. There appears to be no contemporary sources connecting Daniel Leeds or either of his wives to a devilish character of any sort, and MacFadden himself was only able to speculate whether the 1735 Burlington mention of a "devil" may refer to the same beast popularized in 1909 and known today. Although newspapers of the 1800s did occasionally print the Mother Leeds story as given in the legend, we seem to have a total lack of factual basis to anchor it to any real history.
The character of Daniel Leeds the man may have something to do with the connection of the monster to the Leeds name. As an editor and local politician, he had friends and enemies. Most notoriously, Leeds served as deputy to Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who served Queen Anne as colonial governor of New York and New Jersey. But in 1708 Lord Cornbury was recalled to England due to his unpopularity; and Leeds, unpopular by association, withdrew from public office and never again served in politics. As the deputy of a disgraced governor, he was wide open to criticism and ridicule. Even his religion was controversial, as a former Quaker turned Episcopalian. According to MacFadden, several of Leeds' children were mentally disabled. Putting all of these facts and allegations together, Daniel Leeds was a gigantic easy target for anyone who wanted a name upon which to hang a ghastly monster tale.
So well connected is the Jersey Devil's beginnings to Daniel Leeds, that in most early accounts it is called the Leeds Devil. In fact, a search of newspaper archives reveals that almost all of its references prior to 1909 are to the Leeds Devil, not the Jersey Devil. The namesakery bears the strong stench of politics. When Thomas Edison wanted to discredit the alternating current promoted by Westinghouse, he tried to frighten the public away from it by referring to electrocution as Westinghousing. In the 1800s when reports began to appear, Daniel Leeds was long dead; but his was a well known name, and newly minted Americans were always happy to have a British loyalist at whom to throw mud.
By 1909 nobody cared about Daniel Leeds anymore, and the creature has mainly been known as the Jersey Devil ever since.
Investigator Joe Nickell has also found another source for the 1909 reports:
In January 1909 the monster was revived by a hoax. Displayed in a private museum in Philadelphia, the creature was actually a kangaroo outfitted with fake wings affixed by a harness. To make it leap at spectators when the curtain was drawn, a boy hidden at the rear of the cage prodded the unfortunate animal with a stick.
The exact date of this exhibit is not clear, but there's at least one clue that indicates it was an attempt to capitalize on the existing Devil craze, rather than the spark that ignited it. MacFadden writes that Gloucester county archivist R.C. Archut tracked down a photograph of cloven footprints on a snowy porch, dated 1908, the beginning of the period during which the footprints were reported. Nickell's date of January 1909 for the hoax exhibit strongly suggests that the hoax did not initiate the 1909 cluster of sightings.
So what did start things off? We don't know, and at this late date, we probably never will. It's always better to admit that we don't know facts that we don't know, rather than to assert that the lack of strong, testable evidence means nothing happened at all.
In most cases like this, some of the sightings turn out to be mistaken identifications of everyday animals or something else. There is one decent candidate that's been put forward for the Jersey Devil, and that's the New Jersey species of the Sandhill Crane. It's a big slender bird; it can stand tall, and it can spread and flap its two-meter batlike wings. However in 1887, a J. A. Singley wrote in to the Galveston Daily News that in his experience, the Leeds Devil described as a "bugaboo bird" by correspondent Sam E. Hayes was probably just a barn owl:
The bird has an uncanny appearance generally, and this, aided by a lively imagination, has probably originated the blood-curdling story of the Leed's Devil.
Cranes were also suggested as a likely cause of the 1909 footprints. In 1926, Alfred Heston wrote in Jersey Waggon Jaunts that residents of Salem called the 1909 creature the Ostrich Devil. I was not able to track down a copy of the Archut photograph, but MacFadden did note that cranes were often associated with the type of tracks reported. Moreover, there are birds that hop with both feet together for whom there is no rational foundation to be ruled out; and as we discussed when examining the similar case of the Devon, England footprints from 1855, there are lots of other common animals that might have been responsible for the footprints.
Of course, most of these suggestions for alternate explanations of individual bits and pieces of the Jersey Devil canon are really just supposition. There is no more evidence that a crane is responsible for any of the honestly reported incidents than there is for the Jersey Devil being the real Satanic offspring of Mother Leeds. We've been able to piece together enough of the original history to disprove parts of the commonly told version of the monster's genesis, but that says nothing about the sightings that have happened since that date.
Here's what I think is the best way to evaluate any given report of the Jersey Devil. Take the story of the cab driver who was fixing a flat tire in 1927, when according to him, the creature landed on the roof of his car and shook it violently, compelling him to flee the scene. We can't examine his car for forensic evidence; we can only speculate. Maybe he made it up. Maybe it was a person or large bird, and for some reason he misidentified it. Maybe it was a joke spread by his buddies at the cab station. Maybe it happened exactly as he reported. Maybe it never happened at all, and was invented by a reporter, or misinterpreted by some third party, or told and retold until the story morphed into this version. All seven of these are possible, as well as others; we don't know. And that's the only thing we can know for sure. Each of the dozens of such anecdotes is equally ambiguous. What we have is an interesting bit of folklore; what we do not have is any compelling reason to conclude there are any Jersey Devils outside of Newark's professional hockey arena.