By Grace Agnew, Associate University Librarian for Digital Library Systems
Rutgers University Libraries
What is the Jersey Devil? Does it exist? Where does it hide? The origins of the Jersey Devil are as mysterious as its home-the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, almost two thousand square miles of sparsely inhabited woods and marsh in Southeastern New Jersey, where whispering pines and white cedar, bubbling bogs, and shifting sands, create a land rich in vegetation, wildlife, minerals and...
A creature with the head of a horse, large wings and claws, and an elongated serpent's body.
Seeing this creature is supposed to foretell disaster, from shipwrecks and war to crop failures, although no sighting of the Jersey Devil has ever resulted in harm to a person. Some sightings have involved attacks on livestock and dogs, including dogs that are found mysteriously mauled to death. However, almost every sighting story ends with "and then it fled into the night." In fact, in early sightings, many people reached instinctively for a weapon to attack the Jersey Devil, which fortunately seems to have escaped both injury and capture.
It was a Dark and Stormy Night
Where did the Jersey Devil come from? The stories are as varied as the animals that make up the Jersey Devil's body. Some stories involve a young girl who was cursed by a gypsy, or a young girl who fell in love with a British soldier and was cursed as a traitor by the townspeople when she gave birth to his child.
The story that most people agree on is that an impoverished Quaker woman with twelve children, Mother Leeds, discovered that she was expecting another baby. Mother Leeds lived in the Leeds Point area, in Galloway Township, Atlantic County. She was furious at the idea of another mouth to feed and exclaimed, "let the child be a devil!" Some stories say the child was born deformed. In other stories, the child was normal in appearance and grew deformed. In any case, the child left the family and escaped into the woods, where it became a supernatural beast with the body parts of many creatures.
It became known most popularly as the Leeds Devil, but it was also called the "Hoodle-Doodle Bird" and "Wozzle Bug." Some stories name the mother as Mrs. Shourds (also called and spelled, Shrouds), who lived near Leeds Point. The New Jersey Historical Society identifies Mrs. Leeds as a Deborah Smith, who emigrated from England to marry Mr. Leeds.  Devil hunter Laura Leuter notes that a Daniel Leeds and a Samuel Shourds both lived in Leeds Point at the time the Jersey Devil was supposedly born.  The Jersey Devil's birth place has also been variously identified as Leeds Point, Burlington, Estellville, and Pleasantville. All this occurred back in time, in the early 18th century, before New Jersey was an official colony in a recognized nation. Some stories pinpoint the exact year of birth as 1735, and the night the devil was born was, of course, dark and stormy.
Have you seen it?
The Leeds Devil was allegedly exorcised in a ritual in 1740 that banished the creature for one hundred years. The Jersey Devil has been sighted over the years by famous people and ordinary citizens, including Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napolean. The American naval hero, Stephen Decatur, is supposed to have seen the Jersey Devil when he was testing cannonballs in the Pine Barrens that were produced in a forge at the Hanover Mill Works. He saw a strange flying creature and fired a cannonball directly through it. Supposedly, he hit the creature dead on, but it flew away unharmed.
Sightings of the devil began to be documented as fact in the nineteenth century. A sighting was recorded in 1899 in a Philadelphia newspaper, when a man, George Saarosy, was awakened by screams in his yard and saw the Jersey Devil.
Imagine what this would be like. You are upstairs in your room one night, by yourself, getting ready for bed. You hear something outside - a snuffling, shuffling sound and then a high-pitched scream. You look out your window - just there! Rooting in the garbage cans, a hunched over creature with glowing eyes, sharp teeth, and what is that lashing around? -- Does it have a rope? No, that's a tail, and what looks like a tattered leather coat unfurls into - wings. The creature screeches and flies away before you are even convinced you saw something. Only the scattered trashcans remain to confirm that you did see something. Of course, raccoons and groundhogs are always getting into the trashcans. But they can't fly. Okay, a hawk. But do hawks have horsy faces and look at you like one person to another? What did you see? And should you tell anybody? This is what it might be like to see the Jersey Devil -- just a few minutes out of your life, really, but something you will never forget.
A flurry of sightings occurred one week in January 1909 that terrorized thousands of people in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and as far away as Delaware. Councilman E.P. Weeden heard flapping wings outside his Trenton home and found cloven footprints in the snow. Many people saw the creature, which was described by at least one witness as hissing and flying, with glowing, phosphorescent eyes. The sightings were widely described in the Philadelphia Press. Mr. Evans of Gloucester described the beast, which he and his wife watched for ten minutes from their bedroom window, as "about three and a half feet 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." 
The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for its capture. Two men claimed to capture the devil-by painting stripes and gluing wings and claws onto a kangaroo, which they exhibited in a cage and tormented so that the poor beast shrieked at frightened visitors. Ultimately, they admitted the hoax. At least a hundred people claimed to see or hear the Jersey Devil in at least thirty sightings that week of 1909. Although the rest of the country laughed at the panic, people locked away livestock and pets and walked around with guns. It was not safe to be anything that flew or hissed in January 1909!
Although the Devil was sighted intermittently in the early 20th century and in 1939 was allegedly designated the "Official State Demon," the next major series of sightings would occur in 1951, when a ten-year-old boy saw a creature dripping blood outside his window, sparking the "Gibbstown-Paulsboro invasion." Other people heard shrieks and screams and saw a creature that varied from seven foot tall to cave man size. "Posses" of hunters with guns began to comb the woods. Strange footprints in the snow were seen, but upon investigation were found to be 'stamped" prints made by a bear paw on a stick of wood. The police were not amused by the gun-toting townspeople, several of whom were arrested. As in 1909, the sightings dwindled away, people lost interest, and the Jersey Devil apparently slunk away into the pines.
The Jersey Devil continues to fascinate people, particularly South Jerseyans, who often know somebody, who knew somebody, who had an encounter with the Jersey Devil.
So, what the heck is that thing?
Is there really a Jersey Devil? And if there is, what is it and why is always sighted alone? In 1909, scientists in Philadelphia and at the Smithsonian speculated that the Jersey Devil was a prehistoric creature from the Jurassic period that somehow survived, perhaps entombed in a limestone cave.
Other explanations are that the Jersey Devil is actually a rarely seen or extinct wildlife denizen of the Pine Barrens - most often the sandhill crane, formerly found in the Pine Barrens, that is believed by some to resemble the Jersey Devil because of its prehistoric wingspan and gawky, hunched appearance.
Folklore - myths and tales - are often a way for people to make sense of natural phenomena that may be strange, inhospitable or frightening. The Pine Barrens is a rich and unique habitat, but also a very different kind of place that clearly belongs more to its natural inhabitants than to the people who homesteaded there. The Jersey Devil may have been a way for people to adjust to the habitat-to keep their children safe at night from bears, coyotes and cougars by warning of the Jersey Devil that screams in the woods. The Jersey Devil combines in appearance and behavior many of the wild animals that inhabit the Pine Barrens - and that may have seemed strange and scary to the people who lived and worked there.
But does this really explain the sightings, the stories, the strength of the legend that keeps people interested and searching for the Jersey Devil almost three hundred years after Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child?
Maybe you can solve the mystery of Mother Leed's unfortunate son.