Why the Urban Legend of the Jersey Devil Won't Die
How a rivalry between Benjamin Franklin and another publisher sparked a rumor that's endured for more than 200 years.
Ask people who live near the Pine Barrens of New Jersey if they actually believe in the Jersey Devil and you'll get a bunch of half-answers Those who say they do say it with a little smirk, those who don't believe in the creature still hesitate a little before giving a definitive "no."
The Jersey Devil is a mythical horned beast that is to the woods of the Atlantic City area as bigfoot is to rural north California. If we're being technical, it's not "real"—but it's also one of the country's most enduring urban legends; stories of the Jersey Devil predate the United States itself.
This year, the interest feels particularly strong after two people separately emailed the local press about spotting the creature. The first sighting, by Little Egg Harbor resident Dave Black, was captured in a blurry photo of what appears to be a goat with wings floating through the sky—or likely just a stuffed animal hanging from a tree.
"I was just driving past the golf course in Galloway on Route 9 and had to shake my head a few times when I thought I saw a llama," Black wrote in an email to NJ.com. "If that wasn't enough, then it spread out leathery wings and flew off over the golf course."
The second sighting was shot on video by a local named Emily Martin. You can hear her gasping in the background as a stiff, blurry bat-goat-combo flies through the sky. It's been viewed about 350,000 times since posted on YouTube two weeks ago.
Before the Jersey Devil was a titillating internet rumor, it was a story of political intrigue between publishers, and before that it was a story of woe shared among Quakers in the world. The most popular version of the myth goes like this: In the early 1700s, a Pines resident named Mother Leeds had given birth a dozen times, and on her 13th pregnancy muttered, "Let this one be a devil!" Sure enough, her child became a demon-like creature, grew "leathery, bat-like" wings, killed his own mother, and then flew into the Pine Barrens, where it has since haunted the woods.
The myth's more likely origin story, however, has to do with a rebellious Quaker named Daniel Leeds. Leeds, who'd arrived in Jersey in 1677, began publishing an almanac that, included astrology, a big no-no back in those days. The Quaker community deemed him a pagan, said he was working for the devil, and shunned him. Still, he kept publishing his heresy, and when he grew too old to continue his son Titan took over.
In the early 1700s, another prolific printer of almanacs, Benjamin Franklin, began trading barbs with rival publisher Titan. By the time Titan died in 1732, Franklin had started used his own pamphlets to cast the Leeds family as ghouls and devils in order to tarnish the name of his printing press rivals.
"Honest Titan, deceased, was raised [from the dead] and made to abuse his old friend [Franklin]," Franklin wrote.
That, in combination with the fact that the Leeds family crest contained a dragon that loosely resembled the mythic creature, is likely what started the myth of the Jersey Devil, according to Brian Regal, a history professor at Kean University.
"I think the actual origins are far more interesting than some monster story," Regal said. "It has more historical importance. It says a lot about fear over new ways of thinking in early America, and the dawn of the scientific revolution. All of that is more interesting than a flying dragon."
So then why does the myth of the flying dragon-goat thing still persist?
Well, for one, the Pine Barrens can be a creepy place. The area is relatively desolate, cut off culturally from the rest of New Jersey. The thick, nearly impenetrable woods have harbored the bodies of dozens of murder victims. A particularly violent episode of The Sopranos took place there.
"People from the cities come down and bury their dead in the pines," said Marilyn Schmidt who owns a gift shop that sells a lot of Jersey Devil merchandise. "It happens every so often. It's not unique to here, but it gets a lot of publicity because it's in the Pine Barrens."
But it's only tourists who find the area scary, locals said.
"I don't really think of the area as creepy," said Bill Sprouse, a direct descendant of the Leeds family who grew up in the area and has written a book about the history of the Jersey Devil. "I think of it as suburban Atlantic City. But driving down the Parkway in a ZipCar seems to cue Deliverance banjos in the minds of some writers, which I think says more about their frames of reference than it does about South Jersey."
According to Sprouse, the legend refuses to die because it gives the area an occult charge, a sense of mystery absent from the strip malls and Atlantic City casinos. As the area has turned suburban, coming to resemble the rest of New Jersey, the Jersey Devil has become almost a callback to a wilder time.
"I think suburban New Jerseyans want the same things suburban kids anywhere want: a sense of belonging to a place, a sense of history, a sense of local identity," Sprouse said. "And the Jersey Devil story helps fill that vacuum to an extent."
And, of course, Halloween is the ideal time to resurrect eerie history and claim to spot something devilish. "People will call in sightings and suspicious activity constantly around this time of year," Galloway Police Chief Donna Higbee, who grew up in the area, said. "We're all for fun and games, but I don't suggest that people go searching [for the Devil] in the woods. It's desolate, it's easy to get lost, and you'd probably be trespassing."
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