Summer Reading 2019: Sympathy for the Jersey Devil

In ‘The Secret History of the Jersey Devil,’ authors Regal and Esposito trace the story of a creature spawned by the culture clash between the Lenape and the first settlers through all its strange twists and turns

History of the Jersey Devil
Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.

The misshapen monster stalking the Pine Barrens becomes, in this lively, fascinating book, something far more interesting: a reflection of the fears, superstitions, cultural misunderstandings, greed, and resentments that started with the Garden State’s first white settlers.

The Jersey Devil ranks as the most popular legend in the folklore of the Garden State and is one of the oldest in the United States. It is widely known around the world. Several versions of the legend exist, all sharing a central narrative. In 1735, a witch known as Mother Leeds found herself pregnant for the thirteenth time. Breeching, she called out in agony, “Oh, let this one be a devil!” The child then either emerged with, or soon developed, a horse-like head, bat-like wings, claws, and hooves. The creature yelped menacingly at the horrified family, then flew up the chimney and off into the forest, where it spent the next several centuries harassing and attacking unfortunate travelers.

Mother Leeds makes no attempt to love or nurture her offspring and, rather than mourn his loss, is relieved to be rid of him. It is the female — a self-centered, uncaring, unloving mother — who bears the brunt of the blame. She becomes a scapegoat for various fears about witches, non-Christians, and women in general. She is an outsider, rural, uneducated, and prone to supernatural and superstitious beliefs and who has sex with the devil. Some versions of the story have her curse the child in the process of being born, while some have her make the curse before the child is even conceived.

A version recounted by folklorist John McPhee has Mother Leeds as an even more reprehensible character, who first curses a “preacher” who tries to convert her. It is unclear what denomination he is trying to convert her to, or what religion she is following that the preacher felt it necessary to convert her. In this version it is the preacher who curses Mother Leeds so that her next child will be the spawn of the Devil. The hideous beast is born, but lives with its parents until the age of four. It then kills both parents and heads off into the woods. Regardless of the version of the story, Mother Leeds never comes out well. Her offspring, however, fares even worse.

The Jersey Devil itself has little development as a character. The only details of its life and behavior occur within the confines of the Leeds home. The legend tells the circumstances of its birth, something of its physical appearance and morphology, and its mode of locomotion. It does not speak, but only yelps once at the stunned crowd of onlookers.

Along with being a commentary on colonial American life, the Jersey Devil myth is a window into the treatment of the indigenous Lenape people. Once filled with Native legends of forest dragons, the Pine Barrens had its supernatural inhabitants reduced to a single Anglo-American entity. Not only are the Lenape people of the region ousted from their lands, so are their spirits and monsters. The Jersey Devil’s transformation is thus also an ethnic one: its Lenape heritage filtered out and forgotten. Today’s legend, as told, has no Native elements. It occurs wholly outside the Native experience, as if that had never existed, despite its connections.

The colonial American world of the Jersey Devil’s conception was a place of multicultural interaction. Newly arriving European refugees and immigrants jostled, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently, with one another and with the Native people. In this tapestry of cultural beliefs, aspirations, resentments, and trepidations, the various parts of the Jersey Devil’s strange anatomy would be sewn together from disparate sources. This slow process of assemblage is what allowed the legend to take flight.

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The creation of the Jersey Devil story has its roots in the cultural, religious, and political beliefs of both European colonists and the Native Lenape Indians who lived in the Jerseys. Europeans arrived in the Americas expecting that wild beings and strange beasts populated its deepest forests. In encountering the vast region of pines of western New Jersey, the early colonists must have been in awe of the place. At the time of first European-Lenape contact, the pinelands extended from where Asbury Park is now, south to Cape May, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Delaware River.

Early relations between the Lenape and the Dutch and the Swedes, and their fur-trading colonies of New Netherlands (1624) and New Sweden (1638) and the later English colony of New Jersey (1664), brought about the early creation of a widespread belief among European-Americans that the Lenape were “devil-worshipping savages.”

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For many Europeans the Pine Barrens’ dense vegetation, its strange, even bizarre, carnivorous plants and unusual animals — such as the giant Sand Crane — as well as the overpowering quietude all contributed to a sense of looming danger. Even today, many of those who venture into the deepest recesses of the Pine Barrens report similar feelings of foreboding. Europeans were thus susceptible to the stories they learned from the Native people about life in the Pine Barrens. They were also likely intrigued by Lenape ceremonies honoring their forest god known as M’sing. Indians described this important deity as a deer-like creature with leathery wings or a deer being ridden by a man. M’Sing has frequently been depicted as being similar to (“deer-like creature with wings”) descriptions of the Jersey Devil throughout New Jersey history. These similarities can be seen as an example of cultural transmission of a story between European colonists and the Lenape based on the fears of both Indians and colonists regarding the surrounding forest. The idea of forest spirits resonated with the two cultures. Later writers tended to exaggerate these fears. As folklorist Henry Charlton Beck warned in quoting from a 1905 article by J. Elfreth Watkins called “On the Trail of the Jersey Devil”: “There tapers up from its deep base along the Delaware Bay to its apex at Long Branch a green triangle known as ‘the Pines.’ Its black, innermost heart has suffered a hiatus, a quick transition from twentieth to eighteenth century, plunged into a dark, sylvan realm of witches, conjurors and monsters.”

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To the precontact Lenape Indians there was no such entity as the “Devil,” or “Satan.” This represented a completely unknown idea until they heard European colonists launch religious sermons aimed at converting them and saving them from the Devil. They held no belief in the powers of a Devil in the Christian sense until after contact with the Europeans. However, they did think that both good and evil spirits existed in the world. They hoped that by paying homage, through prayers and ceremonies directed to the good spirits, they could maintain a balance against evil people or the bad spirits that controlled them.

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It appears likely that the Europeans took the Lenape description of M’sing and made it into a devil by applying a Christian interpretation to it. The colonists heard many stories about M’Sing and saw the Lenape Indians pay homage to it in ceremonies. After leaving New Jersey, the Lenape in Copan, Oklahoma, as recently as 1924, were still performing these rituals. The “Big House Ceremony,” as it was then called, was a derivative of the Gamwing harvest ceremony once celebrated in the Pine Barrens. The colonists melded the description of M’Sing with the Christian concept of Lucifer. The dangerous and forbidding Pine Barrens seemed an ideal place to European settlers for such a creature to inhabit.

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Colonists not only in New England but also in New Jersey were obsessed with witchcraft and monsters. Stories abounded in eighteenth-century New Jersey that witches as well as Satan himself operated in the Pine Barrens. One popular tale centered on a “Witch of the Pines,” who would stop wayward travelers and cast a spell on them. At the heart of the Jersey Devil story is a witch named Mother Leeds.

In May of 1668 fear of witches in East Jersey led the General Assembly to pass a law that stated, “If any person be found to be a witch, either male or female[,] they shall be put to death.” The assembly reenacted the law again in 1675. There is a court case in East Jersey records involving the litigation of Abigail Sharp against Abraham Shotwell. Although no final disposition of the lawsuit has been found, the case is fascinating because Shotwell maintained that he saw Sharp return from “flying all night” and “saw her land in a patch of beans” before seeing her in “the shape of a cat on the top of his house.” She responded that she was innocent of any occult activity and that he was lying to ruin her good name.

A story written by Benjamin Franklin may have contributed to the story of Mother Leeds’s devilish child. Entitled “A Witch Trial at Mt. Holly,” it purported to be an account of the trial of an alleged witch in New Jersey.

Franklin, then one of the owners of the Pennsylvania Gazette, anonymously wrote this satire to ridicule the silliness of witch hunting:

“It seems the accused had been charged with making their Neighbors Sheep dance in an uncommon manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King’s good and peaceable subjects in this Province; and the Accusers being very positive that if the accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River, they would swim; the said accused desirous to make their innocence appear, voluntarily offered to undergo said Trials, if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them.”

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Along with Native American legends and European transplant stories, there is one other possible source of the Jersey Devil myth: a monstrous birth born to the Leeds family. Monstrous births, such as babies with two heads, multiple arms and legs or no arms or legs, both fascinated and repulsed Europeans and became the source for a considerable and popular printed literature. Pamphlets and broadsides on monstrous births, often accompanied by lurid illustrations alternately accurate or outrageously fantastic, sold well, particularly in England, whence many early settlers of New Jersey hailed. Along with depicting actual births of deformed animals and humans, monster pamphlets used such cases as excuses to attack political or religious groups. Attaching a monster to a religious denomination, an individual, or a family proved an effective way to bring social ridicule upon the target. Fortunately for religious bigots, one existed in colonial America.

Whereas the story of Mother Leeds and her monster child is fictional, there was a real woman who, in broad outlines, resembles her. Anne Hutchinson was an important early political and religious radical in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the city of Boston, Hutchinson (1591–1643) fought vociferously against the ruling Puritan elites of the 1630s and ’40s. As part of the Antinomian Controversy, Hutchinson and others felt that the Puritan idea of the Covenant of Works was not enough to ensure salvation; one had to hear the spirit of the Lord on a personal level in order to ultimately achieve Free Grace. She also questioned the right of the clergy class to be the intercessors between an individual and God (thus assuring the clergy’s leadership and control). Her outspoken behavior and defiance of the ruling Puritan class made her a pariah. Arrested and tried for heresy, Hutchinson found herself banished from Boston. She and a number of followers left to take up residence in the more tolerant city of Providence, Rhode Island. At about this time Hutchinson became pregnant for the sixteenth time. She gave birth to a disturbing mass that bore little resemblance to a child. Just before this, one of her young protégés, Mary Dyer (1611–60), had also given birth to a deformed child (Mary would later be executed by the Puritans because, among other things, she had converted to Quakerism). Other than the story of Anne Hutchinson, however, the simplistic monstrous birth scenario for the origin of the Jersey Devil has little supporting evidence.

Excerpt from The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster, by Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito. Copyright 2018, Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.

Use promo code “HTWN” to receive a 20 percent discount from JHU Press; to order, visit Johns Hopkins University Press or call 800-537-5487.

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