History of a Legend: Mrs. Leeds and The Jersey Devil

Tales of the Jersey Devil has been around for centuries. The creature is said to have coal-red eyes and a horse's head

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

“Places in the forest are scorched. Strange tracks are found round about…”

It’s a story Rutgers American Studies professor Angus Kress Gillespie has told hundreds of times: the legend of Mrs. Leeds, her family in the Pine Barrens, and the Jersey Devil.

It’s said that in 1735, Mother Leeds was pregnant with her 13th child. Her husband Daniel, though a good provider, was an uninvolved father.

“So the entire burden of taking care of the kids fell on Jane Leeds,” said Gillespie, “the cooking, the cleaning, chopping wood.”

She couldn’t handle another addition. Gillespie explains, “In a moment of perhaps understandable weakness, she said ‘I hope this one’s not a child. Let this one be a devil.'”

When the baby arrived, everything seemed normal at first,”But then something went terribly wrong,” Gillespie said. “In the span of less than 20 minutes, the baby grew to the size of two full-grown men.”

He developed coal-red eyes, a horse’s head, bat wings, goat feet and a serpentine tail.

“And then unexpectedly, with one swipe of his right arm, he slit the throat of the midwife and her attendants,” Gillespie said.

Leaving carnage in his wake, the Jersey Devil flew up the chimney and escaped into the Pine Barrens, where he’s said to have terrorized the people ever since.

“Most states, there’s a state horse, a state bird, a state flower,” said Gillespie. “As far as I know, New Jersey’s unique to have a state monster.”

Gillespie is a folklorist, and he’s quick to explain that the Jersey Devil isn’t a “once upon a time” kind of tale. It’s a legend.

“Folktale implies that it’s fiction,” explains Gillespie. Does he think it’s true? “I try to keep an open mind,” he said.

There was a rash of sightings in 1909. In the oral tradition of folklore, Gillespie has been given first-hand accounts by people who say they’ve seen the monster, or know someone who has. As a folklorist, he said it’s his job to remain agnostic.

“When I see reports of sightings, my initial gut reaction would be skeptical. Is this Photoshopped? How reliable is the witness?” said Gillespie.

The latest sighting was just two weeks ago.

“I mean, the legend is very much alive, and these sightings sort of prove that,” he said.

So, as Gillespie tells it, “When you walk through the Pine Barrens of South Jersey, listen carefully as the wind comes through the pines, ‘Ooooold Mother Leeds.'”

And if you hear a twig crack behind you, beware. It could be…you know who.

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