A man from southern New Jersey claims to have captured photographic proof of the fabled creature. But few know of the origin story that involves a loyalist almanac maker, his Benjamin Franklin-hating son and a few opportunistic men
The photo resembles nothing so much as a taxidermied goat, the bat wings from a child’s Halloween costume affixed to its back, flung into gray skies.
The man who took the picture swears not: “Either my mind is playing tricks on me or I just saw the Jersey Devil.”
Dave Black, of Little Egg Harbor, told NJ.com’s lifestyle-and-paranormal-activity reporter that as he drove past a golf course this week, he “had to shake my head a few times when I thought I saw a llama”.
The creature was running through the trees, Black said. Then “it spread out leathery wings and flew off over the golf course”.
Black did not reply to Guardian emails asking him to elaborate on what he thinks may have been an encounter with the fabled monster of south Jersey, which, as the tales go, was either the 13th child born of Mother Leeds, a 17th century settler, or is some remnant of Native American mythology.
But despite the apparent immobility of the creature’s limbs, head, neck and wings, the Atlantic City security guard assured the New Jersey news site: “I swear it’s not Photoshopped or a staged thing.”
“People have said it’s fake, but it’s not. I’m honestly just looking for an explanation for what I saw.”
Brian Regal, a professor of history at Kean University, may know how to explain it. Despite NJ.com’s assertion that for centuries, “thousands of witnesses” have claimed to see “a strange, winged creature”, Regal told the Guardian that the true story of the Jersey Devil actually involves a “vaguely occult” almanac maker who was hated for siding with the British empire, his son, an enemy of Benjamin Franklin, and some entrepreneurs who weren’t from Jersey at all.
The Jersey Devil was originally known as the Leeds Devil, and Regal tracked down the name to Daniel Leeds, a young Quaker who came to America in the late 1600s. Leeds got involved in government and started writing an almanac, but before long he earned the ire of neighbors, who didn’t appreciate his interest in “pagan” ideas about astrology, angels and magic – or his allegiance to the royal governor of the colony and the British in general.
For his politics and peculiarities, Regal said, local Quakers accused Leeds of “evil” and wrote pamphlets with titles like “Satan’s Harbinger Encountered … Being Something by Way of Answer to Daniel Leeds”.
“This starts off as a kind of political thing rather than as a witchcraft occult thing,” Regal said. “At the time to accuse someone of being a devil was the worst thing you could do.”
Leeds’ son Titan took over the almanac and slapped the family crest a – three dragon-like creatures – on the cover. Like his father, Titan did not have a knack for politics. He quickly made enemies with a young Franklin, who was also producing an almanac, and who happily ridiculed his rival, and jokingly predicted his death.
When Titan Leeds died, Franklin recast him as a kind of devilish ghost, and “by the end of the 19th century [the story had] pretty much gone extinct, nobody really knows about it”, Regal said.
It seems that since then the memory of the Leeds family’s quirks and disrepute may have mixed with all manner of tall tales, carried on by what Regal called “a bunch of hardcore old-timers in the Pine Barrens”.
The transformation was well under way by 1859, when the Atlantic published a reporter’s account of stories he heard in the Barrens.
That tale tells of Mother Leeds consorting with the devil, of “pine rats” descended from Tories and guzzling local whiskey, and of a stormy night on which one woman saw the devil – or maybe happened “under the influence of liquid Jersey lightning, to invest a pine stump, or, possibly, a belated bear, with diabolical attributes and a Satanic voice”.
Regal said the legend of the Jersey Devil, which in 1939 was named the official state demon and in 1982 became the name of an ice hockey team, does not really even come from New Jersey.
“In the early 20th century the legend got kind of rejuvenated by these guys at a dime museum in Philadelphia, who had no idea of the actual Leeds story,” he said.
“They just hear this legend of a monster and think this would be a great way to drum up people to visit their dime museum.”
By 1909, “south Jersey simply went into hysterics over” reports of the devil, wrote one contemporary, describing how dime museums claimed to have caught it and how milkmen and servants described “a combination of bat, kangaroo and pony”.
“Some said it was white, others that it was brown. Some saw it fly, others saw it travel by great leaps, like a gigantic flea.”
In Philadelphia, budding businessmen acquired a kangaroo, glued on wings, proclaimed it the Jersey Devil – and rare “Australian vampire” – and made it famous.
“Leeds Devil doesn’t quite sing so they transformed it into Jersey Devil,” Regal said. “But this was largely the production of a couple of hustling Philadelphia guys.”
Speaking to to NJ.com, Black admitted that “the mind plays tricks on you” but added “I think I saw a large, flying mammal about the size of a deer”.
One of his friends had an alternate theory: “Maybe it was an animal running and an owl grabbed it, the photo being a combination of them. That’s still not my first instinct, but I don’t know how to explain it otherwise.”
As for Regal’s opinion of the photo: “I was not particularly impressed.”