A Jersey Devil-like monster is portrayed in a 1697 illustration

The Devil went down to … New Jersey?

Tales of the Jersey Devil stalking the Pine Barrens have scared residents for centuries, but the winged monster's origins may lie in the region's religious disputes of the 1600s.

Wings and claws

A Jersey Devil-like monster is portrayed in a 1697 illustration from Gaspar Schott's Physica Curiosa.
Album/AKG/Liszt Collection

New Jersey is a popular place to live. Sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, it is the most densely populated state in the Union with more than 1,200 people per square mile (Alaska has the lowest with slightly more than one person per square mile). Despite the reputation for suburban sprawl, New Jersey holds a pristine surprise: the Pine Barrens. Also known as the Pinelands, this enormous tract of land covers some 1.1 million acres—22 percent of New Jersey’s total area. 

The Pine Barrens’s sandy soil, dense forests, and pristine waterways are largely undeveloped, but they are also home to something sinister: the Jersey Devil. Haunting the barrens, a beast with giant leathery wings, a horse’s head, glowing red eyes, and sharp claws has been scaring residents for nearly 300 years.

Peril in the Pine Barrens

According to tradition, the Jersey Devil was born on a dark and stormy night in 1735 to a woman known as Mother Leeds. She and her family lived in Leeds Point, a community on New Jersey’s southeastern coast. Pregnant for the 13th time, she was experiencing a slow, painful labor. In agony, she cried out, “Let this one be a devil!” A seemingly healthy child was delivered, but after its birth, the infant sprouted a tail and wings. It let out a bloodcurdling shriek and then flew up the chimney and into the night.

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Garden State folklore includes several versions of the Devil’s origin. In one telling, Mother Leeds is a witch who had sex with the devil. In another, the monster is the product of a cursed union between a Jersey girl and British soldier during the Revolutionary War. The indigenous people of southern New Jersey, the Lenape, venerated a forest god, M’sing, described as a deer-like creature with bat-like wings. It is possible that European settlers in the region learned of this sylvan god and mapped it onto their whispers of the so-called Leeds Devil.

The Devil and Daniel Leeds

These stories have provided historians with a compelling mystery to solve: the true origins of the Jersey Devil. Two professors from Kean University, Brian Regal and Frank Esposito have connected the legend to a 17th-century English colonist named Daniel Leeds. Born to Quaker parents around 1652 in Leeds, England, Leeds would choose their faith as an adult before he moved to New Jersey around 1677. He and his family settled in Burlington among a vibrant Quaker community.

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Leeds worked as a surveyor, among other things, and purchased land on New Jersey’s southern Atlantic Coast in the 1690s. It became the family seat, known as Leeds Point. He also began writing and publishing, starting with an almanac that included the movements of heavenly bodies as well as astrological symbols. The almanac and his later publications earned him the ire of the Quakers, who would eventually dismiss him as “evil” and “Satan’s harbinger.” Regal and Esposito believe it was Leeds’s unholy reputation that started the association of the Leeds name with monstrous and supernatural forces.

Trying to find the historical identity of Mother Leeds has been unsuccessful. Leeds married four times: His first wife, Mary, with whom he had several children, died before he left England. In New Jersey Leeds married three more times. His third wife, Dorothy Young, could be a likely candidate for the historical Mother Leeds in that she bore him eight children before her death in 1699. But no 17th-century sources that refer to Dorothy (or any of Leeds’s wives) as Mother Leeds have been found, making them unlikely inspirations for the cursed mother of the legend.

True encounters?

Daniel Leeds’s religious battles planted the seeds for the legend of the Leeds Devil, as it was called. Tales of the monster stayed in the region circulating as ghost stories or warnings of dangers lurking in the forests. For the 17th and 18th centuries, the Leeds Devil was part of a robust oral tradition. 

It was in the early 19th century that the Jersey Devil began to raise its profile. Tradition says that American war hero Stephen Decatur met the Leeds Devil at his foundry in the Pine Barrens; the ex-king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, claimed to have run into the monster on his estate Point Breeze. (Historians have tried in vain to track down the original source material for these accounts in both Decatur’s and Bonaparte’s papers with no results.) A series of livestock attacks in 1840 were also attributed to the monster. The first printed mention of the Leeds Devil is an 1859 Atlantic Monthly article covering the Pine Barrens. The author took a dim view of the locals and their legend but recorded that “Little children did be eaten and maids abused” by the monster.

Interest in the Jersey Devil exploded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as first-person accounts of the monster appeared in newspapers. In an 1893 New York Sun article, an Erie Railroad engineer claimed the Jersey Devil had attacked his train. The Trenton Times in 1905 reported that the Leeds Devil was born in Bordentown, but this monster looked more like an ape or chimpanzee.

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Over a week in early January 1909 Philadelphia newspapers would feature prominent coverage of the Jersey Devil and rumors of strange footprints appearing in the Pine Barrens. Some accounts featured detailed accounts of attacks on streetcars and social clubs by a creature described as a red-eyed “winged kangaroo.” The media accounts spun up the public, local governments installed curfews, and hunting parties were formed.

One Philadelphia huckster claimed to have captured the Jersey Devil and put it on display at the Ninth and Arch Street Dime Museum in Philadelphia. Crowds thronged to see the beast, which was actually a painted kangaroo with fake wings attached. The hoax was quickly sniffed out, with the New York Times exposing the ruse in late January 1909. The hysteria died down, but the legend did not. Sightings continued throughout the 20th century, but not with the same frequency as 1909.

Folklorists continued to mine tales of the Jersey Devil, solidifying the beast in the imagination of the Garden State—so much so that roller coasters and even a National Hockey League team, the Jersey Devils, are named in its honor. The monster has become a badge of pride for New Jersey; today, visitors to the state can tour places associated with the local legend in the tranquil, and sometimes foreboding, forests of the Pine Barrens.

(A travel guide to New Jersey)

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